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~ Heathen Stories and New Myths ~

 

Helja

Harmond fought with his last strength. Deep wounds weakened his body, while his senses kept gliding back to the circle of waggons, where among many others, his wife and his little son were hoping for the fighters´ victory. He did not see the spear coming which pierced his back. His body fell to the ground, where it lay waiting between countless other corpses. Hardly had the battle din ended when the Valkyries approached. Harmond reached out to them with a dead arm in the hope they would choose him. But they glided past him, and took others to Folkvang and Valhall.

Long afterwards, he finds himself confusedly at the shore of the rapid river Gjoll. It is murky, and wisps of deep fog veil everything in shadows, allowing no far view ahead. Much brighter in contrast shines the golden bridge Gjallarbru, which appears to him like promise and aim. A young giantess calling herself Modgudr steps into his way, asking his name and his kindred. He is about to to answer, but then a soft laughter resounds in the fog. A woman steps up beside Modgudr and answers in his stead. He hardly dares to look at her, for he sees a body which, though young, is livid like a rotting corpse.

"He wasn´t brave enough for Odin", the woman merrily explained to the giantess, before she turns to Harmond and continues: "Come with me, I will guide you." He obeys reluctantly, keeping a broad distance to her. "You do not have to be afraid", she promises calmly. "This is my realm. You will not be harmed."

Harmond keeps silent, full of turmoil. Helja herself had come to guide him. He recalled many a story about this goddess, who actually was a giantess. A strange god´s missionaries had recounted numberless terrors of her realm. But he also remembered his grandmother´s stories, who had spoken about Helja´s peace.

They had crossed the bridge. A giant, terrible hound with jaws wide agape bounds towards them. Harmond is about to throw himself into Gjoll for fear, when the mighty beast crouches before Helja. The goddess ruffles his thick fur with both hands, stroking him behind the ears and bearing his excited and loving slobbering.

"This is Garm", she explains to her companion. "He reminds me a lot of my brother Fenris."
Her voice sounds somewhat dark. "Garm has a better lot than him", she adds.

"The Aesir bound Fenris", Harmond recalls. "He is dangerous. He maimed Tyr."

"No dog bites the hand that feeds him", Helja slowly replies, "except he is hurt by unbearable pain." As though proving her point, she pushes her hands deeply into Garm´s mouth and kisses his forehead at the same time. "No pain is deeper than betrayal", she adds, before she disengages from Garm and resumes walking.

Harmond follows her, but keeps looking back at Garm. The giant hound remains behind.

"You love this beast?" he asks cautiously, after he deems the distance to be safe.

"He tries to make my separation from my brother easier for me", Helja admits. "One day he will avenge Fenris and destroy Tyr."

"He is a wolf", Harmond murmurs, and it sounds like a reproach.

Helja smiles, but he does not see it, for he still does not dare to look at her.

"Yes, he is", she acknowledges calmly. "My other brother, Jormungand, is a giant snake. Nor do I look like a giantess or an Asynja. But we were a family, and we loved each other. Our mother Angrboda cared well for us and did everything so that we would not miss our father Loki too much, for he visited us only rarely."
They pass a high iron enclosure.
"When mother died, the Aesir took us to live with them. They watched us. I guess they were hoping we would become like them. When they realized we were not ready to deny our giant lineage, they threw Jormungand into the sea. They hoped he would drown, but he managed to breathe underwater. He grows and grows, he encircles all of Midgard and hopes, like I do, that we can free Fenris someday."

"The Aesir have not done good by you", Harmond mutters, he who until recently had had no greater wish than to come to Valhall and see Odin, and who now isn´t sure whether that really would be such a good thing.
"They have killed me", Helja answered, shrugging. "They threw me into Niflheim and expected that the little girl could be forgotten about." She softly laughs, and this laughter sounds more amused than embittered. "Before the beginning of time, my realm existed, and it will exist after the ending of time."

"Your father let it happen?"

"What should he have done? On the one hand he thinks that the Aesir are his friends, and know what is important and right. On the other hand he had to assume that Jormungand and I had died. If he kept quiet, he could at least relieve Fenris´ lot from time to time. He often visits my brother, and then for a while Fenris is freed from the sword sticking in his mouth. And meanwhile he knows that Jormungand and I do not have need of his help right now."

The way leads northward and downhill. The mists have grown thicker. A muddy river rolls nearby. Harmond cannot see clearly through the dense fog, but it seems to him as though countless corpses were drifting in the murky waters.

"Don´t be afraid", Helja admonishes. "We are approaching Yggdrasil´s root."

