He came into her world a small, pale thing, muddied by his landing and half-stripped from his fall, and she could, oh, she could smell Odin on him like the claim of a dog’s piss: whatever he tried to tell her in the days to come about who he really was, Hela knew him from the start. Brother dearest. Only she had not asked for company—she didn’t know what to do with this boy, this knife-faced, strutting child. She could kill him, she supposed. Perhaps she would.
“This place is horrible,” he said accusatorily, as if she’d picked out the curtains for it.
“It’s a self-sustaining pocket dimension to house Odin’s mistakes,” Hela said. “Did you expect it to be comfortable?”
Puling little bastard, probably not even a day over a thousand. All she was willing to grant him was that she liked those magpie eyes of his, darting around to see what he could steal: yet another sign of their relation.
“How big is this place?”
“Pace it out for yourself.”
He gave a short, hard laugh. “I am most unfortunate in siblings.”
Hela traced a single, mock tear down her cheek. “Poor boy, that must be so difficult for you.”
“I only wanted to be the favored son,” he said, as though she cared. “Not even for always—sometimes I think even an hour would have done. Something to keep me from starving to death while Thor sat at banquet.”
“First,” Hela said, “I don’t know who ‘Thor’ is, and don’t tell me, because I also don’t care.”
She felt hatred frost her lips and her throat, like she would have to crack through ice to speak. “I sat at Odin’s right hand for millennia. In the field of battle, we drank wine from the same cup to show that the blood that had been shed was both of ours by right. I was Father’s axe, to fall upon any necks that would not bend. And he remembered each and every one of my birthdays. And here I am. His favor was a pretty thing, but a petty one. Don’t fool yourself.” She wrenched an apple off a nearby tree and bit into it hard. “What did you do, anyway?”
He lifted his chin. “Nearly destroyed all of Jotunheim. And I took the armies of the Chitauri to Midgard and laid waste there.”
“What kind of waste?”
“Almost a hundred dead at my own hand.” He seemed torn between pride and shame. What a soft creature: well, that was what civilization did to you. Only battle kept you hard enough that you always knew what you were and where you were going. “And you?”
He had manners, at least. She almost hated to tell him. No, of course she didn’t, she adored telling him. “A hundred dead at my hand would have been the work of a moment and a very good mood. Maybe a raucous party. I rained steel and death upon two different worlds before Odin clucked his tongue at me and cast me down here, and when the door was still weak enough for me to try it, out of fear for me, he sent the Valkyries, and I slaughtered all of them save one.”
“Why not the one?” he said, which she thought was a strange question.
She remembered why, though. “We played together as children. And I had just splattered her lover’s blood across her mouth. I’m not entirely heartless.”
“And you’re a snake who moves on his belly and thinks the dirt beneath him is the entire world.”
His face changed just a little, a flare of color moving through it, the pink streak in otherwise white marble. He looked like he wanted her to ask about his feelings. Sniveling little shit with help-me eyes and greasy look-after-me hair. No wonder Odin had scooped him up or paid his birth parents for him or whatever that story of his had said—he fit the new royal image like a hand in a glove. Look, I’m so kind and benevolent I can afford to take on this malnourished little pup and call him princeling and raise him to think his every frown will be cosseted away.
Maybe Odin had intended him as an additional torment to her. She wouldn’t be the least surprised.
She took another bite of apple. “Are you just going to stand there looking sad or are you going to do something? Just curious, not trying to push you in any particular direction.”
“What is there to do?”
“Very, very little.”
“Then maybe I will just stand here looking sad,” he said waspishly, and for an unnerving second, she almost liked him.
The next time Hela saw him was a year later. He sat beside her on the grass where she was watching one crow eat another crow.
“This happens every day at the exact same time,” she said instead of saying hello.
“They’re not real?”
“Real enough that I’ve eaten them myself. The meat’s a little stringy, but I’ve had worse. No, they’re just like everything else around here; sunrise brings them back. Have you really spent a year in this place without realizing that?”
