2. Pale Rider
. . .
It is often assumed that when a child says they remember the womb, that they are simply remembering a dream they had when their brains were even less formed than they are now. The womb-dream is dark and warm, and sometimes a spark is recalled, like they knew their mother's presence, and the mother was equally aware and connected with their child, is what the child might describe. A place between, where souls are readying for the world.
Frigga believed Hela the first time her daughter told her this story. Hela was three at that time, still babyfat and precocious, and possessed of some solemn hardness that had made the healers worry at her at first. Hela didn't speak easily as a baby, skipping most coos and cries. She had been quiet, sleeping heavily through the days. At night, the nurses would check on the child and find she was awake, and though they thought it unlikely to be true, her eyes were strong enough yet and her mind surely couldn't be aware, she always seemed to be looking at the stars. Her first word was 'father,' lisped clearly through gums and a curiously early tooth, and the second, not a minute later, was 'mother.'
"There were three of us sometimes, in the dark. You and me and the other one." said Hela, still with a child's lisp, but with her tiny mind already lively and sharp. Her small hands were picking at Frigga's embroidery needles, not pulling them free, only dancing along their smooth silver lengths. "The other one was so small and faded, like most of him had left too early."
Frigga was not working on her tapestry any longer. Her hands were on her lap, lengths of blue and black string meant to shape the sky over Asgard some long ago eve threatening to slide off to the ground. She didn't notice them. She studied her daughter's face not only with her eyes, but with a witch's trained instinct.
"It was a boy," said Hela, seemingly not aware of the stricken look on her mother's face. "I tried to touch him, but I wasn't really real yet. I had to watch him go. I was alone in there a lot, except when you reached for me. You reached for him, too, but like a dream. He wasn't really there for you."
Frigga came back to herself, understanding the truth in her daughter's words. She made sure her hand was warm, and she reached out to put her palm on Hela's head, stroking the fine black hair from the girl's milky high brow. A strange but lovely child. A witchblood child - there were darkhaired girls in Frigga's family, but hadn't been any new ones born for generations, and Odin's lineage were all strawhaired warriors that rarely tended towards ginger. "I reached for you often, my daughter. Time stretches there, an unreal thing in that special place."
"What was his name?" Hela looked up, saw the tears held fast at Frigga's eyes. She cocked her head curiously, but her eyes never left her mother's. She saw the tears were not for her, but for the ghost that never seemed to leave the shadows of her face. "He was supposed to be my brother. My big brother."
"His name was Baldur," said Frigga, the name in the air for the first time in what felt like forever, and it tasted like a razor blade on her tongue. Baldur, the firstborn prince, who had lived too short a time, and passed from his crib like a whisper. She could say nothing more.
Hela watched the torment that crossed her mother's face, and saw it as something more real than the faded way Frigga reached for her.
. . .
Hela paused, watching the way the scattered light caught on the dull sand instead of looking at the immortal. There were rainbows on Helheim after all, and the surprise of that realization struck her silent. Among the sandy bone was enough mineral and stone to form something like mica, and looking, for the first time, at what lay at her feet found what had been hidden in the dead world. She spoke again after a minute. "I did not tell Mother all of what I knew from the womb. I didn't tell her what I truly sensed."
Death said nothing to goad her on. Either Hela would speak, or she would not. The choice was hers.
"Her spirit oft reached for Baldur as I grew inside. Not me. Grasping for what was lost, and I was right there, all along, reaching back and finding no purchase." Hela reached down to cup a sparse handful of sand in her palm, letting it spread so that she summoned that new spray of color. Blue, she saw, and new green, and a flashing yellow. She had thought of herself as all but colorblind for centuries. "I understand, I suppose, that these flailings were likely when she slept, and these pieces of herself dug through the darkness for the lost child. An instinct, borne of grief alone. She did reach for me other times. Perhaps as often as she thought, from her point of view."
"It does not change what is felt," said Death, neutral here, seeing the boundaries of all that went unsaid. The pain. The sensation of being missed, in favor of something that could not be touched.
