After Angrboda and Loki first met, that fated day in the Iron Wood, they were apart for many years. Loki grew into manhood, living in the Lightning Tribe with his father, and often going to his mother's home in the mountains above the Iron Wood. Angrboda, put the matter of Flame-Hair aside in her mind, like an ache in the foot that promises worse things to come, but that one has learned to ignore.
Then one day an etin-woman came to her for a seeing, saying that she was in love, and wished to see what would come of it. Her hair glowed orange like coals, and Angrboda could see at once that she was of Surt's kin, and asked of that.
"Yes, I am of Muspellheim's tribe," the etin-woman said, "but I have come to live with the Lightning Tribe. My name is Glut." She did not say the name of her beloved, and Angrboda read for her, and said that the affair could go many ways. She did see children, and this made Glut happy. But before she returned to her tribe, Glut spoke in longing of Angrboda's magic. "I have heard that you are skilled in the magic of the flesh," she said, "and I would fain learn these things to charm he whom I love."
"The things that I know," Angrboda said, "only a woman can teach another woman."
"Will you teach me, then?" Glut asked. "I will look to you as an older sister, and I will serve you as handmaiden for one turn of the moon, for these lessons." So Angrboda agreed, and Glut served her for one turn of the moon, and during that time learned the magic that women can work with their flesh.
And Angrboda came to love Glut, and consider her a younger sister, and when the time came for her to return she said, "Surely the one that you desire will come to you now. When you marry him, I will stand with you, my sister."
Glut embraced her and said, "I would have you by me, but if I win this man, his father will not have you at the wedding, for he is Loki, Farbauti's son. But perhaps if I can bend the son's heart, I can bend the father's." And she kissed Angrboda, not seeing that the wolf-chieftess stood as stone, and went back to the Lightning Tribe.
Many sleepless hours, and then many sleepless nights, had Angrboda in her bed of furs and skins. She raged, and wept, and cursed Glut, and Loki, and the Norns, and the world. Finally she ran out of tears and curses, though not out of rage, and she said, "This is not meet for a chieftess and Hagia. I am no child, to be heart-torn over a man who barely knows my name. A chief must be generous to others, and a Hagia must be above these things. Glut is a fine girl, and she is of Muspellheim, where he spent his youth. Doubtless she is the right woman for him. And perhaps if I see them married then my Wyrd might change, and I shall be rid of this thorn in my heart."
She put the matter away again, for she was strong-willed and could swallow any tears, and tried her best to think no more about it until Glut came to her door one day, and said, "My sister, I have won him! And it is all due to your magics. I have you to thank for this joy."
Angrboda turned her spine to steel and chained her tongue, and said only, "My sister, you will be married then! My blessings; I hope all goes well for you."
"I have spoken to Loki, and he will ask his father to allow you at the wedding," Glut said. "But I have no family here, as my mother and grandmother are dead, and my great-grandfather Logi lives in Utgard, a long way away. You are as a sister to me; will you speak for me of marriage?"
"I will do this," said Angrboda. "As you have come to me and asked this, I will do it." And though the words were like iron weights on her chest, she went to the Lightning Tribe and to Farbauti's house, when the Chief was not home, and spoke to his red-haired son. And though it pained her, she forced herself to look into his green eyes, for she was proud and would not show this youth her pain. "My sister Glut tells me that you wish to marry her," she said to him. "Will you treat her with the highest love and respect, and care for the children that I have foreseen coming into the world between you two?"
Loki bowed an ironic bow to her, and said, "Of course I shall treat her well, Wolf-Chieftess. Like a princess of Muspellheim will she live. All our children shall eat the finest mushrooms and the breasts of thrushes. I shall gather them all myself with my own hands."
Angrboda set her jaw. "I am looking out for my younger sister, as she has asked," she said, "and youths like you should not mock their elders."
Loki's green eyes glittered at her, and his three-cornered smile grew lewd. "I am not so young as all that," he said, "and you are not so old as all that either, wolf-chieftess." Those sharp green eyes swept up and down her muscular body, not stripping her naked, merely appreciating. Angrboda dug her nails so hard into her own palm that she felt blood pooling among her fingers.
