Riddles still belong to Tolkien.
Warning: Potential body horror.
Notes: Hopefully it will be clear enough, but Hel refers to Angrboda as "mother" and Loki as "mama" (I've combined a couple of myths here).
comes first and follows after
It cannot be seen, cannot be felt,
Cannot be heard, cannot be smelt.
It lies behind stars and under hills,
And empty holes it fills.
It comes first and follows after
Ends life, kills laughter.
Hel is born in the shadow between the stars, in the breathless dark and the confluence of her mother's death and her mama's desperation.
She remembers this—the moment of her making and of her birth—not as a story told to her by another, but as a misty shape, faintly glimpsed in a mirror, a shape that wears her own face. She remembers it because she was there, as she has always been.
Later, after she is born and grown somewhat, she does hear the story. It is never told directly to her, nor is it ever intentional, on anyone's part, that she hears it. But Hel is a shadow in this world, and she hears everything. How the Aesir took a Jotun witch and burned her, and how, after, Loki came and ate the witch's heart and got himself with child.
It's the witch, they whisper to one another, that makes Hel what she is. It's her heart that makes her rot.
Hel knows this is a lie, but it's the kind of lie that is really true. And she likes the idea that she is like her mother, somehow. She likes the sense of binding ties across time and space and other lies.
But Hel has never been bound by the rules of place. Born in the space between stars, she learned early how to be nowhere at once. So early that it is just as true to say she has always known. There is nowhere she has not been, nowhere she is not now.
She unsettles the Aesir, during that very short time she lives with them, and she knows it. She is too quiet, too sudden, too sharp edged and oddly gentle at all the wrong times.
Hel is a girl with deep-pool eyes and hair like a summer's night—that is, sudden darkness shot through with sudden dancing light. Her smile is warm and strange, all-encompassing but not quite directed at any one thing. It fades when she focuses her eyes too sharply, or else, some have said, it has teeth in it.
Most, though, prefer not to speak of Hel's teeth.
Her shape, they say, is strange. Not for itself, but for the effect it leaves, the sense of forgotten knowing.
Heimdall says, "She is half—" but can't seem to finish. Thor says, "She stops—" but doesn't know what she stops. Freyja, who knows more of shapes than any true daughter of the Aesir, says, "She is terribly beautiful," and means every word, exactly so.
Bragi, accounted wisest with words, says, "She is a monster."
It is a good word, as words go. A word she has in common with her mother, and her brothers. But not her mama. (Not yet.) Hel smiles when she hears it, a brief shine of teeth in the dark.
It is a truth, but not the only one. Hel is a mirror held up against the world, a darkling glass that hides more than it shows.
And words are a power of their own. Hel's mama makes a place among the Aesir with sharp-edged words and cleverly shaped tales, but Hel's power is found in silence, in the gaping spaces between words, the shadows that flow between things spoken.
She is not long among the Aesir before her banishment, and this does not surprise her. She is a shadow of fear in their minds, a nameless wordless thing that waits in the dark, just beyond the lights of the mead hall, just behind the final verses of song. So she is quickly sent away, out of sight and out of thought, except for distant plans and Odin's dim talk of endings.
At least, so the words go.
But in the dark spaces between the words, she remains. When the decree comes, she meets the Aesir with a smile (but none of them can meet her teeth) and herself walks calmly off the edge of the world, into her new kingdom, into a place that is already (has always been) hers, where she is already and has always been, just as she is everywhere and nowhere else.
And she remains as she always has—everywhere, and nowhere. In the shadows between the brightly lit mead halls, in the silences between words, in the prophecies which are more unspoken than spoken, in the darkness that haunts Odin's thoughts and Balder's dreams and Frigg's endless silent vision.
She builds her hall from mists and laughter and the remembered stories of the children who come to her, and the food and drink she serves are nameless things that have no equal. To those who live in the brief spaces between silences, who live in light and words, her hall is a place as monstrous as herself.
But to her guests, to the children and the women and the creaking old men and all the shameless dead, whose need for light and fear has passed, to them silence can only be a refuge. So Hel is where she has always been, sharp edged and gentle, and she welcomes all who come to her.
One day, perhaps, she will welcome the floundered gods themselves.