"No. I chose my words well. I always did, then. And I chose Father. Mother loved me, but she was… frightened of us." Hela pursed her lips. "Of you. She was a woman of life, and after I was born, there might be no other. I sensed that, too." Hela let the sand fall from her hand and stared at Death. "We were robbed of a prince. But I was still there.
"When I was nine, I had begun my letters and was meant to start a lady's education. I would take my books - Mother wanted me to learn spells, so I did, over time, but that is nothing that interests me to speak of - and I would go to the windows and watch the boys. I learned their routines. And one morning, my head shorn close with a knife I stole from my nurse and dressed like any other child, I slipped down and stood among them, waiting for my turn to learn a true blade. Oh, they would give me daggers, if I liked, when I was older. But we needed Asgard's future sooner than that, I reckoned. And there was only I to carry it."
Death stared back. Watching, listening. Her face was empty now, wearing a young human face like a mask.
"The weaponsmaster was furious but could not lash out against me. Privilege as armor of my own. Each training day he would summon the nurse, who had wept so the first time when she saw what I had done to my hair, and each training day I would find my way back to the ring to try to learn." Hela's eyes lidded, feeling the memory as if it were new. "One day I pulled a sword from the racks and charged at him. I was crying, but they were hot and equally as furious as he. He slapped my blade aside easily, and that only made me angrier yet. I screamed at him, a scream meant to be a royal howl but came out like the fitful tantrum of a little girl. I suppose that's fair, but it enraged me further, and further. 'Teach me to kill you properly, then!' He took the blade away. Just as easily.
"It was Father that came down to collect me that day. Not the nurse. Father might have punished me where the others couldn't, but he didn't. I thought that curious, as if perhaps I had won something. Instead he gave me a book of tactics and sent me back to my lessons. But what he said was useful enough for a frustrated princess. 'Make a blade of your mind, first. Win that duel, and mayhap then you'll gain the sword.'" Hela snorted. "I sat at one of his war councils when I was seventeen. I won my place there, just as he told me to do. Not with a sword. Not then, not yet. With a battle plan I drew up based on the ancient King Ragnar's River-Stand. "
"Against the Kronan."
"Marauders, a mixed crew with that stony Kronan core, but yes. They band together every few centuries and pick at the fringes of one of our realms, trying to gain some toehold for further incursions." Hela waved a hand, dismissive. "Brute forces, in more ways than one. Their numbers were good, then. Good enough to concern certain of Father's usual council. I found a way to bottleneck them, there at Vanaheim's High Eastern Pass. A dangerous river and a canyon walling it all off. Risky to station our forces, but safer than their choice to struggle through it, to settle their tents against its shadow. No retreat for them, but then, they wouldn't lest there was no other choice. I told Father to let me ride out with them. To see the results of my plan." Hela lifted her chin, as if commanding that long ago force even now. "He permitted it. Perhaps he thought it would sober my taste for war. It did - but not in the way he assumed."
"You saw something."
"I saw our warriors ringed in glory. The marauders, a few of them tried to retreat after all, in cowardice. They drowned instead. Their tents were aflame, the smoke rising to redden the afternoon sky. It was a beautiful color." Hela's eyes closed, and she went terribly still. "In Asgard, each day is clear and pure. Slow time, slow change. If any change at all. I saw dozens of lives change in seconds. Wounded, gone, defeated. It didn't matter the outcome for them. I saw our men alive, vibrant in the moment. The risks, the blood, the moments of fear. They were something that didn't exist on our private paradise.
"I wanted that," said Hela, her eyes still shut. "I wanted to live. Do you understand that, immortal Death?"
Death said nothing. She only looked at the exile, who was breathing shallowly at the memory.
"I wanted to feel something." Hela opened her eyes and saw nothing in Death's face. "Father commanded the weaponsmaster to undertake my training the next week. I had bested his challenge, whatever he had considered of it. I chose my prize. The weapons of princes and kings were mine to learn."