"Treat her well," she said roughly, "or I shall make you so miserable that you will wish I had just killed you and had it over with."
He stepped back, then, like a man who has gone to laughingly pet a dog only to see it grow and show its teeth. "As you will, wolf-chieftess," he said. "I can see that you love your sister well."
She gave him one sharp nod, and then left him. When he and Glut were married on the next new moon, she stood next to Glut and witnessed the cutting and binding of their hands, and if she did not smile, most thought her fierceness was because she did not approve of Laufey's son. None could have known that she was praying that this bond would free her from the wyrd that she had seen.
She expected, then, to be able to wipe him from her thoughts, and she would almost have managed save that he kept coming by with messages from Glut. His Muspellheim wife missed her adopted elder sister, and wished her to visit, especially now that she was swelling with child. Good, Angrboda thought. Bear his children, and free me from my premonitions. But she did not visit, for she thought that to see them together would make her weep. Glut finally came herself, round and red as a setting sun, and Angrboda did indeed weep when she saw her, but she shed her tears into Glut's hair as Glut wept as well, and passed them off as joy in seeing her sister. To be fair, that was not entirely untrue. "Does he treat you well, my sister?" the wolf-chieftess begged her.
"He treats me well enough when he is home," Glut said, "but he is gone more often than he is about these days, and I am lonely. I fear that he is growing tired of me."
Angrboda's jaw clenched. "Should I speak to him?" she asked calmly.
"Oh, no, my sister; he is difficult enough to pin down. I think it is simply that I want more time from him than he wishes from me, or from a marriage. I fear that he is bored with me, and the more I try to grasp him, the more he flutters out of reach."
"Sometimes," Angrboda said, "one needs to hold more lightly." While she wanted to be angry with Loki, for Glut's sake, she felt kinship with him in this. "Those with wild spirits do not do well pinned down," she tried to explain, but her words fell lamely from her mouth.
Months later, Glut gave birth to twin girls, whom she named Eisa and Einmyria. "After my ancestress, Glut Logisdottir, who named her daughters similarly," she told Angrboda. The children's father nearly missed the birth, being away on his wanders, but managed to arrive at the last moment and see them born.
A season after the birth of the twins, Glut came to Angrboda's house again, with a babe on her back and another in one arm, and a large bag of her belongings on the other arm. "I am leaving my husband," she declared. "Will you allow me to stay with you, my sister?"
"Make yourself at home," said Angrboda. "What has the bastard done?"
Glut came into the wolf-chieftess's hall and settled one sleeping babe, and began to nurse the other. "I am certain that he no longer loves me," she said. "He does not come to my bed any more, and no longer tells me wonderful things. He has been gone a whole month, so I left." Her bright head drooped. "I thought that I could keep him with the skills that you taught me, but he fled anyhow. I think that his heart is already given to another."
Angrboda's eyes burned with rage and she bolted from her hall in wolf-form, determined to find Loki and beat him senseless for his callousness. Huntress that she was, it was only a matter of hours before she tracked him down, dallying and fishing in the River Slith. He saw her bounding through the woods toward him - she did not bother to hide her wrath - and stood. "I knew that you would find me, when you heard Glut's complaint," he said.
The wolf-chieftess changed to woman-form and struck him, hard enough to knock him down and leave a mark. "How dare you cast her off like that?" she hissed.
The flame-haired youth scrambled on all fours, trying not to fall into the river of knives. "We do not suit each other, Glut and I. She clings too much, and I am no stay-at-home. It is better this way."
Angrboda's balled fist snapped open into a clawed hand. "After she bore your children, after you swore that you would treat her well?"
Loki stared up at her from the riverbank where he had fallen, with his sharp green eyes. He made no move to defend himself. "After you wrapped her up and gave her to me like a gift, wolf-chieftess? She was a fine gift, yes...but not the one I wanted."
