A/N: If you have a moment after reading, dash on over to my profile for the link to some art for this arc.
To Ride Upon Svadilfari
The Four Laws of Thermodynamics
The Dragon was rising in Harry's eyes, which gleamed a gold far warmer than Hel's. With a movement that seemed almost unconscious on his part, his hands rose, clasping Hel's elbows. Hermione, still agog with astonishment, didn't know what to make of it, whether he was affected by Hel's offer or if he did so because the movement left him with his thumbs hooked over the vulnerable tendon in the crook of the joint.
Perhaps both. Harry wasn't unaccustomed to being propositioned at first sight, being who he was, but the ancient queen of a Realm so wholly under her rule that it was known by her name was something quite outside the ordinary.
Even from where she stood, Hermione could track the dilation of his pupils, black swallowing up the gold until only the faintest corona remained. A sound began to pervade the hall and it was only after long seconds that Hermione realized the resonant tone was Harry humming, a note deep and full as a great bell tolling. The air seemed to almost vibrate and though he remained in his between-form, he had all the presence he commanded as a dragon.
One hand traveled upward, fingers ghosting over Hel's hair, traveling to the curve of her jaw, then to her elbow once again. "With gold and flesh and magic they built you," he rumbled. "Enough to drive one mad. But I'm not weak enough to be snared so easily or to be led astray by the music of a treasure not mine." Still, regardless of his words, Hermione could see how taut the muscles in his jaw were.
"But I could be yours, if it suited you better," Hel said, not at all visibly perturbed by Harry's rejection. She moved away just far enough so that she could turn her head to look toward the others, Hermione in particular, though Hermione noted that her gaze narrowed when she tried to focus it on her. Not in a fierce or angered expression, but with the furrowed perplexity of someone gone unexpectedly near-sighted. "One companion for another, the Ghostlord for the one you've come to seek. You could make him yours," she spoke with a confidence in possession that Hermione wasn't certain she shared. But Hel, in a way that Hermione didn't fully understand, was an aspect, a sovereign entity, of Death, something less and different than an incarnation, beyond time in a way the æsir weren't; perhaps she also shared the Vanir propensity for seeing through the present.
Before Hermione could make any sort of answer or contemplate too deeply the implications of her advances if that was the case, Harry answered for himself. "Understand, first of all, that I have never been one for choosing 'between' when there is no need to. There are few things you could do to put me off like making this an 'or' choice. Second, stalking me for six days does not constitute the basis for a healthy relationship. Whatever you managed to perceive about me, I know less than anyone else in this room about you. And the fallout from a divorce from the Queen of Hel-well, I think that's best not contemplated. It would certainly give 'repent at leisure' new meaning. Also, what is with you people and titles? Silvertongue, Liesmith, Allfather-and those are the easy to recall ones, though the 'Hanged God' or 'Ruler of Gallows' has a way of sticking in one's memory. And now 'Ghostlord'?"
"There's kennings, Harry," Hermione explained automatically. "They're a poetic device used in old poetry when an ordinary noun doesn't suit. Or rhyme. You ought to be flattered-it means you're important enough to memorialize in song and saga."
"I've been memorialized in song and saga and tawdry newspaper articles since I was a toddler," Harry replied, "so the allure has waned a little. Though I am flattered, Hel." He returned his attention to the being in question. "Truly. To have drawn your attention-you who've seen so many souls pass into your kingdom, either means I have to call your taste into question or simply take it as a compliment. Or as a trap," he said more seriously, frowning down at Hel's slighter form.
"Not a trap-all deals offered by rulers of the dead are in earnest, just as the gods of sovereignty and battle are capricious and cruel and no trickster god ought be trusted at all unless all the world else is arrayed against you. If you did elect to become my consort, I would freely release Baldur to your party without prejudice. But as I see that is not what you presently desire, I will not press you, though one day you will stand at my side."
Harry's eyes narrowed as he released his grip, Hel stepping back toward her throne. "I very much do not like prophecy."
"And it is not one of the gifts I profess to possess, but force of will and determination will avail much when it comes to swaying hearts. Your heart appears unwon, so I will have it. Still, we have all of time that remains, so I should first address the reason that the formerly War-merry sent his ablest sons down into the deeps of the World Tree, when he was loath to do so when Baldur first was slain. Has his favor left you, O loudest and least subtle of all the æsir? Unlike your brother, you have no art to win it back and the Father of the Age has grown sentimental and soft in his dotage-no longer is it possible to secure his favor by offering him the raven's lot. So down the Tree did the mighty Thor climb, there to win the soul of the god of light."