Harmond nods. Still he does not look at the black goddess whose appearance makes him feel sad, but whose fate touches him deeply. He thinks how she lovingly petted Garm, how yearningly she spoke of her family. He would like to have a word of comfort for her.

Helja smiles quietly. She feels his thoughts with a certain wonder. This warrior honored Odin, Tyr, Thor - still he thinks about the Aesir gods as noble beings. At the same time he feels pity for her, she who is a queen, a goddess in her eternal realm.

In the middle of Niflheim is the well Hvergelmir, which they now arrive at.

"Here all the rivers of the world have their source", Helja explains. "From the land of mists, from Niflheim, comes all water, which gives life. You should not go nearer," she advises.

Harmond pauses his stride. He notices a movement. Shudderingly he realizes that the undulating mass before him is a lindworm´s body, and with terror he sees how the beast feeds on human corpses. In desperation, he covers his face with his hands.

"This is my fate", he whispers fearfully.

"This is the fate of all life", Helja replies calmly. "What else shall become of the discarded dead bodies, except to be eaten by worms? Most worms are small, but there are many of them to do the work. Wait here. You will not be harmed."

Harmond does not dare to move anyway. It takes a long time until he lets his hand sink from his face. Now he sees Helja standing beside the giant lindworm, leaning tenderly against his mighty head, which is bigger than her tender figure. They talk with each other in familiar tones.

Harmond startles with fright as he sees something move next to him. But it is only a squirrel coming down Yggdrasil´s trunk, calling a few words towards the lindworm. He is chased away by Helja. She tarries long. Finally she returns, and resumes walking.

"Did the Rat-Tooth scare you?" she asks mirthfully.

"I was afraid of a big terror", Harmond admits.

"Oh, Ratatoskr is a nuisance, not a terror", Helja asserts gaily. "He has nothing else to do than carry vicious words back and forth between the lindworm Nidhöggr and the eagle at the top of Yggdrasil. Believe me, messengers of vicious words are much more dangerous than all great lindworms."

"That may be", mutters Harmond, nearly having looked up but only casting a side glance at the goddess, "but still the presence of a squirrel is preferabel to me."

She laughs, and her laughter sounds to bright and pure and happy that now he does look at her after all. For this moment, her black appearance does not repulse him. But when she turns her face to him, he quickly lowers his eyes.
"Nidhoggr has really grown tall", she admits. "He is like a big boy. He gnaws at Yggdrasil´s root although he does not even like wood. But he thinks that when he can overthrow Yggdrasil, the world will be ordered anew."

"Does he remind you of Jorumungand?" Harmond asks cautiously.

She nods.

"In a certainly way I think he does", she admits. "He replaces my lost brother, whom I cannot visit in the ocean around Midgard."

"But he is a worm feeding on corpses", Harmond grumbles with an uncertain voice.

"That he has to do, for that is his nature. In this way, the dead bodies become earth again, and from the earth new life arises. I have told you that in my realm, Niflheim, is the source of everything. And everything always has to return to his source."

The fog lifts. They arrive at a great feasting hall, but do not enter. Helja only says that this was her abode, and Harmond marvels at it, because everything here appears bright and clear, ornamented, and without exuding darkness.

"This is Eljudnir", Helja explains, "here I live. But this is no place for you."

She leads him further on. The paths are becoming wider, the mists lighter. The hedges have no long thorns now, and the rivers seem clearer. Now ponds can be found. Harmond notices others like himself.

All the while as he walked beside Helja, he had thought himself an exception, believing his desolate fate was only being delayed. Now he anticipates that there is no desolation.

"I am glad for you that Garm and Nidhoggr lessen your loss", he says then. "You have been abducted from Jotunheim, exiled from Asgard - but here in Niflheim you have found your place. I am not sure whether you really have lost, all things considered."

"So do you now think Niflheim is a good place?"

"It is the source of everything, and also its aim. Yes, it is a good place", Harmond asserts with conviction.

"Then I will lessen your own loss now", Helja replies solemnly.

She points across the meadow. His sight follows her gesture. Harmond cannot believe what his eyes behold. There, only a little away, he sees his missed wife, his longed for son. Only now he comes to know that they had both chosen death after the battle was lost. Fleetingly he thinks of Valhall. And happily he knows himself to be in Niflheim now, united with his own; already he anticipates that he would also find those who had gone before him across the golden bridge.

And finally he dares to lift his eyes freely. Helja smiles when he does not turn away from her any longer. Slowly, very slowly she turns her face, turns her body at last. And Harmond sees her bright side.

©
Original "Helja": Renate Steinbach
© Translation: Michaela Macha