“I’ve mostly been walking to see how far it goes,” he said defensively. “It’s a round world, you know, not like Asgard.”
“Please, do tell me more about literally the only place I’ve been for the last ten thousand years.”
She was still looking at the crows and hadn’t turned to see him, but out of the corner of her eye, she could see him smile. “I’m so glad you asked, sister. It’s a minuscule little place, but it has a surprising amount of richness to it, little grottoes, forests, plains of ice. I saw a leopard.” He sounded little-boy pleased by that, as if he’d been taken to a menagerie.
Hela conjured up a dagger and whipped her arm up against his throat, knocked him back against the ground and pinned him there with her knee. Face-to-face with him now, she could see that his eyes were laughter-bright.
“There are northern lights in, well, the north, understandably enough. A bizarre preponderance of apple trees, Father always did have the dullest taste. Should I go on?”
“No wonder you’re in exile,” Hela said. “You’re not a pest but a plague.”
“There is a place just east of here that is a forest almost entirely full of bears,” the boy said, and she pressed down on the knife and cut his throat, just for the pleasure of seeing the blood sputter out of him instead of words. He was a long time dying and when he had finally gone, she went back to the crows only to find that the one had already picked the other down to the bone. He had deprived her of her theater.
Two minutes after sunup, when he had not roused, she was surprised by how stiff her hands felt, how tight a knot seemed to tie itself inside her. She walked over to where she had left him and saw—
A still-open wound in his throat, now blackened with time, surrounded by a crust of dried blood; lifeless gray-white skin. His lips were still parted, flecked with froth and red from that final sputtering breath of his. Her thumbprint still against his jaw from where she had held him still. But she had not intended—well, she had intended to kill him, obviously, but she had not intended for him to stay dead. Nothing did. She ate the same apple for breakfast each morning. She had taken her own life three times before she’d given up on it. She’d never thought—
An immense pain suddenly broke in between her shoulder blades, and she cried out, falling forwards. She rolled around to see Loki standing there with a smirk on his face and a bloodied dagger in his hand. He gestured with it and dispersed the illusion of his corpse.
“Oh, no,” he said tonelessly. “It seems I just put you in terrible pain. I’m so sorry. How could I have done such a thing. What could possibly have motivated me.”
“You little shit,” Hela said, and died.
After that, they take turns killing each other in various inventive ways.
“Don’t drown me again,” he said, coming up to her at dawn and collapsing in a shivering pile at her side. “I disliked it and the water was fucking freezing.” He stuck out his hand and made a fan-like shape of green fire flare up in front of them.
Hela reluctantly said, “You have a gift for that.”
“My mother taught me.” He blinked water out of his eyelashes, as if a new thought had just occurred to him. “Do we share the same mother as well?”
I was under the impression your mother was some Jotun whore, she almost said. “No. I knew Frigga only a little, when Father was still courting her. My mother was his first wife, Jord.”
“In childbirth,” Hela said shortly. “I had my talents from a very early age, it seems.”
He looked at her as if he had pity for her, which made her want to shove his face into his own flames, but if they refused to burn him, she would look like a fool. He said, “Thor always told me I was called the god of mischief because of the time I conjured up some false snow for him when he desperately wanted to go sledding. I was six. I thought I had achieved something quite lovely—and he hugged me until I thought he’d broken my ribs. Then he flung himself down a hill and lost three teeth when he crashed into a rock because the snow was somewhat less than convincing to the ground than to the eye.”
“I’d have killed you for that.”
“He did not,” Loki said. He curled and uncurled his fingers in front of the fire, like he couldn’t get his hands warm. “He thought it was an excellent joke.”
“Once he was through spitting out teeth.”
“He’s a bloody-minded oaf with no sense,” Loki said, with a hatred as blistering and as self-evidently false as the fire. “In any case, he dubbed me thus, or told me he did. I think now he only heard it from Father. It seems I shifted forms as an infant—made myself the lie you see before you. So we are two prodigies.”
Because it seemed she could no longer avoid asking, Hela said, “What is Thor the god of?”
