Hela Lokisdottir was at low ebb and knew it.
The tremor in her left extremities and her desire to curl up and sleep reminded her that not all was well with the ruler of Niflheim. She had traveled too far and had become too exhausted, but she was driven by necessity and by the exigencies of her job. In other words, it couldn't be helped.
She had come to Asgard unbidden as the result of a sudden and shocking misfortune delivered upon the youth goddess Iduna. It seemed that Hela's father Loki had gotten himself into yet another scrape with one of the frost giants and the price for his freedom had been a promise to steal Iduna's apples. No one in Asgard had figured this out, which was all to the better as Loki had enough difficulties as it was.
There were two problems with her father's actions. The first was that everyone in Asgard ate Iduna's golden apples every day, for that was what kept them from aging. The second was that the box that held them had been stolen along with the apples. These apples magically appeared with a tinkling sound whenever their blonde mistress closed the lid. Actually, there was a third problem, and that was that the Aesir - along with her father Loki - were now aging at a rapid rate without them.
Part of Hela's job was to warn groups of people from impending doom when it could result in a great dying. She often did this through dreams; it usually did little good as dreams get forgotten or the dreamer is laughed at by the very individuals who would be wise to heed such portents. Hela sighed, also weary from convincing Heimdall to let her cross Bifrost. She had explained to him that her delivery of such dire news was every bit as important as the work of the Nornir; he had looked at her through squinted eyes. Heimdall hated her father and everyone knew it. However, he finally relented, allowing the diminutive black-robed woman to cross into the City of the Gods.
She had cast an invisibility spell over herself before she hobbled up the hill leading to Valhalla, where Odin was hosting a great feast. There was nothing to celebrate, but people had to eat and they might as well do it together. It would not do to be seen at any rate; her pride could not take yet another assault from the Allfather and his henchmen before her task was complete.
She now recalled how Iduna's apples - as well as the goddess herself in that instance - had been stolen long ago due to yet another of her father's blunders. The giant Thiassi had captured him and had exacted from him a promise to bring the goddess of youth to him. Iduna had ultimately been rescued and Thiassi killed.
Hela wrinkled her nose. This is precisely how Ullr's wife Skadi had come to Asgard in the first place; she had come as Thiassi's daughter to avenge her father's death on the Aesir. Instead, the stupid woman was duped into choosing a husband by looking at his feet. She had chosen old Njord, who she later discarded. It was after that that she had gotten her hooks into Ullr, Hela's own winter god.
She realized that Skadi, and not she, had rights to him, but really. If Hela had been stronger and would not have been escorted back over Bifrost at the point of a sword beforehand, she would have gleefully snatched Skadi baldheaded.
The goddess of death continued her brooding and listless saunter. Fretting about Skadi did her no good because even if Ullr had been free as a singing bird, Lord Death would only permit him to live with her for six months of every year. His rules drove Hela to distraction, but she had never forgotten what had happened to her husband Dyggvi Domarsson and was mindful of following them to the letter.
There was an upside, of course, of having Lord Death's acquaintance. His infusion of power when he made her death goddess also put many new arrows in her quiver. Who knows, she might have to use a few of them tonight.
Arriving at the great door of Valhalla, Hela made herself visible, tossed back her hood, and walked right in.
Row after row of feasting gods, demigods and warriors from Midgard stopped eating and drinking almost simultaneously as they beheld the specter of death at the door. Hela almost laughed out loud. She now recalled coming in here as a child and being as ignored as one would ignore a beggar on the road, but that was then and this was now.
The little death goddess was as unwelcome as a violent thunderstorm at an outdoor celebration, and she didn't care. After all, she had her job to do and hadn't it been the Allfather himself who had forced her to do it?
Odin, being the inflated old blowhard he was, stood immediately. "Dreadful daughter of Loki!" he shouted. "You have no right to darken this door or to even leave your realm!"
Hela slowly let her eerie gaze - one eye green, the other, blind, covered with a white pall - fall upon him. "Actually, I have every right. Each one of you is dying, slowly and surely. Helheim readies itself for your residence, so govern yourselves accordingly and make your plans to leave this world."
