Heartcleft road – Gna’s Story part 6

Posted: September 26, 2014 in Aesir & Asynjur, Deities & Wights, Gna, Jotnar, Stories
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Icy river

Part 6: Deals with Death –

 

Tightening my grip on Mordgud’s hand, I steeled myself for the stench of decay, but it was the scent of ripe apples that welcomed me to Helheim. On this side of the wall, the dusty Hel-Road became moist black earth, the barren ground around us a carpet of yellowing leaves, and dead trees were replaced by fruit laden ones. It was like I’d just stepped into Vanaheim on a peaceful Fall day just before Harvest.

“Not what you expected, I gather,” she said, bemused.

“Not at all. Where are all the dead?”

“They’re here, you simply cannot see them, and few come this close to the great wall.”

Over the tree line I could make out the black glassy spires of Elvidnir, twisting their way into the sky as if to pierce it. Even at this distance, Hela’s castle was an impressive sight – made as it was of shiny obsidian rock.

As we made our way further, I started hearing distant bird songs and smelling the rich soil beneath me. It felt like a carpet, yielding and sinking slightly with every step, though when I looked back no footprints could be seen. Every now and then I briefly caught sight of a white ghostly smear floating between trees. When I pointed to one Mordgud answered:

“The closer they get to the walls, the more the dead become as mist. Most find it disturbing and thus stay well away, save those there to welcome family and friends. Holding my dagger,” she added as an afterthought, “is probably helping you see them.”

If they become vapor, I thought, then even the strongest Giant could not open the gates to escape. Guards serve only to keep out the living. I shuddered at the devious cleverness of whoever had conceived this enclosure to contain the dead.

“Why is it,” I wondered, “that I would need the knife to notice them?”

“Only visitor areas allow them to take shape such that they can be seen. There’s one near the gate, though no souls were there when we passed. Hela does not like her people pestered – those who seek her counsel typically think themselves alone on this road.”

She suddenly turned her head, and gazed upon an empty spot among the dry leaves before adding: “Some could be making faces at you right now and you wouldn’t know it… though that would be rude of them.” She wagged a disapproving finger in that direction, leaving me to wonder if she was joking or whether ghosts were making fun of me. Just in case, I stuck my tongue out in that direction, then quickly looked away. I’m almost certain I heard a little girl’s giggle. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mordgud trying to hide her amusement.

I marveled at the warmth of her hand in mine as we walked. I’d thought all death deities were cold and foreboding. Yet she acted like an older sister, making me feel oddly comfortable with her.

The orchard made way to rolling hillocks, and our route meandered between grassy mounds.

“Homes of the dead,” she mentioned, “though you cannot see their doors or inhabitants as I can. They’re bigger on the inside, and quite comfortable.”

Throughout this peaceful stroll I had to keep reminding myself that she was an enemy of Asgard, as were all those who served Hela. Why is she trying to sell me the merits of Helheim? I wondered as I let her hand slip from mine. Biting at a snagged fingernail, I gazed upon her serene face. Once this mess was all sorted out we’d likely be opponents again, sadly, staring at each other across battle lines chosen by our masters. It’s a difficult position we hold, I thought with a sigh, ruling the Nine Worlds, and yet knowing one day we will end up here. I hoped those mound-homes were as pleasant as she said.

Veering off as we got close to the castle, we took a path she said was a shortcut. Before us lay a garden unlike any I’d seen. Weather-bleached bones were planted everywhere as support for food-bearing plants. Between these crops, rose-covered arches and trellis roofs decorated the paths – also ivory white – and I wondered who but Hela herself might have the power to interlace bones that way. The Lady seemed particularly fond of red and white roses, their scent wafting to us – mixed with that of decaying leaves.

We continued around the garden though, and at my wistful expression she laughed: “Are you not in a hurry? There will be time to visit the gardens later.”

“It’s a bit creepy, but also beautiful,” I said with a puzzled expression.

“Life feeds on death. Her Ladyship likes people to remember that,” she shrugged. “Why do you think the soil is so rich here?”

