A HELA HALF-ROTTED
THE NIGHT POOL
The air of Asgard was leaden with heat, warming up a day that was perfect for its children to assemble at their favorite pond once their labors at Bragi's boring little school were over. Nearly two dozen young people splashed and dove and shrieked and ducked one another as the sun made its slow way across a blue sky lightly flecked with puffy clouds.
Hela Lokisdottir sat on the bank watching them, swaddled in her customary gown and cloak, its hood carefully concealing the left side of her face. She had never been in a pond - bodies of water in Jotunheim were cold enough to stop your heart if you were addled enough to dive into one. Neither could she swim as the children before her because she had little strength in her left side and feared that if she tried she would sink like a stone.
Ullr was away, busy helping his stepfather Thor. Hnossa's mother Freyja, the goddess of beauty, had taken it into her head that if her child insisted on spending time with that monster daughter of Loki she might as well stay home, and so there she was. Hela called no attention to herself, for today she lacked reinforcements if trouble reared its head.
And sure enough, it did. Several boys began to crow at her.
"She looks like an old toadstool growing on the bank," one of them shouted. It had sounded like Otkel, but Hela did not favor him with a response.
"Be careful if she touches the water," another called out. "The fish will go belly-up if she does."
She said and did nothing, only wrapping her long sleeve around her emaciated left hand even more tightly.
"Don't let her touch you! Don't let her come near the water or we'll all be struck dead!" several boys sang.
Luckily, they lost interest and resumed their games. Several girls emerged from the pond in their unselfconscious beauty, their long and strong limbs glistening with drops of water and taken for granted. They suddenly began to elbow one another and giggle.
Seemingly from out of nowhere raced Ullr, kicking off his sandals as he ran toward the edge of the pond. "Get clear now, here comes the king!" he shouted, cannonballing into the clear water with a great splash.
Some of the backwash landed on Hela who laughed aloud, not that anyone would have noticed. The other children shunned her as profoundly today as they ever did.
The drops of water felt good and Hela wished with all her heart that she could join the others, but shame kept her rooted to the spot as surely as a tree eternally becomes part of the very ground that gives it nourishment.
Hela told her father Loki at supper that night about the sunny day and the swimming children, and how she had only sat and watched the fun.
He was distracted, as was often his manner with her; only half-listening and tearing pieces of bread to smear in a dish of butter.
The girl watched the servants as they busied themselves around the pair, feeling ashamed that she had even bothered her father - a god of Asgard - with such trivialities. Hela then sat on the front steps of her father's hall, watching the sun set and the fireflies setting up their evening watch. She realized that she was more tired than she had thought and retired to her small bed for the evening.
It was in the dead of that night that Loki shook her awake.
At first, she thought something was wrong - had her father heard any news about her mother? Her hand rose to her throat anxiously and then she saw his grin.
"Come on, Hela," Loki said. "We're going swimming."
By the time the pair had reached the pond, the moon - full and white and so bright it hurt one's eyes to look at it - had risen and was halfway through its journey across the sky. Her father wore a tunic and a pair of trousers and had just kicked off his sandals after he set her down. Hela wore only her nightgown, but this was no bother as the night air was as warm as the smooth expanse of water that lay before them. "I can't swim, Father," Hela whispered nervously.
"You don't have to whisper, child; there's no one around at this hour. You don't have to know how to swim at any rate. Here, I'll go in first. Here we go!"
Without another word Loki Laufeyarson charged into the water with an exclamation of delight. "It feels like a heated washtub; it's wonderful!" he cried. "Now, you come in after me."
Hela had neither her special shoe nor a cane to aid her; her father had carried her here. She stumbled as she made her careful barefoot way to the water's edge, taking her father's hand just in the nick of time and easing herself into the pond.
The water was delightful. Her excitement rose along with the water level as it climbed to her knees and flowed over her waist. Her father reached over and caught her under her arms, holding her head above water as he walked deeper into the pool.
Soon they were in the middle. Of course, Loki - being the natural dramatist he was - was soon treading water, having looped his girl's arms around his neck. "Glub blub glub," he mugged, pretending he was drowning much to the delight of his daughter. She raised his two black braids above his head in her hands. "Here, Father! I will hold you up!"