“What, does he have a loud walk or something?”
“He makes lightning.”
“Then he’s poorly named.”
“I have tried to tell him so,” Loki said. He sighed. “I hate talking about my brother. Even here, I cannot escape him.”
Hela would never have known there was a Thor Odinson at all if Loki hadn’t taken every opportunity to speak on him. My brother said this. My brother did that. He talked of Thor even more than they both talked of Odin, and they had whole games that depended upon talking of Odin, games where stories of his shortcomings and their grievances were moved about like chess pieces.
“What does he look like?” Hela said, just to torment him. “I suppose he’s better-looking than you.”
Loki scowled but obediently summoned up a tall, broad-shouldered man with thick golden hair and the smile of an especially excitable dog, a smile that only got wider when he spotted Loki. He was so transparently happy to see him that even Hela felt a slight, surprised pang at it. Loki turned his head quickly and made a single gesture, snuffing his brother out like a candle. He had not intended that, then. The god of mischief had put one over on himself.
Hela could not make images or even slippery, somewhat tangible things like fire or damply insubstantial snow; she could make only knives and destruction. She could break almost anything but could mend none of it. She could break Loki, too, and it would be the easiest thing. She knew where to make each cut. She knew each lie and truth to tell. Each thing he least wanted to hear about his brother, mother, father, self. Or, if she were going to be less clever and more direct, she could stake him to the ground and slaughter him every morning, so that he lived only a second each day and knew only pain. She could. She often wanted to, especially when he disappeared into thoughts of his perfect golden brother.
It was pathetic, she thought, the way he knew he was loved and yet scuttled away from the thing sideways, like a crab. What a fucking coward.
I was beloved and I lost it, she wanted to scream at him. I would have given him all the stars and all their worlds and he stopped wanting the only thing I could give. I’m not peace. I’m not justice. I’m not a queen. I’m death. And he saw perfect Frigga and a perfect future and he wanted life and golden sons and adorable orphans and damn you, Loki, I had been forgetting. And you just fucking look away.
She thrust a dagger into his temple. At least it won her a day’s peace, and a day of travelling away from him that turned into a day’s head start on avoiding him.
She went to the ice plains in the north and watched the green and purple lights move above her. Those had been her favorite colors as a girl; the lights her favorite thing. Odin, she knew, had included them in this prison just for her, the way a parent would paint a child’s room.
She had not seen the leopard before her brother’s arrival. Perhaps that is his stuffed toy. So very considerate, their father.
To test her theory, when she saw Loki again a few months later, she said, “I killed your leopard. Three times.”
“She’s not my leopard,” Loki said stiffly.
“Then you won’t mind that I named her then.”
“Of course not.”
“Fluffy,” Hela said. “She just looked like a Fluffy to me.”
Loki bore this for less than a minute, practically simmering with rage, before he thoroughly informed her of how incorrect that was and how unjustly she had slandered his dearest Freyja. He stalked off afterward, his ears a flaming red. If he always blushed that way, she could see why his brother had found it irresistible to tease him; she could see why he had found it unforgivable. He was as delicate and touchy as a rose.
They waited out the years.
Hela made swords and tried to teach him to fight.
“I know how to fight already.”
“If you knew how to fight, you’d have won Midgard and your brother would be here in your place. You know how to move around while holding a sword.”
“Most battle these days is not done with swords,” Loki said, but after she cut his head off for being an insolent whelp, he condescended to take instruction and she worked him over each day to sweat and blood over their thrusts and parries. Her muscles had not atrophied during her time in her prison--she wilted no more than the grass did--but her body seemed all the same to know that she had neglected it. They warmed one of the shallow bathing ponds to near-steam and basked in it, letting their sore muscles cease their complaining for a little while.
“When will we stop?” he said. “When I’ve bested you?”
“I’m sorry, when you’ve bested me? Do I ask you when I’ll be better than you at telling pointless riddles or crafting overly elaborate schemes that never actually work? No? Don’t presume you’re ever going to beat me at my own game, you arrogant little ass.”