She crossed her arms and stopped as we reached the front doors that rose to twice my height. “Knock with the hilt, and be on your best behavior,” she advised.

Ah yes, I still held her dagger Oathbreaker. Wearing only undergarments, there was no belt to hang it from. I wished she’d at least lent me the sheath so I could safely tuck it in the waistband of my underpants.

The left door’s wood before me was half-rotten in the shiny black stone arch. The other seemed freshly cut, still bleeding resinous pine sap. I knocked on the solid one, and soon the decaying door started creaking open.

A clammy breeze escaped from within, making me shiver and regret my lack of proper clothing. I frowned, thinking this was not the dignified entrance I’d planned.

A hag’s wrinkly head peeked from behind the door. “Well, don’t let the flies in. Stop gaping and get inside!” she said with a gap-toothed grin.

Her hair was oily and matted, as is common of the lowest of servants. Stepping in, I noticed she was dressed in rags, a patchwork made from all manner of colored cloths. Some sort of scullery maid I suppose. Why is there no herald to announce ranking guests? I wondered. Am I not important enough to warrant more than this?

She inspected me up and down. “Hmm. Not much to look at. You’ll do, I suppose. Come along dearie.”

“I… thank you for your welcome, Lady…?” I said cautiously, hands pressed together. Best behavior means assuming everyone is more important than they seem. They often are.

“Ha,” she cackled with mirth,” I ain’t no Lady. I’m Ganglati, Hela’s servant, and your welcome has just improved for your good manners, youngling.”

I sighed in relief, and followed as she turned heel. In some places status is shown by treating the low-born like dirt, but I’d suspected that wasn’t the case here.

The main doors led right into a gigantic audience chamber whose many gothic arches were, predictably, made of or encrusted with bones. What little light there was came from an enormous stained glass window on the opposite wall, but it was still morning and Sunna’s pale light lay behind me. I couldn’t make out the images it displayed, but it was surely magnificent when the glow of sunset poured in. Many rows of trestle tables lay on either side of the main passage to her throne, along with dusty benches, and I suppressed the urge to sneeze. The gray flagstone floor felt a bit chilly under my socks.

It would have made an fine feasting hall, were it not for the gloom and eerie silence. I was reminded of visiting one where a plague had taken the entire village. No songs would ever grace that hall again, and though it had rotted away centuries ago, the sadness I’d felt then came back as fresh as if it were yesterday.

“Don’t keep her Ladyship waiting. She’s made this time just for you, so dunna go and wasting it,” Ganglati scolded me gently as she tugged on my elbow. Where she touched, I felt a disquieting sensation – as if worms were wriggling around inside my arm. I shrunk back from her in alarm as she tisked and shook her head. “That won’t do, won’t do at all. If I scare you, how are you to face my Mistress?”

“My… apologies, honored Ganglati,” I said with a shamed blush while inspecting my feet. “That took me by surprise. It won’t happen again.”

“See that it doesn’t. Now scoot, off with you,” she said, making shooing gestures to urge me forward.

Reluctantly I raised my head to look at the one place I’d been avoiding: where Hela sat waiting in silence, still as a statue. Even at this distance, I could see the left side was showing bone, while the right was pale flesh. With a deep breath I gathered my courage and slowly approached. She wasn’t on her bone throne, three steps up from the floor. Rather, she was on a three-legged wooden stool, hands folded together in her lap, gazing steadily forward. Her robe was of flowing black silk, long sleeved, yet showing her skeletal hand. Shiny black hair cascaded down her shoulder on the right, while rotten patches of skin and hair barely held onto the left.

I stopped three paces away from her, eyes down, hands clasped, while she looked up at my face from her humble seat. A wave of nausea hit me with the scent of decaying meat. I gagged, but managed to still my stomach.

“May I approach, mighty Queen of the Dead whose power extends to all beings?” I said as soon as I could trust my voice.

“You may.” Though she whispered, it felt like every dark nook of the room echoed her words, raising the hair on the back on my neck with the sense of unseen eyes upon me. “Why are you here?” she rasped.