After a moment of shared laughter, the Trickster said, "Let's go under, shall we?"
Hela was struck with real terror at this. "Father, I have a hard time breathing as it is! Please, no!"
"Trust me," he replied, still grinning. "Hold your nose, here we go!"
Hela Half-Rotted felt the water surge over her ears, filling them instantly. She struggled to escape his grasp but Loki held on tight. They sank deeper and deeper. Hela's eyes flew open and her hands desperately beat at the water as she became convinced for just a split second that her father meant to get rid of her at last.
But no! Loki had descended to the bottom of the pond so he could get a good purchase on the bottom with his bare feet. Suddenly, the two shot up and out of the water. Hela's shriek and Loki's laughter split the silence of the night.
Hela gasped for air, then clung to her father's neck once again.
"Ready to try it again? Don't worry, I won't let you be hurt!"
The girl nodded and her father tossed her away from him through the air. She hit the water backward, hands flailing. In a flash, he dove under her and the pair of them shot upward once again. Her shrieks of fear gradually became laughter as they did it again and again; the God of Mischief and the future Queen of the Dead actually playing with one another in the warm air and the warmer water.
Hela used her imagination that night, a treat that gave her exquisite joy, and she never told a soul.
The buoyancy given to her by the water had transported her into a fairy; a Valkyrie; a lovely unnamed flying beauty who soared through the air and gracefully became one with the liquid surrounding her. Her left side was no longer deformed and weak; instead, the sparkling water had given her the strength to leap and dance in it.
Her father carried her to the shallower part of the pond and she spun around and around, small feet cutting the water with ease and pushing off the muddy bottom, long hair flying, her half-ruined face luminous in the moonlight. She was a beautiful thing, a gorgeous wonder! If the other children in Asgard could see her, they would be astounded at her grace and strength!
I love you Ullr, she sang to herself again and again and again that night as she whirled and danced.
Loki stood knee-deep in the warm water of that Asgard pond, his fine clothes saturated, watching the transformation of his poor crippled child more acutely than the girl would ever imagine. He heard her laughter and saw her smiling and suddenly the tears ran down his face and he could not have stopped them if he had tried his mightiest.
Finally, Loki backed up until he hit the bank and fell hard on his behind, and put his hands over his face and sobbed.
Hela spun and leaped, oblivious to her father's breakdown. Tonight, Loki's internal firewall had broken through to a long-buried reservoir of guilt, dissolving his considerable self-restraint. Old memories swamped him as he sat weeping on the muddy bank, nervously twisting the gold ring Allfather Odin had once given him in a futile attempt to ground himself.
It was true that twelve-year-old Hela herself carried her own burden of shame and self-loathing; buckets of it, barrels of it, vast incalculable flowing rivers of it. On this night, however, none of it troubled her mind as she splashed the surface of the water, sending up sparkling droplets that made her laugh with glee. After all - she was queen of beauty and magic and grace this night, and this tiny part of the Nine Worlds was hers to command.
She began to dive and sink below the water's surface, only to shoot up into the air again as her father had just taught her. She was getting good at it, her meager self-confidence in the ability of her body to do what she wanted it to do was rising by the moment. The imaginary crowd watching her were stunned by her awe-inspiring power and the beauty of the shape of her lovely frame.
The warm night air became Hela's shimmering cloak. The warm mud beneath her twisted and near-skeletal left foot was a soft wool rug woven just for her to dance upon. She laughed as her toes upended a sleeping turtle, whose evening's rest buried in the mud had been disturbed by the beautiful butterfly-girl's frolicking. Hela reached down and brought the poor fellow up, where he confusedly extended his long neck across the back of his shell to snap at her fingers.
"Oh, no you don't!" Hela laughed, letting the turtle escape in the soft grasses that clung to the side of the pool. It scurried away as Hela showered it with unspoken blessings for a long life filled with a plentitude of worms and grubs. "Farewell, you prince of the realm!" she cried, whirling.
As she played, her father continued to sit on the bank sinking deeper into whatever aberration of mind now overwhelmed him.