“I don’t tell riddles. You’re thinking of a sphinx. You get offended remarkably easily.”
“You get offended if a moment’s attention goes to anyone other than yourself.”
He looked at with those sharp, unkind, tearful eyes and said nothing; the next day, he fought like a berserker, careless of his own injuries and intent only on leaving some scratch on her. He was bloodier than a butcher’s floor by the time she was done with him but, though she didn’t know why, she had let him break her left arm with a swing of his mace. The crack of it gave him satisfaction and also ended the bout. They sat down beside each other, their legs dangling down the edge of the rock face. Another one of Father’s little sorry-I-imprisoned-you-but-look-I-remembered-your-favorite-mountain gifts.
“Maybe you’re right,” Loki said. He didn’t say about what.
“I think that’s a realization you could have had without spending the entire day trying to break my fucking arm,” Hela said.
“I’m bleeding to death.”
“Slip off,” she said. “The fall will kill you quickly enough. It’s the quickest way down to the valley anyhow.”
“I don’t like falling.”
“You already said you don’t like drowning. It’s no fun if you keep ruling out ways to murder you.”
“I would rather drown than fall.”
She contemplated giving him a shove despite all this but did not. He had softened her and she could not forgive him for it; especially could not forgive him for how she would not, even as she bore him that grudge, cause him to fall. What was it about their father that had caused him to bring up beneath his hand such loyal traitors? What was it about their family that, even disowned, made them keep belonging to each other?
For a moment, she let herself think about what it would have been like if she had stayed under Odin’s hypocritical, pusillanimous rule. Princess Hela of a peaceful Asgard. Her gift for death--the only living thing within her, the only urge that pressed at the inside her skin, that opened her mouth or spread her legs--suppressed, dressed in silk rather than armor. She would have trained the Valkyries, who would have shared her frustrations. They’d have fought each other and bedded each other and whispered dissent. But in the morning, she would braid her lover’s hair and go out again to wear the crown. Dandled her little golden-haired brother on her knee. She would have taken up arms against Jotunheim and relished the spray of blood against the snow and scorned the peace, argued with Odin over it until he threatened to remove her from the line of succession. How she would have hated that little fake-Aesir baby, Odin’s symbol of peace, no brother of hers at all--at least until he had bitten her finger and cried whenever he lost attention. Selfishness knows selfishness.
How I could have loved you, brother, in another world. But the door to all that slammed shut a long time ago.
Now there is a riddle for you, sister, her pretty little sphinx boy whispered inside her head. When is a door not a door? When it’s ajar.
Fuck all of this. She used her good arm to push herself forward and over the edge.
Why was he falling after her? What gave him the right to do something he hated for her sake?
Fluffy had kittens, a litter of three.
“Spot,” Hela said, pointing. “Puss. Kitty.”
“Stop naming my things,” Loki said, letting Puss climb up his shoulder and bat his hair around. “You may have one.”
“Such generosity. I can tell you were a prince beloved of the common people.”
Loki snorted. “Scarcely beloved at all, I’m sure.”
Hela chose Spot. She was tempted to argue that she was entitled to a second kitten because Loki shouldn’t have three pets to his name when she had only the one--never mind fairness, fairness wasn’t her objection, the point was that she should have more--but they were messy little things, leaving hair everywhere and tearing holes into her gown trying to climb her legs, and if she had been responsible for a second she probably would have drowned it in the stream. In a weighted sack, no less, so it would never float back up to mewl piteously at her. She decided instead to claim the rights to the tom, if he ever surfaced again.
They apparently could not escape the abandonment of fathers. Or at least they could not until the tom attacked them in the night and thoroughly killed Loki before Hela even woke.
“This is a new ranking,” Loki said after dawn, unable to entirely stop shaking. “It is, in ascending order, drowning, falling, being mauled by a leopard. What did you do with him?”
“He’d eaten quite a lot of you by the time I realized anything was happening, so then he was full and happy. I scratched his belly and he went right to sleep.”