Mary née Arden had been dead for over half an hour now, as time had resumed, and I hoped my request wasn’t beyond her abilities. Our powers had greatly diminished in Midgard over the last few centuries as human faith had waned.

Still, I had to ask, and took another step closer. “I am here to beg a boon, that a spirit be sent back to my old body so my son may have a mother.”

“He already had a mother,” she said with a voice like the wind’s, “and she died. That is the way of things. He will live longer yet.” A sound followed her dismissive finger-flick, like that of cracking twigs.

“I… I know. But I can’t bear to continue my duties without providing for him,” I said.

Her good eye bore into me. “Your sister can raise him. Is that not good enough?”

My breath quickened. She didn’t understand; I had already paid too high a price to be denied. “That won’t do. I won’t have it!” I said a bit too loudly.

“Ah,” she said, cocking her head. “You mean to break from the natural order, to ‘bend the rules’ as they say, and have things as you wish rather than as they are.”

“Yes,” I answered, staring at her empty eye socket.

“There is a price.”

“I will pay it.”

“A life for a life. That is how it has always been. Whose life will you offer in trade?” she asked pointedly, a lopsided smile gracing her face.

Behind me I heard hooves on stone, and turned to see Mordgud leading Hoof-Tosser to us. How could she have fetched him so fast, and more importantly… why? With a sinking feeling in my gut, I feared I wouldn’t like the answer.

[Suggested musical accompaniment to reading,  click to open this Youtube in a new tab]

“He is but a horse, though an exceptional one,” she commented pleasantly, “and I could use another death-steed. His life belongs to you, thus by right you may sacrifice him to me.” She gestured to the dagger, still in my left hand as I’d had nowhere else to put it. “Slay him and the deal will be done.”

Mouth open, I turned to look into my companion’s big sad eyes.

Hoof-Tosser, I thought at him, I…

He didn’t answer, just held my gaze for a while, then lowered his head in submission. My life is, as it has always been, in your hands my Mistress.

I bit my lip, squeezing the knife tighter as I approached. His gray mane was silky soft under my hand, like the infinite tenderness of our friendship. My eyes filled with tears as I caressed him, holding back a sob.

We’ve had a good ride, Gna, he said. You’ve given me back the life I lost and thought I’d never find again. From you I learned the love of a true partner, and to you I gave counsel as best I could. I am sad to go, but nothing lasts forever. I know how much your son means to you. You’ve said little but your deeds have proven it. Just… make it quick. Don’t make me suffer needlessly.

He raised his head high, fat tears pearling down his jowls as he exposed his neck.

I patted his chest affectionately and shook my head. “I can’t do this. I can’t.”

“Then,” said Hela sternly, “we have no deal, and your long journey was in vain.”

“No it isn’t,” I said as I turned to her, wiping tears with the back of my hand as I held her deathly gaze. “There is only one life I can rightly give, and that life is mine.”

“Indeed, “ she said, her tone intrigued. “You would sacrifice yourself so that your son has a mother? Know that I would not send your spirit to be with him. Another would take your place, and you would serve among my subjects, trapped in the realm of death for as long as I deem appropriate.”

Clenching my jaw I nodded, fresh tears flowing now for myself.

No, Gna, said my stallion, don’t do it. I am expendable. You can find another steed. Frigga and the worlds need you!

“They don’t!” I said angrily as I turned to him. “The time of Goddesses has passed. Few even remember my name, and I’m tired of passing myself off to mortals as the Virgin Mary. Giants keep to their own, no one needs a diplomat or messenger. I am obsolete, and Frigga merely keeps me busy with meaningless errands. It is,” I choked out, “time for me to go. No one needs me anymore, and I believe Vör’s visions of our renewal are little more than wishful thinking”

I hugged him fiercely as I whispered: “I love you like no other, and you are truly best of horses.” He trembled in my arms as I breathed in his scent, then released him to approach and stand before my death – lest I lose my nerve.

“Here is the blade I was given,” I said as I offered the hilt. “Only now do I finally understand Frigga’s desperation. A mother will gladly give up her life for her child, as I do now. Take mine in trade – restore Mary Shakespeare to care for her son William – if it is within your power to reverse her death and decay.”