O Hela my fault I'm so sorry I screwed up
Loki vaguely heard his daughter sing a wordless little tune as she continued her splash-and-leap playing. It surprised him as Hela never sang.
That Jotun witch Eldrid was her name she drew me and I drew her like a moth to a flame no that's not right a bonfire no the whole world aflame just a dalliance hello and goodbye but she didn't want to say goodbye did she?
Loki moaned, inadvertently rubbing his forehead with muddy fingers.
And then she found out about Angurboda and the baby damn her soul she stalked her for weeks and neither of us knew it and it didn't help that I was dropping by her hall now and then for a harmless little visit or two or three or four it wasn't so harmless as it happened…
Hela, emboldened, now tried floating on her back, her thousands of admirers cheering her on as they beheld her magnificent feats of swimming skill.
Eldrid cursed my poor baby aflame with jealousy as she was Angurboda was too strong for her but an unborn baby was just the thing for vengeance o my poor little child awash in madness because of my dreadful dirty lust and pride I am so so sorry!
Loki drew his knees up to his chest and quickly realized that wet trousers did nothing to help sop his outflow of tears.
His thoughts turned to Hela's mother at that moment, a woman he strongly suspected was dead. Angurboda hadn't realized that her baby lay dead inside her until the next day, when no little kicks reminded her of the wee resident within her. Once she did, her shrieks of rage and despair filled the Ironwood and every sorcerer and witch she knew flew to her side. Angurboda had a vast network of alliances and friendships in Jotunheim and those she knew didn't let her down that day. They made haste to her hall, where two little boys named Jormungand and Fenrir stood crying as they watched their mother rage and cry and clutch her belly.
Many who knew the ways of the necromancer lay hands on her, desperate to convince the baby's soul to return. Others brewed reanimation potions and bade Angurboda drink. A wolf-maid gave the boys something good to eat as they worked over their mother and the poor dead infant she carried.
Loki had known all of this after the fact because Angurboda had let him know that the cost of his dalliances and betrayals was the blighting of their child's life; but for his perfidy Hela would have just been born another pretty little girl.
Later, when Loki held his newborn daughter for the first time he nearly vomited all over the floor of Angurboda's hall. Even a dullard would have been able to tell the girl-baby in his arms wasn't right. Hela had waved her stick-thin and withered little arm in her daddy's face as if to say hello. It was fortunate that she had been too young to realize that Loki silently thought her the most hideous mockery of an infant he had ever seen and that it turned his stomach to look upon her.
I pushed her back into your arms poor dead Angurboda my Jotun friend and ally and then I fled to Eldrid's hall where I broke down the door and snapped her neck like a twig and let her die on the floor along with my daughter's ruined life; Hela's wrecked and destroyed future!
Loki now flinched, startled by the sudden appearance of his daughter as Hela now weaved her way into his arms. Still crying, the man wrapped his arms around her and held her so tightly that her little ribs would ache for weeks.
My love for you is beyond comprehension my poor lost baby my blighted little child! May the gods of all pantheons forgive me for what I did to you!
Hela didn't understand why her father clutched her so tightly or why he continued to weep, with streaks of mud running down his handsome face. She reached deep into herself for a song her mother used to sing to her to soothe her and hummed it in Loki's ear, patting his back with utmost gentleness with her twisted and darkened fingers.
They were both all alone then, only having one another for support and comfort. They sat together on the bank for a long while as it took Loki a good deal of time to pull himself out of his overwhelming backwash of bitter and ugly memories. By the time he painfully rose again and summoned the strength to pick up Hela to carry her home, the first blush of light was visible on the far horizon of the lovely city of Asgard, home of the gods.
After the little family had returned for their respective baths and shared a breakfast of meat and eggs together, Loki's manservant came to the table and announced that Master Ullr had arrived to escort Hela to school.
Still elated by her experiences at the night pool, Hela stood and wound her cloak over her shoulders, doubling the sleeve around and around her shriveled left arm. She tossed the hood over her head, using a hank of black hair smoothed between the left side of her face and the edge of the hood to further shield herself from view.
