Part One- The Myth
It is easy to go down to hell; Night and Day
the Gates of Dark Death stand wide; But to climb back up again,
to retrace ones steps to the open air,
there lies the problem, the difficult task.
Virgil, The Aeneid, Book VI
He was dreaming of his death again. This time it was drowning. The cool thick liquid filled his nose and throat. His lungs felt like they were about too burst from the unavoidable pressure. In his dream, he was clawing his way up from the depths of the ocean that had swallowed him. His hand broke the surface and once again there was light.
Balder woke gasping for breath. His lungs were burning and his body was drenched in sweat.
It was only a dream. Only a dream. He repeated this thought to himself, but no matter how many times he said the words in his head, he didn't quite believe it.
"The dreams, I've been having them too," his mother told him. Frigg wrung her hands around one another. She was nervous. He had gone to his mother to put his mind at ease.
Dreams, can after all, can mean many different things. Just because he dreamed of dying, didn't meant that he was actually going to die. Hopefully, anyway.
"What can we do," he asked his mother. There had to be something, anything, to prevent his death. Just because the dreams may not have been prophetic it didn't mean that they weren't. And Balder wasn't stupid. Even if the dreams meant something other than his impending doom, avoiding impending doom was something that should be practiced in general.
What could they do? Frigg thought to herself. The only way Balder would die is if he had an accident or someone intentionally tried to harm him. A sudden realization dawned on Frigg. How do you prevent water from drowning you? By asking it not to, of course.
The world is a vast place filled by very many things. Frigg had not realized exactly how many until she went to seek out every different object in the nine worlds and asked the to make a single promise: Don't hurt my son.
After many days of traveling and extracting oaths from everything to the birds that flew in the sky to the snakes that slithered on the ground, to the rocks that lay in a river to the water that flowed over them, Frigg sat down in exhaustion. There was only one thing left, the mistletoe. A small plant, that had only been thought into being recently.
It was insignificant, really. It was so young that it probably wasn't aware of whom Balder was and would have no intention to harm him anyway. Oath's from those who don't realize the absolute importance of a promise given are worthless. Frigg decided to leave the mistletoe because, after all, what real harm could the mistletoe do?
Frigg returned to find her son Balder tending his garden. "It is done. There is nothing in this world which will harm you. I have the oath of every thing on this earth. You are safe. The dreams shall stop."
Frigg relaxed when her son smiled at her. Years of worry melted off his face in an instant. "Thank you mother." The smile was infectious and Frigg could feel the corner of her lips turned up in a grin. She offered her hand to Balder.
"We shall show them then," she said. Balder accepted her hand in his.
In his dream there was a goblet. It was gold and the edges were covered in precious gems. Rubies, sapphires, emeralds. The cup was filled with wine. Balder knew this because he had filled it up himself.
There was also poison in there as well. He had added that as well. He couldn't remember why he had. There was no recollection of his intent or purpose. He knew with every fiber of his being that one sip- one tiny infinitesimal drop- and he would die.
Yet, he lifted the goblet anyway and stared down at the inviting purple liquid. He was so thirsty, he realized. So very thirsty. He brought the cup to his lips and he drank. Every. Single. Drop.
Balder was standing in a too white hall. Both the floor and walls were made from polished white marble. It had a look of being both pure and relentlessly uninviting all at once. That wasn't surprising though, when he thought about it. The gods were constantly pretending to be something they weren't. And goodness help the unfortunate souls who decided to question them.
The hall was filled with the voices of the Aesir. Frigg had invited them all here in order to throw things at him. Apparently.
Of course, the entire purpose of this was too show off his new found invincibility. Nothing would be able to harm him.
The first stone that hit him felt like a tickle. It bounced off and landed harmlessly on the floor. There were a couple of sticks and a few more rocks. One of the Aesir went so far as to throw darts.
But it didn't really matter. None of the objects pierced his skin. It was an assault, yet it felt as if he were just at a gathering- a party like any other.
His mother was right. There was nothing which would dare hurt him. But what of the continuing dreams, then? What did they mean? Obviously, they had nothing to do with his death. He pushed the thoughts from his head. If they didn't mean anything then why? Why did they continue to haunt him?
Frigg was satisfied. Beyond anything, she just wanted to ensure the safety of her son. She remembered when he was born. He was just so alive. He was more alive then, than most people are in their lifetimes. There was an relentless energy about him.