“I hate you.”
“Fluffy gave him a swipe that I think was meant as a keep-away signal. Evidently he’s not worth much to her aside from fathering the little ones.”
“She’s a lady of good taste and distinction.”
They would lie awake sometimes and look at stars. Hela would show him which had been the suns of worlds she had planned to bring under Asgard’s dominion before Odin became a snivelling little weakling. He showed her Midgard’s Sol, which she had almost forgotten, and told her some convoluted story she barely listened to. Something to do with Thor--shocker--and the apparent audacity Thor had had to love the toy of Earth so well that he would not let his brother play with it as he liked.
“I thought he would come,” Loki said. He moved his thumb, presumably to blot out Sol and all those who lived by the light of it. “I knew he had not forgiven me, but I thought that… I was sure that he would forgive me before I had forgiven him. I didn’t do anything to him personally.”
“You tried to rob him of his throne.”
“I successfully robbed him of the throne, not his throne, but that was all over very quickly. Really, a mere speck of an occurrence in our history together.”
“Tried to kill his Midgardian friends.”
“They barely knew each other.”
Sweet mercy, was he actually crying? She refused to look at him. She was not so far gone into sticky family sentimentality that she wasn’t disgusted by this. She ought to cut his eyes out to teach him a lesson on such weakness. Why had he been so certain his brother would forgive him, when the things he’d done had been unpardonable, when he’d made so little effort to rectify them? Oh, she knew what he would say, if she asked--he would blather endlessly in misdirections--but she knew what it came down to. That awfulness he had about his mother and brother in particular. That idea of goodness. Of love.
Hela thought, At least I am consistent. I don’t fawn over ideals I can’t obtain. I don’t say how lovely the innocent are as I cut their throats and take their power from them. He really is our father’s son. At least I don’t love life the way he loves honesty.
“Hela,” he said, finally taking his hand down and allowing Midgard its light, “did you ever think Odin would forgive you?”
“Forgiveness is hardly in his nature. And it seems I was right not to hope on that score, since he let you grow up in total ignorance of me. A picture that’s been painted over. And he is many things, but he is not unwise. He knows that the moment I can, I will rise from this place and take all he’s ever held dear and make it my own, take it at the point of a sword.”
“When he dies,” Loki said.
“When he dies.”
What would brother dearest do then, she wondered. Would he bear arms at her side and go back to being the young prince, always second-best? Would he cast in his lot with his brother dearest, for the salve of forgiveness and the milksop comfort of goodness? He had a traitorous heart. He’d spared no love for Laufey; he might spare none for her. Would he leave behind how the two of them had watered this place with each other’s blood and tell the easily-outraged lords and ladies of Asgard that he had been some sort of model prisoner, virtuous to a fault? Would he look at this fake little world and say that what mattered was not that it was a prison with a closed gate but that it had his leopards and her lights in the sky? That the constellations were always and ever only the constellations that they knew?
Yes, she knew. He would do nothing but climb into perfection and hope never to fall again.
“Could you kill me here?” Loki sounded contemplative, which didn’t suit him. He frothed and brooded and snapped, but he rarely thought. “Really kill me, I mean.”
Yes. Easily. “No.”
He smiled his trickster smile, the one that knew and loved a lie.
Apples, leopards, killings. He taught her a little more magic than she had ever before been able to learn, and she used the dim and flickering illusions she could now summon up to show him a little of the history of Asgard before Odin’s great change of heart. He looked hungry and envious and horrified all at once. No amount of time with her could make him into an executioner. She understood that now.
He won one of their fights--it took him back-to-back use of his magical doubles and a thrust so strange that the making of it sprained his arm. She drowned him in the stream for it. He turned her into a deer that her very own Spot hunted down with great enthusiasm. They declared a truce and then poisoned each other’s food. They criticized the style of each other’s armor.
She sang him a lullaby she remembered from her mother. He hunted down a stag and made its antlers into a comb for her hair.