"And so, Hela came to war," said Death, flat, like narrating some dusty text.
"You do not judge." Hela made the statement into a dagger instead of a question, digging around with the top for a reaction.
"I do not judge," said Death, giving her nothing. The mask didn't chip. "What was the next time you felt something, Hela? Something that made you feel alive?"
Hela laughed, small and bitter.
. . .
Asgard's wars had grown more seldom as its newest king continued the slow changes that would shape it for the next thousand years, but yet, it warred. All-Father Bor had kept the frost giants mostly in check, but a new alliance had formed from one of their royal houses, and from there, said their observers and spies, he had long since forged the splintered giant clans into a more cohesive army. Laufey, son of brutes and barbarians, was King of Jotunheim now, and the queen he'd quickly claimed for purposes of alliance with the gentler clans was either missing, imprisoned, or dead.
Frigga's informants suggested that of all those possibilities, the mysterious queen was a prisoner, with further hints that some of their more useful intel was coming from somewhere within her camp. Hela thought that interesting, if dimly so. The frost giants that went afield were not often deep creatures. They were immensely powerful, possessed of some fanatic loyalty to their hungry lord, and liked to fight to the gasping end. Perfect for her taste - she then spent many days with scout bands of Asgard's own, culling out stragglers and assassins long before they made their way to the hidden paths that let them range out from their frozen wastes. She made an art of it, and the first tales of Hela to reach the huddled giant villages were dark ones, of a skullish, grinning figure wreathed in blacks and greens, reaching out of the snow to claim their families.
Not as glorious or honorable as the stories the warrior men earned, but fear could be useful enough to Hela and she began to cultivate it, using it to make herself even more a fatal ghost that stalked the wastes. It backfired eventually, in a sense. Soon there were fewer giants that dared the distant reaches, meaning fewer hunts for her. But the legends of her grew, and where the bravest attempted, she ensured they served that tale.
Asgard's men had first acted as if servitude in her band was a curiosity that made for a sympathetic tale at the meadhalls, but as time went on and the word of what she could do with a sword and a giant's skull made her a leader to vie for when new blood was assigned to the field. These bloodthirsty ones became loyal to her, and she supposed, vaguely, that she felt an empathy with the warrior king of these frozen wastes. They served her because they found simple glory at her side.
But the light and life they found so easily eluded her. Some ghost she searched for stayed out of reach.
The hunts she went on were becoming increasingly uninteresting. Oh, her men loved them, to be sure, for they were permitted a pure form of war under her banner, but more and more battles became simple routs, with her presence enough to fear the opponent away.
Until the wolf-lords.
. . .
The battle itself had been brief and moderately stimulating, for once. A scout had signaled to Hela's band that he had found traces of a hidden encampment near the northern end of the region. Possibly and partially entrenched in a cave system for extra safety and warmth. That meant something new for her, frost giants with a firm place to stand and something worthy to fight for.
When she brought her warband to the edge of where the frosts had been melted and flattened into some form of control, the locals had boiled out at them. Dozens of jotun of varying sizes, mostly the mid-size and more agile warriors, and all of them mounted. Thick and armed and ferocious, like some battle-banner tapestry about the possibilities of War Itself.
Oh, she'd seen wolfriders before. They were scouts, typically, or a handful of hit and run warriors slipped among a hardier regiment. But where these wolves were kept and trained, and how many more of them was possible, that was fresh material. That some of them could form warrior-bands of their own? Useful information. Hela was unaware of the wild and terrifying grin she had on her face at the sight of so many trained beasts snarling towards her and her men, and it stayed there as her handful of archers neatly struck down that first line of chargers. It stayed there when she waded into the fray herself, green coldfire enchantments arcing down the edges of her favorite sword.
The wolves were huge and stood firm when their riders were lost, snapping atop corpses to honor their freezing partners. She felt a twinge of pity as they were put down as well. Too trained to be useful for their purposes. Her men could take pelts if they liked - she permitted trophies, and these would be fine ones. What she wanted to know was further in.