She sat and pulled her feet up beneath her again. "At his side were strange gods and old friends and a brother with whom he'd made war. And after six days of darkness he came before the mighty throne of Held and beheld her terrible visage," she said with a great sardonic relish, "the monstrous girl-child of Loki, Wolf-father, Serpent-father, Bringer of the End of Days."
"They also said I was the god of fire, of all things," Loki remarked complacently, with a faint humor that only those privy to his jotunn nature could really share. "I think the only one they managed to render faithfully was Thor. Not a difficult thing, when all it involved was showing up on occasion to crush skulls."
Hel smiled faintly, but the corners of her lips were tugged inexorably downward as she peered again at Hermione, gaze traveling to her white-blond silent shadow looming at her shoulder. It was unnerving to realize Bleiki was so close, but even more unnerving how he seemed at times to slip from her awareness, as if he'd always kept her company, not been the companion of a few short weeks.
"Strange gods," she repeated. "Looking at you is like staring a rough-cut jewel in murky water-no matter how long or how intently I study, you do not become any clearer. I can only understand you and my lord inasmuch as I share sovereignty of a common aspect. He is fire, blazing white-hot in darkness, so much so that the greater risk is being blinded rather than overlooking his power. Death is a cold thing here, so this heat and warmth is attractive in ways I doubt you could fathom. You-you are an enigma. The more I look on you as Hel, mistress of the dead, the more difficult you are to see, as if you were fading before my eyes. But yet you too have some sovereignty over the dead-but a smaller, more peculiar rule. A chooser of the slain, like Odin? And yet, not quite. You I shall have to ponder, if the Ghostlord desires not to be parted from you entirely. Regardless, on the matter of Baldur-I am willing to part with him, though I'll have no part in seeking flesh to house him in."
"And what would you ask in return?" Thor asked.
Hel hummed thoughtfully. "Eightfold, I think."
"Eightfold?" Loki murmured.
"Eight kings who belong neither to Odin nor Freya, yet who have managed to elude falling into Hel, scattered throughout eight Realms."
"Another scavenger hunt of souls. And here I was, nostalgic for home," Harry scowled, but not without a certain humor.
"For these eight, I will give you Baldur."
"And I suppose there are conditions?" Loki pressed.
Hel's lips twitched upward faintly. "What use immortalizing what is dull and mundane? No, if I am to cede anything to the Allfather, before he takes it upon himself to take by force what he desires, I will make it well worth the loss. The Liesmith, the God of Thunder, the Lord of Ghosts, and the Crow of Battle will each reap two kings for the Queen of Hel. But the conditions for each of you will be unique."
She clapped her hands together with a sharp, whipcrack of sound. Four doors in the hall swung open silently, their interiors in deep shadow that wasn't breached by the light of the main hall. "Four doors for four heroes, for we will converse in darkness of what shall be required of each of you."
"What of Jane, Sif, and the Warriors Three?" Thor demanded.
"They may join you. But they must just keep your secrets as if they were their own-better than, in the case of Fandral. The same for the white wolf."
"I had no intention of being separated from the sorceress, so it is well," Bleiki rumbled.
"You'd threaten your aunt?" Hel teased.
"Were you an aunt of mine in truth, I have no quarrel with called 'Kin-eater'."
"Certainly your father's son," Hel remarked. "It will be interesting to see if you are fated to be boon or bane to your sorceress. Choose your door-all darkness is the same to me."
Glancing first to Harry, then to the others, Hermione simply took the most expedient route and chose the door closest, the door sealing shut behind them. "I am here, sorceress," Bleiki said to reassure her, his voice low and bestial, indicating that he'd donned his pelt. Reassured by his presence, Hermione was more at ease in that same darkness that had obstructed the path, so complete that Hermione almost expected it to have weight and consistency.
Someone took her hands in theirs, fingers twining and tangling when she would have pulled her hands back. "So this is what you were," Hel's voice said, "-no wonder I could sense you, even if you've made yourself sleep so dreamlessly. I was not in error when I compared you to Odin. You hold yourself with the same kind of arrogance and self-righteousness, both native and fed by the unfortunate reality that you're too often right. How I pitied Frigga the self-effacing, but there is a tidal nature to your relationship with the scale-clad lord. Oak and holly, spring and autumn-not as far at odds as the brothers of winter snows and summer storms, but he is the greening, fresh growth and knowledge earned through doing, moods as changeable as the sky, while you are the stale knowledge pressed between pages, chilly nights, and the condescension of those born with old souls who quickly lose the purity of experiences in an over awareness of rules and proprieties."