"What then?" she panted, her eyes blazing. For just a moment, as she stared at him, the barriers fell from his eyes and she saw his behind his mocking smile - his youth, his apprehension, and his desire. She saw herself through his eyes - so solemn, does she never smile? But there is that fire behind her eyes. Nothing stands in her way. Any other woman I could run over, but not her. She is a cold red lily with steel knives for petals, a sleek and beautiful beast with deadly fangs. I wonder if I could make her smile. I need to make her smile - but all I do merely angers her! My charm falls as nothing at her feet. No, I know that she would settle for no compliments, no charms, no words even. Nothing less than my soul. And I long to give that to her...but I am so afraid. I am so afraid that I cannot even speak of it. I cannot speak, and that is something that I will not have-
"Then speak," she whispered through lips as dry as a parched gully. "Tell me, or-" I beat you black and blue, I run you through with my blade, I - "I will go from here, and never speak to you again," she said. The words fell like stones, and when he realized that she had read his thoughts, the doors behind his eyes slammed shut, and then his gaze fell...and then rose again, and he forced the barriers back down.
"I want you," he whispered back. "It is you that I want." When you are near me, I see nothing else. I can think of nothing else. You are like a hot fire that takes my breath away. I have wanted you from the first day I saw you. "And I do not know why," Loki whispered.
She stood, poised, like a blade about to fall. I do. It reverberated unspoken in the air between them. I could tell him what I feel, she thought. No. To the four winds with words. Words are his toy. Bodies are mine. And with a growl, like the predator that she was, she fell on him.
Her nails dug into his back at the same time that her mouth met his. It was a kiss with teeth. He gasped into her mouth, and then rose to the challenge, and after that it was all teeth and nails and fur appearing and vanishing and mixed howls and shrieks that gave way to panting, and more panting, and then many, many small cries. They did not let go of each other until Sunna had long vanished behind the horizon.
When they returned together to Angrboda's hall, Glut was waiting for them. She took one look at both their faces and smiled impishly. "Good," she said. "Now I will not have to watch you both sit about and pine for each other. It is a pity that I had to be married before I realized what was going on, but at least I have two beautiful babes out of this mess. Now, sister, shall I stand with you while you marry my former husband?"
Angrboda was startled, and flushed red with embarrassment, but Loki only laughed. "You shall indeed, beautiful Glut," he said. "Although I expect my father will be so angry that he will set a dozen trees on fire with his wrath. He is not quick to lose a grudge...and neither is my fierce wolf-woman here."
"It is true," Angrboda said quietly. "I do not think that your father will ever forgive me for what I have done to him in the past. It will be difficult to have such bitterness between family members."
Loki shrugged. "Perhaps in a few hundred years he will get over it. In the meantime, there is nothing that he can do. We are to be married, you and I, and you know it. It is our Wyrd, and if Father wishes to complain, he can take it up with the Nornir."
So Loki and Angrboda were wedded, in front of all the Iron Wood, save indeed Farbauti who was wrathful, as they expected, and would not come to see his son pledged to his enemy. Their blood was shared and a great feast was given which lasted for four days and nights. For many years their love was like a great flame that burned between them; sometimes it erupted into anger, for they were both fiery and passionate, and sometimes they even came to blows, but always the intensity drew them back together into Angrboda's bed. Now that he had left his father's house once and for all, Loki kept no hall in the Iron Wood, but only shared that of the Chief of Chiefs. All the tribes treated Laufey's Son with the respect due to the consort of the Hagia, and at first this pleased him, but after a time it sometimes rankled to be honored for his marriage position rather than his own deeds, and he resolved silently to gain his own fame, however he could.
At first they were together every day, for years. Loki learned much from Angrboda about magic, of the flesh and the earth and the river, and of many other things, although he had not her gift for seeing. In turn, Angrboda learned much from Laufey's son, about song and words, about moving from world to world, for in all matters of movement he excelled . It was from him that she learned to take the form of a bird and fly, although she did it less gracefully than he, and at greater cost. All this time, she let him come and go as he pleased, for she had promised herself that she would never chain him or cling to him. Yet as time passed he was gone more often, sometimes for months at a time, and she played with Glut's children and thought of him often.