She didn’t know when she realized that there had been no need, and great risk, for Odin to send him to her. The door between her and Asgard had swung briefly open. (When it’s ajar.) An immense danger, just for the sake of pushing in one weak princeling who couldn’t have defeated one Valkyrie in battle, let alone the whole lot of them, who could have easily been maintained elsewhere. But Odin had put them together.
How like him, she thought, to force them to share a room. How very peaceful.
It was not the only thing she was thinking.
Damn Loki. He had changed her into someone who lacked clarity. You could never accomplish anything without vision.
When the door opened, it did so slowly, almost tentatively, as if ready to slam shut again. Hela had no hesitation, though. She came through at once.
They were in one of Asgard’s garden--an old one that had been there even during her time, when such cultivations had been few, when they had stripped away the treasures of others without building their own. The walls were weathered marble.
And Odin was not gone. Not yet.
Death clung to him more intimate than any lover; death was his second skin. But it had not taken him. What a withered old man he had become, really, gray-faced and shrunken-chested, hands soft with protuberant veins and fragile with petal-thin skin. He had, perhaps, been waiting for her. He of all people knew who she was, knew of her great gift.
“Father,” Loki said uncertainly. “Father, did you mean for us--”
“He’s too weak to talk, you idiot,” Hela said. She refused to kneel, but she bent over Odin’s couch, feeling awkward, feeling young. His eyepatch was gone and the eye that was left was almost entirely clouded. She didn’t condescend to identify herself, though. He had been the one to open the door and he had been the one to build a shadow world on the other side of it to house his wayward children. He knew who had come through.
And she knew why he had brought her there. She had been his executioner nearly as long as she had been his daughter.
He had changed and had covered up much, he knew all that he had done that violated his shining new Asgard, knew all those crimes that could be paid for only with his death.
Hela laid a hand on his brow. She whispered nothing. This was not magic but power. Purpose. Then she pinched his nose closed with her fingers, held her palm steady against his mouth. He struggled, but only to raise up his other hand, which Loki came around and caught in his. He was crying. He always cried easily.
Their father died well. She had always wanted that for him, really. She was glad to have seen it and gladder still to have caused it.
Afterwards, they sat with him in silence. Hela felt the gentle breeze of a living world against her face and smelled the flowers that had not grown in her prison. When she saw Loki’s lips part and then saw him stand, she knew without asking, knew just by the look in his eyes, who had come to join them. Footsteps like thunder. She did not look away from Odin.
We have the same hands, she thought.
She would not turn around to watch them embrace. It was bad enough that she had to hear their reunion, which was soppy beyond compare; she did not have to look upon it. There was this, at least: Odin had hidden her, but he had never forgotten her. She had been on his mind at the end. He had called her out of banishment to put an end to him as she had always meant to.
She had her father, now. She did not need her brother. She could give him up.
A large hand she did not know came down and touched Odin’s cheek. “Rest well,” Thor said. His voice was rough, weather-beaten, sad but tearless. Odin had been a long time dying, Hela had known that just from looking at him. No wonder he had brought her back. “May you be borne to Valhalla and take your seat in the great halls there, with honor and our love.”
How presumptuous of him, to offer her heart along with his, but it seemed that Odin’s soul, great and truculent and needy thing that it was, had been waiting for this, because it was only then that his body broke into the golden sparks that was the end of them all. They drifted up to the sky, as if to form some new constellation. She exhaled. It all felt very final, which was something she had always liked about death. She had no idea how life knitted itself into a conclusion.
They would go on now without her. And what would she do? She would go back through the gateway for a little while, she supposed, to retrieve the leopards. She would pluck one last apple off the tree. She would say goodbye to a world that had been only hers for so long and yet which she could not remember now without the smudgy fingerprints of family all over it. He would not come back. And she would not stay, neither there nor here, though she didn’t know yet where she would go. More difficulties of life.
“Brother,” he was saying, his voice warmer than she had ever heard it. She hated him so. “Brother,” and he touched her shoulder. “You must meet our sister.” As if the two words were equal, as if they could be said just the same.