"You act as counterbalances to each other, but for now you are his hoard-treasure and blind him to much, for he is greater than the dragon who would see you as the apex of life's pleasures. He has a deep and presently unexercised capacity for love that you would feel stifled by, obligated but unable to return the depth of his sentiment. Baldur would surely suit you as well or better if you are prepared to look beyond friendship, though none better for a bosom companion. He has been here a long time and he falters in his memories-he could be the slate upon which you could express what you most desire in a lover or a friend, shaping his identity around your needs of him. Noblest, fairest, he truly was the best of the æsir and he was for a time the pride of my palace, but mortal memory waned and now he is all but forgotten among them, so he begins to forget himself."
"If I could mould him as I wished, that would be nothing more than an exercise in a kind of twisted narcissism," Hermione said dryly.
"And is not self-love the first love we know? Besides, it is not as if his personality has devolved-he is still capable of independent thought and decisions."
"But would you ask him to choose me or would you simply send him stumbling my way? And, regardless, I'm not here to retrieve a lover. I am here to save Baldur-"
"At the wish of his father. Yes. You come in the company of disgraced princes to raise up a king-I may never leave Helheim, but there is darkness everywhere. And in the darkness, all whispers belong to me. I know why you are here. But as I have reaped an unexpected benefit, I thought to return the favor and ease the bonds of friendship between you and your companion so that they may admit others."
Hermione attempted to seize control of the conversation. "Though your matchmaking efforts are...appreciated, I'd prefer to discuss the conditions for redeeming Baldur."
"Then discuss it we shall," Hel assented. Hermione readied her mind, poised to analyze and memorize everything Hel said, but that all fell away as cool, smooth lips pressed against hers. A forceful tongue teased her lips open but she had no time to consider a reaction to her physical closeness, for Hel seemed to exhale and her mind was breached as easily as someone might open an unlocked door.
Like being struck down by the full weight of an Ukrainian Ironbelly, Hermione was deluged with impressions and images of two Realms and two men, if she could dare call them that. Snow and a battlefield and betrayal, an immense bearded man who roared in a fury that shook the firmament of the sky. And a name from the very foundations of the world: Bor. A second image so close upon the first that it couldn't really be said to follow, but instead layered over the other so that her mind was forced to process them simultaneously. An immense hall that glimmered with many-coloured lights, soft and spilling from the hearts of thousands of jewels set in patterns like stained glass windows, and a tall man with hair that shone with their colors, contrasting with the utter darkness of his skin. She knew his name too, a peal like a laughing bell: Ivaldi.
"My memories of them are of them as they were," Hel murmured as Hermione collapsed to her knees, "Taken from those who came to my Realm long ago. I cannot say what undeath has made of them, only that what has escaped from the natural cycle is often distorted wildly. Deals with the rulers of the dead are always in earnest, but rarely are the terms met. Do you wish to know why? Because we, of all gods, know best weakness and fear. Your greatest fear is failure, isn't it? More than death or pain or any smaller fear, failure is what you think will undo you utterly. But with the Ghostlord at your side, you feel that failure is something distant. No more than a temporary setback, something that might be overcome with time and perseverance. And even if it cannot be undone, you can accept it if he is there to support you. Your condition, your geas, is that neither of your souls can be won with the aid of Harry Potter."
Almost as if she were petrified, Hermione could make no movement or sound of protest as Hel pulled her hand upward and pressed another kiss into the palm of her hand. "Keep watch over this for me-I trust no bargain struck with the Prince of Winter. It should not be possible to steal souls from Hel, but Though I do not understand why you hate that which is only another aspect of yourself, ignorance of what you are will not aid you when your need is greatest. Take Baldur and learn to love him."
"You already trail the souls of the battle-dead, heroes whose chains of fate were not severed by their deaths. All the dead must rise to the Ghostlord's call, but not all are bound so tight they can be made to obey. The souls I see that follow in your wake do not stir to his music, though I doubt they could help hearing it if he wished it so. Take the noblest son of Asgard's soul to be your light. Give assurance to the Ghostlord that you have no need of his protection and give him the freedom to choose between us as he will."
Hel paused for a moment. "Before you believe I have released you into the world with a soul you have not yet won, know that until I grant his freedom, any flesh he tries to inhabit will wither and rot. And dying in such a manner will soon destroy even his soul beyond retrieval. He will be invisible to your companions and invisible to you as well, until you awaken yourself properly. Don't leave him in despair too long-Baldur hates the dark and the silence."