There was a knock at the door. The sound of the dull thuds broke her from her musings. Behind the door was a woman. She didn't look young or old really, just ageless. The woman smiled at her and Frigg was overcome with the feeling that she knew this woman. That this woman and she were friends.
The fact that she didn't know her name didn't bother her for an instant. It really should have though, in hindsight.
"Dearest Frigg, how are you?"
"Oh, I am content," she replied. "My son. There is nothing in this world which can harm him. I have an oath from everything."
"Indeed? Is there nothing?" The woman asked and again Frigg was struck by the feeling of utter familiarity.
"There is one thing. A plant that grows in some forests. It is called mistletoe. I thought it too young and did not require it to swear an oath."
The woman gave a little smile. "Thank you, Dearest Frigg," she said, and then left through the door from which she had entered.
Frigg closed the door behind the strange visitor and then, like as if the woman hadn't existed at all, forgot all about her.
Hod was standing in the hall. He could hear the laughter and feel the pure joy of everyone in the room. He could not see them, being blind.
"You're not participating?" asked a voice. The voice wasn't distinctly masculine or feminine. It was very familiar, however. Hod trusted it instantly.
"No, I cannot see where Balder stands and didn't think to bring rocks or darts or anything to throw."
"Don't worry," said the voice."I'll help you."
Hod felt a smooth length of wood being placed in his hand. "There," instructed the voice, which must have resided in some body because Hod felt himself being turned around.
Hod lifted his arm back, and with the help of his dear friend guiding his aim, he threw.
Balder's doubts had nearly vanished. He stood confident and secure in the knowledge that he would live to see his son grow up. That he and his wife Nanna would grow old together.
Balder heard a whizzing sound and lifted his head up. He saw the spear and nearly laughed. No matter how hard someone wanted to throw an object, the outcome would be the same.
He thought this even as the spear split his flesh and buried itself in his heart. "Why?" he whispered as his body fell to the ground. The white floor turned crimson as he watched.
It was a weird thing, dying. He thought that he would be used to it. He had, after all, died in so many of his dreams, that the feel of his soul leaving his body was oddly familiar.
He didn't know why everyone was screaming. For him? That's silly. He was fine and cold. So, so cold. He felt himself drifting and spinning and falling.
And then there was nothing but permeating darkness.
Balder opened his eyes. He was in a crowded hallway, the floor was made of red clay that stuck to his feet and the walls were cut from plain stone. He was pushed that way and this by. He didn't recognized anyone. Not that they could be recognized- they wore the shape of a person, but they were oddly colorless and faceless.
Finally, the cavern opened up into a giant underground cave. It was entirely empty- no people, no objects- except for an occupied throne in the center of the room. On it sat the most hideous creature that Balder had ever seen. She looked like an old hag. Her hair was thick and black like a storm cloud and her face was wrinkled and weary. She stood up and walked until she was only a foot away from him.
He noticed that she was actually much shorter than he had assumed. Her eyes were black like jet and the most fierce things he had ever seen. They were also quite young and looked uncomfortable in the body in which they resided. The hag started to speak. Her voice was that of a young girl as well. It was so unsettling that Balder didn't hear what she was saying.
"Sorry?" he asked.
The hag offered him her hand. She was smiling. It made her look more sinister than he had thought possible.
"I said, Balder, welcome to hell. I hope you like it here. You'll be staying a really long time."
Of course, he was dead. He wasn't even that surprised. It was impossible to avoid destiny and all. It was pointless to even try, really.
Balder didn't even have the energy to move. He just slumped to the cold ground, staring vacantly at its deep blood color. He shouldn't have known better than to trust his mother. She always meant well, but apparently meaning well wasn't enough to keep him alive.
He looked down at his hands. It was then he realized that they were balled into tight fists. So much so, that the blood had been squeezed out of them
"Is there anyway- anyway at all that I can return home?" he asked again. The hag shook her head. For the ruler of the afterlife she didn't seem particularity sad or mean. There was just a overwhelmingly feeling of languidness that radiated her her. From Hel, as she called herself.
"There are ways, and none of them are easy," she told him. "It usually isn't best to try on your own. There are worst places to spend eternity than here." Somehow Balder doubted it. "Will you help me? Please. I have a wife and son...."
"That doesn't concern me." The hag smiled again, revealing sharp, brown teeth. "Besides."
Besides, what? Balder wanted to know. The very word made him feel more uncomfortable than he already had.