Oh, there was much to record and sort. Not only a long-term stronghold, but one of a half dozen rare places where such beasts were kept and trained for jotun purposes. It was the kennels that caught her attention as the men went to work for the purposes of some distant and bloodless war council. The keening cries of dozens of hungry pups.
. . .
The kennel pups were small if measured from tip to tail, so long as one considered 'the length of a king's banquet table' small, and they were soft and furry. Hela stood there for a long while, entranced by the way they wriggled behind their fenced-in enclosures. A mother-wolf stood nearby, watching her with hungry fear.
One of her men said something to her. She ignored it, she had locked eyes with a pup whose eyes were a brilliant, beautiful green. It didn't seem afraid of her, its nose wrinkled with curiosity, catching the smell of blood in the air.
Another set of words missed as men clanged through huge boxes and their scraps of paper in the distance. She caught it, dimly. Kill the pups, then?
"No," she whispered, the green-eyed wolf smushing its face up against the pen's gate, a pink tongue lapping in her direction. She recognized it as a female. Like her, the rest of the pups shoved around her, uninterested in respecting her space. The wolf-riders only rode the males. The females were kept for future breeding. "Not these." Not her.
"Mercy, then, my princess?" There was humor in the Asgardian voice.
Her hand whipped around, as if of its own volition, and she gripped his throat tight enough for it to immediately begin to crackle. She was of Asgard's blood, and she had permitted Asgard's power to fuel her. Mother's magic was of some use, a weapon after all, and she would never allow these easily driven men to overthrow her. "Mercy?" said Hela into the wide-eyed face, her voice cold. "You ask mercy of me?"
"M-m-mercy!" Begging her, now. Because that served her enemies so well.
Understandable but also useless, witless. Predictable. She felt the anger boil inside of her, the reminder that these warriors would never understand her, always think of her as some small creature that could be cajoled with, treated as never more than barely equal and that equality only because she forced it with a blade. She threw him across the room and his face looked grateful at her mercy. Until he realized, shocked still, she'd thrown him at the feet of the mother-wolf, who looked down at her meaty offering and then began to idly crunch away at him.
"Mercy, then," said Hela, no longer interested in the dying oaf and his quickly fading screams. An accident, she would say. Truthfully enough, by her reckoning. He accidentally insulted the future Queen, and such things had consequences. In the day's fray, it would go without further questioning.
The dead aside, she stepped lightly towards the pen's door. It could be dangerous to release near a dozen hungry young wolves into the broad, warm cave where they were being raised, but she felt no danger here. These were natural creatures in the prime of their lives. They knew only hunger, and hunting, and warmth. They were trained using these things, and since she used similar to train her men, the wolves were understandable.
She let the pen door swing free, never feeling the frostbite chill of the steel under her hand, and when that green-eyed pup wiggled against her, licking her face in a curious frenzy, she smiled.
An honest one.
The first since she last touched her dead brother, who had sung to her in the womb before departing.
. . .
Of course, she named the wolf Fenris. Fenrir had been the steed of some long ago king, a name listed in myths that had filtered through the realms and become some dull legend. Fenris was nothing but dust.
This wolf would bear only a Queen, and for a time, she found pleasure enough in the wolf's warm fur that she turned away from the warbands to tend the beast.
. . .
"She lies cold today," said Hela, thoughtfully. "Not dead, precisely. One of the few things I could do in the hours before my exile. She is part of me, my pup. She sleeps in the crypts, among the tombs of the men who died loyal to me. I suppose Mother allowed it, since I still feel my Fenris there. She could have unwound the spell between us, for she's the one that paved the way for me to learn it. But I saved her from my fate, and salvation holds. One day I will be free, and she will wake and run once more. Whether that freedom comes from my departure from here, or my death." She glanced at Death. "I expect no understanding of this."
"And yet, Hela, I do." Death fell silent again, clearly not intending to expound on that.
