Hela Half-Rotted dreamed of Jotunheim.
Although she had only been in Asgard for a short time, her memories were the only things - beside her raven-headed cane - that her captors had allowed her to take from her childhood home.
She thought now of her mother – the leader of Jarnvid, the Iron Wood – always giving her special treatment as baby of the family. She remembered her brothers back home, always ready to play with her. She remembered their neighbors never shying away from her disturbing appearance. She remembered her father, who visited once in a while (always paranoid about being detected by the all-seeing Eye of Allfather Odin) and who brought them presents from Asgard. She remembered sitting in his lap and watching him perform magic to amuse her.
Oddly, it seemed like years since she had seen Jotunheim's rugged mountains and breathed its chill air. Now, Hela's life in Asgard was an exercise in discomfort and self-scrutiny, as what was normal in Jotunheim was considered monstrous in Asgard.
Hela didn't know what to say to people most of the time. Asgard's food upset her stomach and she found its humid air hard to breathe. She didn't know what had happened to her mother and her father wouldn't tell her. Loki had gravely instructed her to swaddle herself in heavy clothing to avoid curious stares because children were cruel and people would talk.
Today was a hot and sunny day in the land of the gods, and Hela now sat with others in a circle around Bragi, the god of song and poetry. He was the unofficial teacher of the young people of Asgard and Loki had seen to it that his daughter had joined the group. Hela was uncomfortable sitting there on the grass, overheated in her voluminous robes and mindful of not letting her withered left side show.
Since she was new to the land of the gods she had trouble understanding some of the words people used. The group sang a few songs (Hela didn't know any of them) and listened to Bragi tell them about Ymir, the first being who lived at the beginning of time. Gunnar had a cold and kept snorting his nose. Forseti occupied himself by pulling Hnossa's braid, which led to some shuffling and halfhearted punching. Ullr gazed at the clouds. Hela's meager lunch churned in her stomach, troubled as she was about a conversation she'd overheard that morning.
"I need her to come back home; that's all there is about it," Loki declared, pacing back and forth.
"Why do you expect her to come back?" Thor answered curtly, leaning back in his chair. "You know very well why she left."
Hela was in the next room drinking her milk. She knew her father spoke of Sigyn, his wife. It made her uncomfortable.
"She knows me. She married me knowing my ways. She needs to get over it," Loki spat, waving his arms expansively in his usual histrionic manner. "It isn't like this was the first time I transgressed."
"But this was the first time you had children with your 'friend', Loki," Thor returned. "What did you expect? Of course she took off when Tyr and I brought them into Asgard! So would any wife. After all, your sons turned into animals of all things and your daughter, forgive me, is a horror. Grow up, Loki, and don't hold your breath waiting for her to return!"
Loki huffed. "Ridiculous. She should have stood by me instead of running home to her mother. I really could use her help, especially with Hela. The girl is impossible. I told her to accept her fate and get used to it but she does nothing but cry."
Thor had no great love for Loki's children but the man's callousness sparked his ire.
"And look at you! A Jotun who tries to destroy Jotuns. A father who doesn't want to be a father. I'd cry too if I was Hela."
"Stop it, Thor," Loki retorted, not realizing that his daughter sat listening in the next room. "The last thing I need is for her to get worse. She has no friends. I'm always binding up her knees because she falls down so much. I can't understand her half the time because her mouth is malformed. Every night it's bad dreams and cry, cry, cry. If Sigyn was here, at least I'd get some sleep."
Thor shook his head. "You make me weary with your complaining, Loki. Sometimes I wish your mouth had been malformed rather than your daughter's! Me and half the city! I feel sorry for the girl, no less because you're her father." The god of thunder stood abruptly. "Well, if you tire of her, send her over to Thruthvanger. Sif enjoys seeing her and Ullr treats her well. If you ask me, Sigyn is wise to stay where she is rather than to put up with you and your constant bellyaching!"
Hela had sat dumbstruck next to the hearth, the shock of what her father had said sending waves of shame coursing through her. She fought the impulse to get up and run out of Loki's hall and to just keep running until she fell down, which seemed more likely.
"What is it, Hela?" said Hnossa, noticing that the fragile girl next to her was beginning to tremble.
"I don't feel well. I'm so hot. I think I'm going to throw up."
Hnossa looked up at Bragi and cried, "Hela is sick! I think she needs to go home."
"Maybe she looked in a mirror," quipped Gunnar in an uncharacteristically witty comment. Ullr instantly punched him in the back of his head.