Hel turned away from him and began to walk back to her throne. She gave a flick of her wrist and suddenly Balder felt pressure around his arms and legs. He didn't even bother to fight as he was dragged back in towards the shadows.
"How could this have happened?" shouted an enraged Odin.
Frigg, her eyes already red, wept. This was all her fault. Her son was dead because of her. She might have just as well stabbed him herself. She couldn't even protect him. "Please," she begged her husband," save him. You can do anything. Can't you return our son from death?"
Odin closed his eyes for a long moment. When he opened them, he spoke. "It is Hel's domain. She is Loki's daughter and is every bit as cruel as her father. She was not to pleased when I cast her down to that forsaken realm and forced her to rule over the inglorious dead."
Frigg wrapped her arms around Odin. He was so solid, so real. "Please," she pleaded.
Odin looked down at her, running his fingers through her impossibly thick hair. "I'll see what I can do." Frigg hugged him tighter in thanks.
Balder was distinctly uncomfortable. He was in a hall that was a shadow of the one that he had been in hours before. This was a place for the dead; it didn't really need to be fancy.
But really? A little bit of decorating would probably make the place a more livable. Or something. Heck, even a window would do wonders for the large underground carven. Maybe one day he would mention it to Hel. If he was ever brave enough.
Or crazy enough.
He would also suggest new furniture. The large table, which he assumed people ate off, although he hadn't seen anybody actually eat yet, was rotting. Every time there was a cold breeze, the smell of it would enter his nose and he would gag just a little bit.
Although, he supposed that if there was a breeze that there might be an outside on the other side of the thick cave walls. He felt a little spark of hope at the thought, as if maybe, just maybe, he could escape from a lifetime- a deathtime- in this place.
Odin examined the god before him. "Are you sure your prepared for this? This is possibility a dangerous task, and you might not return."
Hermod signed. Why? Why did he get all the dangerous jobs. First it was that whole wolf thing, and now this. He supposed it must have been his nickname: Hermod the Brave. Yeah, right.
He had been drunk when he had chosen it. He had meant it ironically. For some reason, however, it had stuck, and now when anybody wanted something that was 'dangerous' and 'death-defying' he was the first of the Aesir that was asked.
He would have been flattered, if he was not so unbearably scared. But he would do it anyway. Mostly because he had his honor. But also because he was afraid of what Odin would do to him if he refused.
Odin pretty much controlled the Aesir and that really wasn't anything to scoff at. So it was either accept a dangerous task in which he would most likely die or refuse, and die for certain.
Hermod was afraid of death, so really? There wasn't much choice at all.
"I will," Hermod said, using the really deep voice he reserved for when he was terrified, "but if anybody asks, I'm doing this for Frigg."
Odin nodded his assent, mildly confused as to why the fierce Hermod looked like he was about to cry.
The room was deathly quite. This was because, technically, all its occupants were dead.
"So," Balder asked to the soul of the person that sat beside him,"is there a garden or any such place around here?"
"Cooold. So very cooold." Was all the answer he received. Although, to be fair, sometimes the soul said, "Soooo huuungery" and once, "Pleassse killl me." Balder thought that this was mildly interesting, but it did nothing to make him look forward to the time he would be spending here.
The door at the end of the hall opened then. The hinges needed to be oiled because the door made a screaming sound. Or maybe it was suppose to be like that.
Hel entered the room, but remained beside the door. She beckoned Balder with a finger. Balder rose and moved over to where she stood. He was just thankful that she wasn't smiling.
"I have something to show you. Follow me."
She turned and Balder gasped for a breath he didn't really need. Hel smelt just like the rotting table.
Hel led him back to the cavern he had seen when he had first arrived. It was different this time. In the middle, there was two thrones instead of one.
Hel went and sat in the one which she had occupied previously. She pointed to the other chair. "There is my place of honor. It belongs to you now, Balder, son of Odin."
Thoughts began to run through Balder's head. How could he refuse? Every inch of his body was willing him to run away and escape from this dreadful woman, who seemed to be nothing but a rotting corpse.
Despite his instincts he walked over to the throne and he sat.
"There," said Hel, "That wasn't so tortuous, now was it?"
She moved her hand so that it rested over his. Balder automatically grabbed his hand away from the cold flesh. He shifted himself so that he was as far away from the hag as possible.
"Now, now Balder. I wouldn't do that if I were you."