Then the day came when Loki did not return for half a year, and when he came back he told of his meeting with Odin, and how they had exchanged blood and become brothers. The hackles rose on Angrboda's neck, as a wolf's will when she scents danger, and she said, "I foresee no good in this, unless you exploit it before it exploits you."
"Odin has invited me to live in Asgard," Loki said. "Surely I can be of some use there, if only eyes and ears."
"Be of use to Odin, you mean," she said bluntly. "Go if you must, but guard your quick tongue, or else I see you coming to grief." So Loki began to spend half his time in Asgard, and half in Jotunheim. Yet as the years wore on, his time in golden Asgard grew longer, and his time in Jotunheim grew shorter. Angrboda said nothing, for she had sworn that she would not try to pinion his wings, but she missed him sorely at times, and tried many ways to forget him when he was gone. The years turned into decades, and she never knew when she might see him in her doorway, or how many months he might be away from her. Finally, when he returned home one day but was so preoccupied that he could hardly pay her any attention, she growled at him, "Have you come to love another, then, that your eyes are fogged with mists?"
Loki looked everywhere except her eyes, and said many things, and tried to put her off, but she finally got it out of him: that he had finally married his child bride Sigyn and built her a home in Asgard. The Witch-Queen was wrathful, for in order to take another wife or husband, it was custom to get the blessing of the first one, or disquiet would result. She demanded to see Sigyn, but Loki refused her, and they fought bitterly. He told her that the Aesir take but one spouse, and that she was counted merely a concubine in their eyes; that Sigyn was his real wife by their laws, as he had married her under their customs.
"Waving about swords and spears and spindles!" said Angrboda scornfully. "That is no wedding. There is no wedding without blood. Was there no other woman of your own tribe and people that you might wed?" His marrying without her knowledge she resented, but his marrying a woman of Asgard she feared, for it might split further the breach that was forming between Loki and his people. They warred about it all day, and then he fled; but to his credit he returned in the morning. For her part, she had been awake all night worrying that she might lose him entirely, and she welcomed him back warily, but with no more rage.
From then on, Loki was careful to spend half his time with one wife and half with the other, for he did not want Angrboda to come looking for him in Asgard; he sought to protect the gentle Sigyn from her whiplike tongue. Sigyn quickly swelled with child and bore him a son; when she went into her pains Loki was far away in Angrboda's arms, but sensed the suffering of his second wife. "Well, then, go to her," the Witch-Queen said, hearing his thoughts.
"Will you not be wrathful if I leave your arms to go to her bedside?" he asked her.
"No man is a man if he will not be with the woman he has swelled with child in her time of need," Angrboda said. "I would expect you to do the same for me, when my time comes. Perhaps she does not know how to respect another wife, poor foolish child, but I do, whether I like it or no. Now go." She flung him from her bed, and hid her head under the hides, so that he would not see her weep, for though they had lain together many times, no child swelled in her womb, and this was a grief of hers.
It came to pass that a quiet Death occurred, one which was spoken of in no lay or story, but affected the Nine Worlds nonetheless. It was the death of Hela, the old Queen of Jormundgrund, the Jotun underworld. Jormundgrund had long been partitioned off from Niflheim, and the old witch-queen Hela had presided over it since the Nine Worlds began. Indeed, no one knew from whence she had come or whose womb bore her, though there were those who said that she was firstborn from the loins of Surt. Perhaps her origins were known by Mimir, who had long been her consort under the earth before he went to Asgard, but he had said nothing of his time with Hela, and would not speak of it, and still will not. No one marked her death but the Dead, and indeed no one knew where her soul went, but the doors of Jormundgrund closed, and admitted no more Dead.