Hela narrowed her eyes at the young woman. "The only trophy I stole from the jotun. The only thing I kept from war."
"Do you know what the wolves mean to them?"
"I never cared. They were raised as weapons, near as I could tell. They fought us, we fought back. The other pups, I let them run free when we were done at the encampment. The men wondered at that, I saw, but didn't question me. I only wanted Fenris."
"And so you took her." Death leaned back, closing her eyes as if musing on something. "The wolves are Jotunheim's oldest emblem. Not just of their warriors, but of their people entire. To the farmers, they are icons of the cycle of hunt and harvest, to the shamans they are spiritual-"
"I said I never cared." It came out brittle, abrupt.
"A trophy means more when you know what you stole, even if you had meaning to it. Purpose." Death shrugged, then furthered it with a yawn. She ignore Hela's heated glare. "You've no wolf-mothers to throw me to, Hela."
"There's a corpse worm what lives under the bone sea to the west, it might make for an interesting attempt."
"The wolf was life to you. The wolf represents something simpler, something real and full of emotion." Death reached out and wiped away a layer of dust that had built up on a stone next to her, as if she might have purpose for it. But she placed nothing down but her hand. "She had what you always sought. What you were chasing. But she's a wolf, Hela. What she understands, she cannot tell you in words you can hear."
"Oh, don't give me these sappy monologues about life." Hela flapped her hand and rose from her stone, not quite starting to pace. "I'm not interested, particularly from a creature like you whose existence is the opposite."
"Is it? You understand me so well now." It was deadpanned. Death didn't look up. "Tell me more, Hela. Tell me how to understand you."
Hela snorted. "You were there, I'm sure. What would you like to hear? How my frustrations grew into a furnace when Odin declared our little war to be too much and demanded we draw back? That as I was growing up, he was already starting to grow old and had begun to consider peace? Some legacy he wanted to build, to soften Asgard's destiny. I suppose he worried his pretty princess might creak under the weight of what Asgard truly was."
"That's what you thought of his changes."
"Are they not some form of the truth, Death?" Hela lifted her chin, staring over the girl's head at the past splayed out before her. "Everything Asgard is, we took from somewhere else. The Aesir were a new race once, left to grow or die under the eyes of those that came before us. We grew. We survived. We took. We took first from Vanaheim, where the roots of our people sow deep, and we took their people to buttress our numbers, and back then we took their magic easily enough when it suited our purpose, and we took their villages to shelter us. We took Svartalfheim, and drove out their people, those dark elves that had once been honored servants to those precursors, there when the universe was younger. We took Niflheim's weapons, and chained their loyalties in time. A promise to protect them as we grew stronger. We took Alfheim's art and fabrics to swath ourselves, to play at being the Gods we knew we were destined to become. We took Midgard, because why not, and Muspelheim for their fire for our stolen Dwarven forges, leaving the scorch behind to feed on the magics we left, their original lords hidden deep."
She waved a hand around them. "We took Helheim as a cemetery for our enemies. As a prison for their futures.
"And we took Asgard itself from Jotunheim." Hela studied Death for a reaction that didn't come. She barreled on anyway. "Yes, I know the secret. There's a great chasm in the southern hemisphere of that world, a hole that drives near to the core of it. The hidden heart of why the frost giants hate us and why some might always hate us. And why not? We destroyed them, their histories, their role as one of the first great powers. They were the beloved children of those great old ones that watched over us and would have let us die in the cradle. And we took from their world and made a paradise of it, our fields luxurious and alive, for under the ice it had slept and grown lush. Blood and stone fed it for millennia, and we stole and freed it for our use.
"And you begrudge me a wolf." Hela began to laugh, raucous and perhaps not entirely sane. "Odin wants to bury this all, and bury his own mistakes, and bury me, and I hid a wolf out of sentiment and you come here and treat with me as if I am the sinner here."
"You did more than that," said Death, and now she sounded sorrowful. "Odin at least fights to understand his mistakes now."