Harry grappled with The Dragon's instinct, which flared even in the dark. He stiffened as phantom hands ghosted up his sides and solidified as they embraced him from behind. "Hel," he rumbled.
"Harry," she replied.
"My name. That's new."
"Names are ill-omened things on the lips of death; safer for you if I do not utter yours. Just the speaking of it can weaken on and draw them closer to Hel. But I wanted to speak your name to you once, to close this distance between us. Even if you do not succeed in your quest, know that you will be welcome to sojourn in my kingdom for as long as you desire. "
"In all the time since I was given Helheim and dominion over the dead, there have been no strangers to me. And that is so very intolerably dull. Then what should happen, after millennia, but a stranger to death should march into the heart of my kingdom. At the very least you should fascinate me. But more than that, more than being a dragon or a god, you are a very good person. It spills over into your every action. Simple kindness is a force more powerful than most people understand. That is what I would willingly exchange any soul for."
Harry felt a part of him soften towards the odd combination of youth and agelessness, queen and child, because very few people were wise enough to prioritize kindness. He had been desired for his wealth, his fame, his magic, even for his looks, but his kindness-well, that was usually something treasured on acquaintance. "You're not what I prepared to encounter," he said aloud.
"I am showing you the kindest face of death. Sometimes, it can be like falling into a deep sleep free of pain, to be welcomed as an escape from anguish. Just because it cannot be measured and quantified and understood does not mean it need be terrifying. And, sometimes, Death can be so painfully beautiful as to steal your heart."
Her hands shifted until they rested near his heart, atop the Resurrection Stone. "One day," she promised, "you will offer me yours."
"Not today," Harry said, as gently as he was capable with The Dragon so near the surface. No part of Hel had been left to the chance of natural birth-everything she was had been crafted with intent and magic, which made her sing to him as nothing since the Tesseract had.
Suddenly Hel's presence shifted and she was in front of him, her hands cupped and full of a dark liquid that she raised to his lips. The scent was impossible to indentify-it might have been wine or blood or molten diamond for all that he could discern from is. And it burned, blazing down his throat in a scorching tide that caught in his throat and choked him. He would have spit it back out, but Hel sealed his mouth with her lips, chill and smooth as polished glass against the fire she'd lit and locked inside.
The heat wormed its way up behind his eyes and erupted in starbursts of sight and sound and memory, showing him terrible things. Things that would never leave him and things that made him gasp with desire even though he couldn't properly draw breath, forcing the heat deeper.
At last, when he thought his lungs might burn, Hel released him. "Your geas," she whispered, "is-."
A/N: Yes, I know the jotnar of the original sagas were more or less nature gods and intermarried or at least had children pretty freely with the æsir, but I'm only filling in the gaps in the MCU with saga-verse, so we get the blue-skinned giants who live in a Realm of winter and the cold. No fire-god aspect to Loki in this story. Harry, on the other hand, gets to take on the Bel/Beli/Bile angle, so we've got fire well in hand.
Because every epic quest deserves some really terrible poetry and worse directions, I present to you a roadmap to who is traveling to which realm. Hel is the speaker.
It is said Nine Realms there be-
If Baldur you would win from me
The souls of eight kings you trade for a prince
Learn well my desires and proceed from thence:
The dragon dives into the burning cauldron and from the fire reaps
Mund-spilli, world-destroyers, Sinmara will tell you whom you seek.
From the blaze to a burning, in Nidavellr from greed you must keep turning
Dvalinn slumbers in endless yearning; down to Hel for the rest he's been earning.
The king of primal night corrupted keeps watch in Svartalfaheim's deep
Battle-black feathers flutter in quickest flight among the desolation of a kingly keep.
A king uncrowned by familiar hand lies slumbering in Jotunheim's snows
Thrym, Thrym, be the call of the crow who seeks this soul-he knows!
To the House of Mists, where Gunnthra perishes, Silvertongue there you'll seek
A heart sere, aching for what it cherishes, among Niflheim's landscape bleak.
Alfheim fairest is farthest from kenning every mortal's end
Wary be, Liesmith, of the glittering women who neither sow nor spin.
Giant-slayer treads on mortal soil, and it trembles; lightning strikes in Midgard's skies
Thunder rumbles and what ought be dead at Glittertinden at last shall die.
And in Vanaheim, swallowed whole, there hides your final soul
One final king-and seeking him will be far more difficult than the slaying of a troll.