Her father rubbed his green eyes with his fists, sighed, and gestured toward his daughter's feet. She rose her hem slightly so he could bend over and tie her sandals for her; Hela was able to do many things that all children can do but tying sandals was not one of them. The task completed, Loki then wrapped his arms around her bony little shoulders and pulled her close, telling her how dear she was to him and how much he loved her.
Hela blinked with surprise, for hearing about her father's love for her was something not to be looked for. She returned his hug and kissed his cheek. Smiling, the girl hobbled out the front doors of the Trickster-god's hall only to see Thor's war chariot, drawn by his two magical goats, awaiting her arrival on the street before her.
"Your carriage awaits, milady!" called Ullr, sweeping down into a hammy bow.
"What is all this magnificence?" the daughter of Loki laughed.
"Since I spent a good part of yesterday polishing it up and grooming the goats," the boy explained, "Father let me take it. Plus Mother saw you out and about yesterday and it looked to her like your foot pained you." Grinning, the sandy-haired boy strode forward, taking Hela's right hand and carefully helping her navigate the short flight of stairs which led from the hall to the street.
"Thank you," Hela Half-Rotted said, blinking hard so that she would not break down into the same sort of outpouring of emotion from which her father had suffered the night before. "You're really too good to me." She pronounced her words as carefully and precisely as Bragi himself had taught her. The god of song and poetry had made it his personal quest to help Loki's child overcome as many of her infirmities as she could.
Ullr led her to the back of the chariot, and then took his place at the reins.
In that moment Hela thought about how odd it was that the Aesir had dragged her from her home and yet how some of their number had gone out of their respective ways to help her. Tyr, the very god who had carried her shrieking from her mother's hall, had taken the trouble to cobble her a small raised shoe to help with her limp. Bragi had taught her (surreptitiously, of course) all sorts of little tricks she could use to speak more clearly, which was good because she was afraid to say anything in school for fear of the mocking laughter of many of her fellow students.
Frigga's maidservant Eir, who excelled at the healing arts, always responded to Loki's requests to attend his daughter when she had trouble breathing. She gladly came to the Trickster's hall to administer soothing draughts to ease the girl's suffering. After listening to Loki's explanation behind Hela's deformities, Eir had even expressed regret at being unable to do more for her.
Even the lovely Valkyrior had come to her aid, always in ways so subtle that nobody but Hela would have even noticed their mercies. They put as much food aside in Valhalla as they could, and gravely urged Loki to get as much meat and milk into the child as he possibly could. One of them had even grabbed hold of the fragile girl and, raising her great wings, had treated Hela to a flight far above the towers of Asgard that had thrilled the girl for weeks.
If only Allfather Odin would smile at her - !
"Wait, here I come!" a racing Hnossa cried out from the other side of the wide street. She bounded over to the chariot, her admirably long legs flashing from beneath her gown. "I'm out of Mother's eyeshot now, and what she doesn't know won't hurt her!"
All three children hooted with laughter as Freyja's daughter piled into the chariot, knocking into Hela. Both girls slid down to the floor, giggling like mad, their braided heads touching.
"Hush that caterwauling, Lokisdottir, or she'll hear me!" Hnossa shrieked, tickling Hela's side and sending the trio into new gales of laughter. Hela turned and sighed, catching Hnossa's eye and triggering more giggles. She tugged at her hood, making sure that she did not insult her friend by forcing her to look for even a second at her ugly face.
"Will you two stop shrieking back there?" Ullr cried. "You'll spook the goats, and then where will we be?"
"Hush up, you," Hnossa retorted, punching the boy's ankle.
"Shut up and drive," Hela added, shrieking with embarrassed laughter and shocked by her own uncharacteristic boldness.
She fought the growing lump in her throat; a lump consisting of feelings begging for expression. Here she was, being treated to the pleasure of having two wonderful friends who went out of their way not to make her feel like the freak she was, friends always eager to help her without making her feel pathetic. Her father had given up a refreshing night's sleep last evening to take her swimming, where she was allowed the fantasy of being beautiful.
Her happiness coming very close to overwhelming her, Hela interlaced the fingers of her right hand with Hnossa's left, and both girls then raised their heads to watch handsome Ullr driving Thor's war chariot toward their little school, proud and slow.