She stood, accompanied by the sound of crackling branches as she straightened out. I put one knee on the cold floor before her and she took the knife.

“What you ask,” her smoky voice whispered, “cannot be undone. Are you certain?”

“I am,” I nodded, biting my lower lip to the point of blood.

“Then stand up child. I have no need of a knife for this.”

Her bony hand came up to cup and caress my face, almost affectionately. Mother of all Dead, that is how they call her, I remembered Frigga saying. Her hand went down to my neck, cradling it, and for a moment I saw what looked like regret flash across her living eye. Then her thumb bone sank into my throat as she slowly started squeezing. I struggled to get away, my body involuntarily rebelling against its death, but it was as futile as trying to uproot an oak. Her arm stood perfectly still as I choked, my hands covering hers as I gasped for breath.

Wheezing sounds came out. I felt light headed and the dagger clattered to the ground. Her living hand came to rest against my chest to steady me as I shook, more and more violently desperate for air.

I couldn’t think anymore, reduced to the mind of a trapped animal screaming silently to continue living.

“Shhhh…” she said, and my heart stopped, limbs going limp. I blinked, and I think she kissed my forehead as I blacked out. Strange disjointed visions accompanied my journey into death.

 ≡

I dreamed I was a corpse floating down along the snowy banks of a river – face up, feet first, my body numb and frozen blue. My skin mirrored the true paleness of the sky, contrasting the royal blue gambeson I wore, and my loose blonde hair fanned out behind me. Barely able to feel the difference between the icy waters flowing below and the frigid air blowing above, I felt a mist rising from my chest, visible like a breath in winter. I blinked with frost covered lashes.

 ≡

Wind blew and I found I was that mist, being scattered through a cloudy sky. I thinned to nothing and then was no more.

 ≡

Disembodied, I was now in a torch lit cave. I existed only to witness a thief filling a wooden chest with his ill-gotten gains, giggling maniacally. Yet when I inspected his loot, it was a lung and a liver he piled onto other organs. He gazed at his treasure with lusty greed, then looked at me.

“She’s almost ready,” he said with a smile.

 ≡

I was sitting on a row-boat, a tall elderly man pushing us forward through the marsh with a long staff. It made a sucking sound every time he extracted the stick from the muck before plunging it in again further. Reeds surrounded us in the fog. He turned to me and said: “You’re not there yet. Sleep a while longer, child.”

 ≡

I was a small child sitting on a stool at an enormous table, trying awkwardly to stab a beet with a small knife. Mother loomed on the other side, a giant to me now, smiling sweetly. Beyond her and the table was only darkness.

“Eat your vegetables dear,” she said, “if you want to get big and strong.”

“Yes Mama,” I nodded, but every time I tried to spear the darned thing it slid away. “I’m trying Mama, but I can’t get it.”

“That’s all right dear, why don’t you chew on the bones?”

“Okay Mama!” I grabbed a bone, but there was no meat on it. I looked up, feeling miserable and hungry.

Mama smiled and took a slice of raw meat from the table, draping it over my bone.

“Thank you Mama!” I took a bite.

 ≡

“Here is an egg,” said the dowdy cook, handing it to me before adjusting her white bonnet, “and here is a chicken.” It was a cute and fuzzy yellow chick. “All you have to do is put it back in the egg.” Holding one in each hand, I puzzled how to do this.

She cracked another egg, letting the innards flow out onto the floor, then put the chick in the now empty shell. “And that’s how it’s done,” she said with a smile.

 ≡

I opened my eyes, finding myself on a wooden table in a small cramped kitchen. This felt real, unlike those visions. Black pots hung above me from the low stone ceiling. The smell of cooking herbs was strong.

“You’re awake, good.”

I looked to the side. Fire was burning beyond the arch of the oven. It was hot in here. Beside it stood an old woman. Ganglati, her name is Ganglati.

“We had to warm you up,” she said. “Being dead makes you stiff, and you’re no use to us if you can’t move.”

My answer came as a croak.

“Water, of course. Here ya go.”

I turned onto my side and gratefully took the wooden bowl, draining it all.