The crowd began shouting denials at her. Hela took her time looking around the room, rather enjoying the commotion. Freyja was goggle-eyed with indignation and disapproval; Hela quickly noted that her daughter Hnossa was absent from the assembly. Iduna sat blubbing about her lost apples. Thor stood up, hand curled tightly around Mjolnir's handle. She quickly spotted her father and kept her peace; she did not need to add to his troubles by singling him out as an ally in this place.
With deliberation, she came closer to the throne of the Allfather, dragging her lame foot and drawing pleasure from intimidating those who had once called her a monster.
"Begone, Death!" Odin cried, pointing to the door, as if she didn't know where it was. "Go back to your dark realm! You are not fit company for such as us!"
"You cannot cast me out, you old fool," Hela shouted back. "I am no longer the poor child you banished years ago. Even you cannot defeat Death. Even you cannot cheat Death. It comes for you all, and woe to you all if you ignore my words!"
She saw a familiar flicker of movement on the right side of the hall. It was an elderly Ullr, moving away from an old woman who shouted at him and punched him in the shoulder. Skadi, that cow. Hela waited until he had left the hall and then caught her father's eye on the opposite side of the banquet table, tipping her head and urging him to make a hasty exit.
Loki seized Sigyn's arm, pulling her from her seat. "Let's go," he whispered. "She's going to lay waste to the place."
Once her lover and her father and his wife had left Valhalla, Hela stood straight and squared her shoulders, staring back into the Allfather's flushed and angry face.
"The apples of youth are gone," the death goddess said. "Unless this is rectified, you will all die, and soon. I have nothing to do with it; this is not my fault nor my doing, so spare me your venom."
Odin was furious. "How dare a misshapen creature such as you should tell the gods of Asgard that they are destined to die! You were cast out of here for good reason; you were a murderer at twelve and have borne the touch of death yourself since before you were born. Queen of the Dead, I order you to depart and never return to trouble us again!"
Another member of the Aesir stood and shook his fist at her. "Cursed! Cursed! Cursed!"
Hela's eyes narrowed. Waves of rage swept through her thin frame; she could scarcely breathe. She had only meant to enter, make her announcement, have a little fun with the people she disliked, and leave. But now Allfather Odin and his kin had hurt her once again, and this could not be borne.
Without another word, she raised her left arm and sent a pulse of energy through her bony hand.
She watched it ruffling the tablecloths and rippling through the crowd, and then listened to the shrieks of the assembled guests as death struck them. Men, women, and children all fell dead, slumped over their half-finished meals and knocking over their pitchers of mead. The food turned grey and disintegrated into powder. Great roasted cuts of meat were transformed into bone. Flowers wilted and collapsed into dust. The bonfires rose and then fell into smoking piles of ash. The only one she had spared was Odin, who was now screaming in outrage and grief.
Well, then, she thought; I will give him even more reason to shriek like a madman.
With a wave of her left hand, a multitude of reapers arose behind her, right through the polished granite floors of Valhalla and stood ready at her command to pluck the souls of the dinner guests and carry them off to Niflheim.
"Listen well, old man," Hela hissed. "You destroyed my family because of who we were, not what we had done or hadn't done. As mighty as you profess yourself to be, even you cannot defeat death. As I wield it in these Nine Worlds, enjoy my answer to your insults and mistreatment. Farewell, Allfather."
She turned and began making her slow and deliberate way to the entrance of Valhalla, stepping over goblets and the spilled trays of food left behind by the servants who had been serving the most glorious of the Aesir when they were stricken with death.
"Wait!" Odin shrieked.
Hela kept walking.
"Please!" he cried.
She stopped, but did not turn. She could hear him coming down the short flight of steps from the dais and toward her. Would he club her in the back of the head with a weapon? The reapers would fell him in a heartbeat if he moved against their queen. Would he fall to his knees and kiss her hem? Time would tell.
As it happened, Odin did neither. He simply stood weeping ceaselessly. Hela Half-Rotted let a full minute pass before she turned.