The Dead Jotnar then began to wander the world, nesting in the trees and haunting the homes of the living, for the great Gate of the Underworld was shut fast against them. Angrboda did not fear ghosts, but their sad presence made her think of her empty womb, and she began to long for a child of Loki's seed, to give one of them life again. She had borne wolf-children before, to men of her clan and outside of it, but they were all grown and she wanted a babe to mother again, of the lineage of her beloved. So it was that she came to Loki with an idea of how they might conceive children together.
In the center of the Iron Wood, there lies a stone circle in a clearing, with many smaller stones set into the turf in a labyrinthine pattern. Around the border of the clearing lie many small houses, built by those who needed to partake of the magic of the heart of Jotunheim, for here the power was so strong that it seemed to ooze and drip off the very trees. Loki and Angrboda built another small hut together, and placed in it a bed of sheepskins, and there they lay together three times, and each time conceived a child.
The first birth was a hard one, and the midwives feared for Angrboda's life, yet finally she delivered up a baby girl. The child was pale and perfect, and never cried; even as she grew she spoke little, but in clear words from the start. Loki and Angrboda looked together into her eyes when she was born, and they did not immediately say what it was that they saw, but both then looked at each other with faces as pale as their newborn child's own face. "Her name is Hela," Loki said when he could finally speak.
"Folk will cry our hubris, if we name her thus," said Angrboda, "yet I believe that you are right, my husband."
"I have never cared before when they cried hubris," Loki said, looking upon his daughter with awe. "I care not now, and let them say what they will; the truth will come out before she is a woman."
The second birth was a son, a wolf-pup, but so huge a pup that Angrboda was in labor for days to expel him. She looked in his yellow eyes and said, "This one has the power, too, but it could turn many ways with him." But Loki only loved him, and played with him on the floor of their hall. At first Fenris was sometimes boy and sometimes wolf-pup, but as the time wore on he stayed more and more in wolf-form until he had near forgotten any other way. There were some folk of the Iron Wood who were like this, and even some Jotnar of other tribes who sometimes forgot themselves and became trees or stone permanently, so neither parent was surprised.
The third birth was the strangest yet. During the final months, Angrboda's belly heaved like rippling water, and all who saw it were dismayed. She would stroke it, and sing, and then it would calm down, but even Loki was concerned at what they had now brought forth. When only six months had passed, she was so swollen that even she began to fear for herself, and sent Loki winging across many miles of Jotunheim to Gymir's hall, where Gerda kept her great walled garden of herbs. Loki was lucky to find Gerda at home, and begged from her some herbs to bring on a woman's labor prematurely. The calm dark giantess smiled knowingly, and gave him a packet to dissolve in a potion, and he winged home to find his wife in her bed, moaning and weeping, her belly heaving like a storm at sea.
Yet when the herbs had been drunk and her womb opened, the actual birth was the easiest of all, for it only needed to open wide enough for the head of a snake. A great green serpent, as long as Loki's arm, fell from her womb in rippling coils onto the floor. All who were present gasped, and Loki himself could not speak. Yet the serpent, even in its infancy, glowed with power, and it was clear that this child was not a maker of magic, but a piece of magic itself, come to life. Angrboda commanded Loki to gather up the snake and place it in her arms. As he did so, she laughed and took it to her breast, and he shook his head in wonder at his witch-wife.
Loki wondered how a woman could raise a serpent-child, but Angrboda showed herself to be equal even to this. She could not nurse the Snake at her breast, so she chewed meat soft and fed it gently, cradled in her arms. She discovered quickly that it had no language, yet was intelligent in its own way, and she sang to it constantly. The Serpent grew quickly, an inch or more each day, and followed its mother around slithering on the ground, and slept wrapped around her body. As the months passed, it spent its time more and more in water - the river, the lake, seeking larger and larger ponds. After three moons had passed it no longer needed any help in finding food, and Loki shook his head and said that it would need larger water soon, if only for the fish supply. Angrboda went to the water's edge daily and gave it meat, and stroked it, for she did not wish it to become so wild that it forgot the touch of affection.