“Gah, what’s that taste in my mouth! It’s like a rat died in there.”

She merely chuckled, and I realized I could feel my body again.

“Am… am I dead now?” I asked with a quiver in my voice.

She tilted her hand back and forth a few times. “Not exactly. You’re just a little dead. That’s more useful to us. You’re still mostly alive, so don’t worry your pretty head about it dearie. Mostly it means you’re… how to put it… more of Hel than of Asgard now. You’ll be free to go anywhere in Her Ladyship’s realm, and carry out Her will beyond it.”

“Useful? I thought I’d be one of the dead, like Baldr.”

“Oh no,” she answered with a toothy grin, “She likes to keep him right here. His light brings the dead a lot of peace and such. You, however, you’re going to be a Hel-Maid – whooshing about and all that, doing the sky-flying you’re so fond of. Same as before, just under new colors.” She pointed to a pile of clothing laid out on a rickety chair. They looked almost like the ones I’d left at Mordgud’s tower, save that they were black and stitched in silver thread.

“Welcome to your new job,” she announced with a curtsey, “for ye are now a Messenger of Death.”

 


 

Note: A bit delayed, but this one’s a seven page chapter!

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Comments
  1. Teka Lynn says:

    I wasn’t expecting that! New jobs open as old ones wither.

    Like

  2. Jessica says:

    Linda, I am ready for part 7 now, please.

    Like

    • lofnbard says:

      I’m working as fast as I can! I have a bunch of chapters written ahead and ready to go, but as I tried to post chapter 7 I got pulled into adding another one before it (this happened with Gefjon’s story too). That new one got nixed from above and the file lost. As I tried to rebuild it from memory it took a different turn. The draft I thought was good… had serious issues my editor pointed out. So I’m rewriting it and expanding it, but I had to put it down a few days so I could face it fresh. All I can say is, it’ll be good, and I’m on it. I hope to have chap 7 ready by next week, but if not my spirit-worker heroine of Not The Tree will show off her skills. 🙂

      Like

    • lofnbard says:

      Good news! Chapter 7 is finally done, edited, and should be appearing later this week.
      An unusually difficult one, it’s my fourth rewrite of that chapter.

      Chapter 8 was mostly written (at the same time as version 2) and hopefully won’t need too much tweaking to fit. You’ll get to see more of her time in Helheim than originally planned. 🙂

      I hope Not The Tree was entertaining filler during the wait… Now back to Gna!

      Like

  3. sonyjalerulv says:

    Another test of character for Gna. 🙂 Take Hoof-Tosser’s life, or offer her own. The part where Gna protest her usefulness was painful to read. Her desperate determination shine through really cleary.
    And then the surprise about who her son is! For me at least it was a surprise, on the first read. Well done!

    Like

  4. lofnbard says:

    Yeah, you kinda feel for the gods who had relations with us, being forgotten and ignored for so long. Gna isn’t a powerhouse in the Nine Worlds, nor of particularly high status in the pantheon. She’s a kid who’s good at carrying messages between worlds. When there were worshipers in Midgard, this was a very important function, but now not so much. She had an even older function, which is hinted at by the drum who is also a horse, but that too has become irrelevant.

    I’ve been waiting for someone to comment on her son, can’t believe it took this long! I had this nagging thought of a Mary and a John as family for her in the first chapter, and a writer in the 1500’s. I thought she was Mary, daughter of a man named John, but I found none that involved writing. Then I found a Mary married to a John,… parents of William Shakespeare. Okay. That’s a bit much, but whatever. I’ll run with it and people can believe it or not, no skin off my back.

    In doing more research however, I discovered that John signed his documents with glover’s compasses, and that his wife Mary signed with the drawing of a running horse. WHAT?!? Gna is pretty much defined by her relationship with Hoof-Tosser, the only goddess I know of who is said to have a horse in the lore. That’s a fairly obscure piece of information, and being French with minimal interest in Shakespeare, not one I’m likely to have run across. Was Gna *really* the mother of the famous Bard? I don’t know, but this is a pretty eerie coincidence.

    Like

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