"He didn't then," hissed Hela, acidic and hateful. "Only hid them. Hid them, Death, shoved them away." Her breath came ragged.
"Does the existence of one sinner absolve another?"
Hela froze at the question, delivered like a knife's point.
"Or must both carry their judgments? Hela, we cannot play 'what about?' Would you like someone to say that you were wronged? There are those that may say so. Yes, there are. And their feelings may be true. Have you done wrong? This is also true. Is all that you have done the responsibility of another, or must you consider at least some of your mistakes, your crimes as your own?"
Hela wrenched her gaze away, looking elsewhere. Her face was drawn and pale. "These are ridiculous philosophies that bear no relation to a life as it is lived. They are games for scholars and handwringers."
"But they are true, and I have witnessed their answers before. Like an echo, Hela. I chose to come to you because all this has happened before - and perhaps it may happen again."
Hela laughed and shook her head. "Irrelevant. Some life that has no meaning to mine."
"You're wrong, Hela. It is a life that may, one day, save yours." Death leaned back as Hela returned her attention to the girl, her hand still resting on that smooth stone. "A life you once almost took."
"I almost took many, you'd need to be more specific." Hela watched the girl, finding no answer. Then she frowned, putting together nuance and tone and the gist of the game around them - thrones and families and blood. "Oh, ye gods, you can't be speaking of that witless little child I nearly choked to death through the veils. The soft blue prince they stole to put in my place. Again, dear Death, I'd rather suggest I'm being pressured over a wolf when you might look elsewhere for faults to judge."
Hela put up a hand and now she did began to pace back and forth across the sand. "I'm not interested in whatever ridiculousness the family's gotten up to, unless they're dead or dying."
"Odin is dying."
Hela stopped her pacing, and turned to look, cautiously, carefully, at Death. Silence held, for a minute or for an hour. "Then we've nothing to speak about, and I'll be free when he's gone." But she sounded uncertain.
Death looked back at her, making that uncertainty into something firm.
"Ah, fuck." Hela crossed her arms. "I did feel something a while back, come to think. They redid the binding." She looked up, thinking carefully again. "How could they have redone the binding? Did Mother-"
"Frigga has been dead some few years." The flat of the blade, slapped against skin.
Something changed in Hela's face, some small and undefined thing, like a crack under the surface of a porcelain cup. A flaw that lies dormant yet for dozens of uses, perhaps hundreds. Until the cup abruptly shatters.
For now, Hela's face held together. But the crack remained underneath.
"And the jotun Queen, whom you found so uninteresting once that you barely knew her name, helped Odin remake your bondage." Death cocked her head, watching these slow breaks inside Hela, marking them for later. "She does not hate, from where she sits upon her throne. She understands true mercy. And change. And, in some critical sense… me.
"The worlds have changed while you stayed here, Hela. They changed. You have not. The tale you tell me thus far says you chased something that hid within you. You armored yourself against it, understandably at first. That Asgard had not changed, and that it would dismiss a little girl as its Queen, that it would not respect you as it might have once done your elder brother. All this is fair.
"But as Odin realized change might be due in Asgard, it was you that resisted it first and hardest. You that hard forged your war-band through blood and loyalty and sorcery, and then chained them even beyond my hand to serve only you, and instead of being the nightmare legend of Jotunheim, you went to slaughter your own people in revenge against this slight, attacked your father, and drove them to exile you here. Because you did not want to change with them.
"When it was change you hunted all along."
"Ridiculous," said Hela, but her voice was bloodless. "A ridiculous charge."
"Then tell me what you truly sought." Death's eyes on the cracks, waiting. Not yet.
"No," said Hela, more firmly now. She turned back to her seat and crossed to it, settling herself with dangerous elegance. "No. I've said what I will for now. Small moments in time, that's all I'll give for you throw them back at me with these bitter accusations. Tell me your tale, Death, tell me what it is you think is so important for me to hear."
"Very well," said Death, amused, perfectly capable of patience, and then she began to speak.