Bragi had carried the girl to her father's hall. Ignoring her father's eye-roll (which he executed flawlessly), Bragi laid her down on her bed and excused himself, urging the string of children who had followed him there to return with him to resume their studies.
Loki sat down and pushed aside his daughter's heavy hood, exposing her thin face.
"What's the trouble, young one?"
She blinked up at him. "I got so hot and sick. And I heard what you said to Thor about Sigyn. I'm sorry she left because of me." A tear rolled down the ruined side of her face and soaked into the pillow.
"So this isn't so much about stomach as it is about heart," Loki said, dropping his gaze. "I'm sorry you overheard. I didn't mean to upset you."
The girl lay there trembling, desperately needing her father to sweep her into his arms and hold her tight. But he did not, entangled as he was with his own self-obsession.
"The situation with Sigyn is – complicated," Loki sighed. "A child wouldn't understand. And it wasn't you. It was – me. Sometimes your father doesn't make the best choices."
"Was I a bad choice?"
"Of course not." He smoothed her hair. "What has happened to you and your brothers is – regrettable. What I did fell onto you. What I am fell onto you. Odin is angry with me, so he is angry with you and your brothers. I wanted Sigyn to meet you, but she didn't. It was – "
"Regrettable," Hela finished for him, her tears soaking into her twin braids.
Loki's wife sat in her mother's garden, surrounded by sunlight and birdsong.
"Sigyn, would you like something to eat?"
The young woman shook her head. Sigyn's mother – being a mother – understood and withdrew.
Sigyn's heart was full of bitter regret. She had learned from virtually everyone in Asgard, except her own husband, about Loki's children. She had confronted him about it and all she had heard was lies and excuses. Her heart sickened, she had resolved to leave and had packed her things while Loki stormed around her, consumed with self-pity and self-centered fear.
She had been young and guileless and all she had wanted was to get away to sort things out. Anyone would understand such a desire. Anyone but Loki, that is.
As she had been leaving the city, she had heard the commotion as Thor and Tyr entered it with their burdens from the land of the giants. Sigyn had run along with the growing crowd.
What was this? A serpent? A wolf?
"Shapeshifters," a woman had hissed nearby. "Dark Jotun magic. Who knows what curse these creatures bear?"
Fenris and Jormungand had frightened Sigyn to her very soul. She had watched them pass, howling and twisting and fighting their restraints. Her husband had not told her of this.
Then she had seen the little girl hobbling toward her with a cane, a rope around her wrist. So small and thin. All wasted on one side, as if she was half-dead. She had been crying and calling for her mother in such a small voice that to Sigyn it had sounded like a breeze rattling through the trees!
What pained the young woman now is that she easily could have taken the five steps over to her and wrapped Hela's distorted little body in her arms to ease her fright. But fear, uncertainty, and embarrassment had prevailed in that moment and Sigyn had not moved, frozen in place until the procession had passed. Disturbed, she had slipped across Bifrost and had headed to the home of her upbringing.
Loki's wife was well-known for her compassion and kindness (how else could she have tolerated her husband?), and yet she had shown neither when it had counted the most. For this, she would never forgive herself.
She dropped her head in her hands and wept.
Ullr and Hnossa sat by Hela's bedside, watching her sleep. It was their first time in Loki's hall and they were both on their best behavior.
It was fortunate that the girl slumbered because she was without her cloak and hood, and knowing that her friends could see her unmasked would have sent her into blind panic. Loki stood in the doorway, lost in thought. Maybe if he sent one of his servants to the house of Sigyn's mother to plead his case, she would come back to him.
The two young people wordlessly studied for the first time the Jotun girl's twisted and skeletal fingers; her hollow and discolored face with its jutting cheekbone and sunken eye; how her clothes lay flat against the left side of her thin frame. After a little while Ullr sighed and leaned over, running his fingers lightly across the dark side of Hela's sleeping face. Hnossa looked up at him expectantly.
"She's a little cold," he whispered. "Better than too hot."
"She's not so bad, is she?" the girl whispered back.
"She still looks like our friend to me," Ullr replied.
Loki withdrew, resolving now to do what he could to ensure the return of his bride. After a little while, the two children quietly left the Trickster God's hall to return to Bragi and their little school under the trees.
The sleeping girl sighed and rolled onto her unmarred side, still dreaming of the home now lost to her forever.
That sunny afternoon had been filled with love for Hela Half-Rotted – if only she had known it.