"Why not?" he asked, his voice shaking more than he would like. Hel didn't say anything. Instead, she smiled. The expression even lit up her eyes. Balder started to shiver.
He was pretty sure that he knew the answer.
The horse was named Sleipnir. Which, Hamod thought, was a stupid name for a horse. Smooth.
There was nothing smooth about a horse with eight legs. In fact, the opposite was true. Riding Sleipnir was always a task unto itself.
The journey was long- nine days. At the end he was exhausted.
The horse was fine though. Lucky horse.
At the end there was a gate. There was always a gate. It was one of the rules of questing. Just like there was always a bridge, like the one he had passed a few hours back. He would probably have to answer a riddle in order for the gate to open or something equally asinine.
He dismounted the horse and looked around. To his surprise, there didn't seem to be anyone guarding the gate to Hell. He walked over to it and gave it a little shake. It was solid.
How would he get in? A thought came unbidden to his head. No, he told the voice. He wasn't going to do that. Even his awful nickname couldn't force him do. It was the brave, not the unbelievably, incredibly stupid.
But then there was also Odin to worry about and what would happen if he returned without Balder. Hamod mounted Sleipnir and gathered all of his courage. All none of it.
He was ready. Ready-ish, at least.
"Okay, Smooth. Show me what you can do."
He pulled the reins tight and urged the horse forward. Sleipnir started to gallop and was going impossibly fast. And faster. And faster.
The gate was looming closer.
"Here goes everything."
And they went. Right over Hel's gate.
The first thing that Hamod noticed when he entered Hel's domain was the bone chilling cold. It the the kind of cold that would seep into a person's very center and freeze them from the inside out. It was the kind of cold that would be impossible to forget.
Hamod walked carefully in order to avoid the shadows. Finally, he came to a vast underground room.
"Hamod, I take it. They said you were coming." There were two thrones. On one was a being that Hamod could only assume was Hel. On the other, much to Hamod's surprise, was Balder. His face was absolutely without emotion and he was unearthly still.
"What have you done to him?" Hamod asked. The creature had her arm wrapped around Balder's.
"Done to him? Nothing," said Hel, but Hamod heard the unspoken word at the end of that sentence. Yet.
Hamod drew in a deep breath. He realized that to get through this he would have to use the lowest, deepest, and most fierce voice he possessed. "Odin demands his son's return to the land of the living."
Hel stood up. The movement seemed too quick for her old body. "Does he now? Well, you can tell Odin that I, not him, I am the ruler here. He gave me this domain to rule and I shall rule it how I see fit. "
"But, my Lady," Hamod said, trying to appeal to her sense of justice. Too bad he didn't realize that Hel had no such thing,"Odin begs you to return his son. He will be eternally grateful."
"And I would be eternally grateful to leave this forsaken place. But, my dearest, cowardly Hamod, that is never going to happen." Hel moved so that she was sitting on her throne again. Hamod was sputtering in indignation.
"But that's not how it works."
"Oh, tell me now. How does it work?"
Hamod signed. He was going to regret this. He knew he was. "A quest. You owe me a quest."
"I do. Is there a rule?"
Hel laughed. The sound was so high pitched that Hamod had to cover his ear's for fear that his eardrums would split in two.
"I make the rules. Don't ever forget that."
Hamod could feel his face turning red. "Of course," he mumbled, back-tracking, "I didn't mean to imply that you didn't." He hated sucking up. It made him feel...well he wasn't quite sure what he felt. He knew what it wasn't though. It wasn't bravery.
"Well, you have amused me. I think that I shall grant you a request. Or quest rather. You and your master Odin can have Balder back if everything, dead and alive weeps for him. It's a difficult task befitting one such as you, but it's not impossible. It can be done."
Hamod knew that were words were fair and that he should be over joyed that he had (nearly) accomplished his task, but there was something about the gleam in Hel's black eyes that gave him pause. He felt like he was being tricked, but he couldn't for the life of him figure out how.
The sky was gray the day they decided to say goodbye to Balder. It was quite as if all the creatures were in mourning. Frigg wrapped her arms around herself trying to keep out the cold she felt. It was impossible though. Her entire being was cold; she would never be warm again.
She looked at her son's body on the funeral pyre. She was warmer than him, at least. The thought made her uncomfortable. If only, she told herself. If only.