There he was, the King of Asgard, wiping snot from his face with his elaborately embroidered sleeve like a chastened schoolboy. Really, this was too much.
Hela Half-Rotted kept her silence and let time spin out between old man finally hit his knees.
"Please," he whispered in a cracked voice. "Please restore them. I apologize for my incivility."
She held her ground and looked down upon him. "Why?" she replied.
"Because if - as you said, we are all doomed without the apples - we will die shortly anyway, and you will gain your prizes. But what would it cost you to instead let our life-skeins run out according to our individual destinies?"
Hela brushed back a lock of pewter-colored hair. "I don't believe in destiny. We make our own, unless someone more powerful has burst into our lives and destroyed them to satisfy some whim of their own. Dead now or dead later, what difference can it possibly make to you?"
Odin wiped his eyes. "Then show us mercy, Queen Hela, if you have it to give."
"Acknowledge that you wronged me and my family."
"Acknowledge that you ruined my life and condemned me to live in the dark like some blighted weed when I should have lived out my days in the sunshine and under blue skies."
Hela did not say any more, choosing instead for the silence to make Odin even more uncomfortable than he was.
She also had a moment or two to think. Should she ask for the release of her brothers? Odin would never grant it. Should she ask to be restored to the existence she would have led but for the Allfather's actions? As much as she longed for such a life, Hela also realized that she had grown accustomed to the gloom and silence of a place where she was safely hidden away from prying eyes and clucking tongues.
She sighed. "Very well. Rise." She extended her right hand.
With some hesitation, Odin took it and allowed her to help him to his feet.
"You to the right and me to the left, then, Allfather?"
"I will not beleaguer you and you will not intrude upon me, through stealth or overtly, directly or indirectly."
"And done." And with that, Hela raised her left hand and waved the reapers away.
Once they had vanished, she raised her right. She hesitated.
"And, of course, Ullr will continue to spend his summers in Niflheim?"
"Of course," Odin sighed. "Now, please - bring them back."
A smooth slipstream of energy pulsed from the death goddess's hand, curling and bobbing and wafting its lazy way through the air, restoring life and action to everything dead and inactive. The bonfires blazed again, food rematerialized on plates, fallen guests came back to awareness and shook their heads in wonder as they looked upon each other and then embraced one another.
There would be no embrace for Hela Half-Rotted, who quietly slipped out the door and closed the two ponderous doors behind her with a bit of magic.
The banquet-goers would not remember what had happened to them. But Odin would. As long as he kept his word, Hela would have no need to return to the glorious hall of Valhalla - for her, a place of sadness and shame and loss.
She hobbled down the street making her way back to the Rainbow Bridge, tears spilling down her wretched face as she felt the loneliness burn through her. It still hurt so, even after all these years.
Still ugly; still bereft; still cast out; still - forsaken.
A strong and warm arm wrapped itself around her bony shoulders, and she looked up into Ullr's handsome face.
"Well, girl, you gave the old man quite the fright, didn't you?" He grinned and hugged her tight, kissing her wet face and not minding at all that she soaked his tunic with new tears of mixed hurt and relief. "Well, good for you. It's about time. He would cut out my tongue if he heard me speak so, but it's nothing but the truth."
Another warm hand grabbed hold of her right hand and held it tight.
"Like father, like daughter," Loki chuckled softly. "I know where the apples are, and I have a few tricks up my sleeve to restore them to that silly cow Iduna. And I'd better do so quickly, before you have me as a permanent guest at Elvidnir."
Hela smiled. "So it was you, then," she replied. "I should have known it. In the meantime, this is from me to you."
She broke free from both men and reached up with her right arm.
The death goddess touched their faces - first Ullr's and then her father's - and their wrinkles and graying locks vanished as they were restored to their former beauty.
"I love you," she whispered to them both.
Loki grinned. "And I love you, daughter."
"And I you," the winter god said with his usual calm good humor, picking her up by the waist and kissing her.
"What would I do without my two beloved men?" Hela Half-Rotted sighed, the strength of her emotions bringing a fresh wash of tears down her thin cheeks.
"Come on, my dearest darling," the Trickster said. "We'll take you home."