Frigg barely paid any attention as they lit Balder's body on fire. The gleam of the light was nothing of the one he had had when he was alive. The sound of her daughter-in-law's screams didn't even break the bubble which with she had surrounded herself.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Nanna- Balder's wife- run forward hysterically, dramatically and launch herself on the pyre.
The flames crackled on jumped higher. Frigg turned and started home to go home.
There was a chance that he was going home. Balder still couldn't believe it. If everything cried for him, he could go home. He would be able to hug his son again, kiss his wife. With his second chance he would take advantage of his life. He couldn't help it, he felt himself warm at the thought.
"Now, now Balder. You aren't free yet."
Balder pretended that he didn't hear Hel. He just close his eyes and imagined his wife. Her rosy cheeks, her honey hair and her eyes the color of fresh spring grass.
There was nothing that would diminish the size of his dreams.
The woman was walking. She wasn't quite sure where to though. Her feet were bare and her robes were white and felt like they were spun of web.
They did nothing to protect her from the cold.
"This way," a voice whispered. It was the voice of a young girl, yet it sounded threatening.
There was a large gate. It opened for her in one smooth motion, although it looked like it was made from heavy wrought iron. She continued on, down a long spiraling hallway, to a door that opened into the most depressing place that she could ever remember seeing.
Since the first thing she remembered seeing was a bridge and then a gate, it wasn't exactly a hard competition to win. There were three people in the room.
Her eyes went directly to the man seated in the throne. He was incredible handsome and she felt herself begin to blush.
"Nanna?" the man asked, his voice breaking on the last syllable.
The woman shook her head. "Who?"
"Please, " he begged again for what must have been the millionth time. At least. "Just one little, tiny tear. Come on, just one."
"No," the giantess said. "I have no reason to cry for him. Heck, one less of you Aesir all up in my business just makes my life easier."
"Fine," cried Hamod exasperated. "See if I care."
The giantess, Thokk, continued to ignore him. Hamod turned away. He would have to tell Odin about his failure. How Balder would not return from the underworld. He had tried his best, but it just wasn't good enough.
Hamod left Thokk her her non-weeping state. He didn't really understand why she was being so difficult, yet he found it hard to be mad at her. After all, she seemed so familiar. Almost like an old friend.
"Nanna, what are you doing here?" Balder asked his wife. The woman just looked at him confused. "Do I know you?"
"Yes, yes you do. I'm your husband, Balder." Nanna shook her head and took a step away from him. Balder shot Hel a look, "Tell her."
"Your name is Nanna and this is Hell. This is your new home and your new life. What was true when you were alive doesn't always apply here. This man is not your husband."
"I am," said Balder, there were tears streaming down his face, "I am. I love you so, so much."
Nanna shook her head. "Please. Please, I don't know you. Leave me alone."
Hel stood up and gathered Nanna in her arms. It was a mockery of a hug. "Now, now dearest Nanna. Come with me." And with that Hel led her away from the carven to where all the colorless souls resided. Balder followed behind as quick as he could.
"Where are you taking her. Give her back."
He watched in horror as Nanna was led right into the arms of those damned souls. "There, there Balder. Don't be sad. This is where she belongs."
"She belongs with me."
Hel was quite for a long moment. "She killed herself, she belong here."
Balder felt a new wave of grief wash over him.
"There are somethings which are even beyond my control," said Hel, who then returned to her throne where she would rule for the rest of time.
"What? It was only a joke; it was funny."
"It wasn't really," said Hermod, who had got an earful when he returned to Odin without Balder. He had described the giantess Thokk and the feeling that he had gotten from her. Odin had gone quite and then uttered one word," Loki."
Turns out Loki had pretty much planned the whole 'killing Balder and sending him to Hell thing and making sure he didn't return by pretending to be a giantess and not crying thing'. But they had caught on. Eventually.
Which was why Loki was now tied to three different rocks. Which Hermod had to admit looked painful. Although that was nothing compared to what Odin had planned next.
Odin tied a snake above his head. The snake was poisonous and would drop venom periodically into Loki's face. For the rest of time.
Which, really, wasn't something to look forward to.
Hermod had to look away. He was just glad that it wasn't him tied to those rocks because if you disobeyed Odin that was always a possibility.
"Hey guys, you aren't going to leave me here right? Right?" screamed Loki. "I'm a trickster. What the hell did you expect?" Hermod and Odin walked away and eventually the sound of Loki's screams faded. But for years afterwards, whenever Hermod closed his eyes, he would always hear the words, "it was only a joke."
Only a joke, indeed.