Soon after the birth of the Snake, Hela was presented to the folk of two tribes - the Wolf tribe and the Lightning tribe. Yet when her mother led her forth from her hall, a small silent child, they did not expect to see the great crowd gathered. For all the tribes had heard of what Loki and the Chief of Chiefs had done, and had come to see their children. And as the child Hela turned her head, for a moment one side of her face was as a skull, and all murmured. The power that coursed through her was the power of Death itself, and they knew that Hela had been reborn. Death, and all its power, was still in Jotun hands, no matter how many others might covet it.
The other chiefs came forward and knelt before the child, and asked for her blessing; solemnly, she gave it. Even her grandfather Farbauti came forward and took her hand in his, and told her that he would protect her, body and soul. Then he vanished into the woods without a glance at Angrboda. Loki's pride was such that he looked as if he might burst. That night he put his arm around Hela, put the serpent-child across his lap, and took the pup Fenris under his other arm, and declared that his children would be more famous than any others in the Nine Worlds someday.
Yet the time came when Loki longed to return to Asgard again. Sigyn missed him, and so did their young sons. Angrboda sensed his desire, and she held stubbornly to her vow not to try and hold him, so when he said that he was going to be more in Asgard than in Jotunheim for a time, she said only, "Go, then. I am a fair enough mother; better parent than you, and I shall raise our children. Only keep a discreet tongue in your head, Flame-Hair, or you shall bring us all down. I would not have the Aesir know that we taken the power of the Wood and made gods between us, not until they are grown."
So Angrboda beseeched Loki to keep the knowledge of their children secret, and for a time Loki acceded to her wishes, but Odin was his blood brother and he was loath to keep such secrets from him. Besides, he wished Odin's wisdom on the matter, so finally he gave in. Both were deep in their cups, and Loki told of his three children and their strange births.
Odin's blood ran cold when he heard the tale. He remembered the prophecy of the Nornir, that one would come among them whose seed would sire both the most powerful witch in the world, and Odin's own destroyer. For as many years as he had known and loved Loki, he pushed the prophecy out of his mind, thinking that surely it could not refer to his blood brother. And, surely, Loki's descriptions were harmless enough - his daughter, Hela, was a strange child, but certainly no more of a danger then her powerful mother. The wolfling was large, but there were many large werewolves in the Iron Wood. The serpent was strange indeed, but could do little to attack Asgard. Yet, still, Odin's blood ran cold.
After Loki had left, Odin went up into Valaskjalf for a long time, refusing all nourishment for days. No one knew with what burden he was struggling, not even Frigga, yet all felt the weight of that struggle. When he finally came down, all he would say was, "The threads of Wyrd are tangled, and I cannot see through that tangle. Things could go many ways, and there is no set path before us."
"I could have told you that, my husband," Frigga said, seeress that she was, as she and her maidens plied him with food and Iduna's nectar. "Yet it is times like this that are the most powerful, as a single choice may force the threads."
"Powerful, yes," Odin said, "but most dangerous as well." Then he called together a council - not the Moot of the Aesir, but only a small, trusted group. Faithful Tyr came, and his sons Thor and Heimdall, and his wife Frigga, and they went behind closed doors to hear Odin tell what he had heard from Loki.
It is not known what was said in that council, for no others knew even that it was happening, but when they came out Odin gathered Tyr and Thor and a small band of their best warriors, and bade them be ready to arm and ride. Then he commanded that a festival-hall be built in Asgard, and tables made ready for a feast. When that was done, he sent a message to Angrboda, the Hag of the Iron Wood, and begged her to come to Asgard. It was to speak of her husband Loki, he said, and it was important. Loki was off on his travels at the time, and did not hear of it; nor did Odin speak to Sigyn, waiting faithfully at home, of this event.
In her turn, Angrboda received the message - delivered straight to her hall by Odin's two ravens - and sat for a long time by the fading coals of her hearthfire, pondering. Her guts told her that there was danger, but she could not decide for whom. My husband has done something terrible this time, she thought, perhaps found a trouble that he cannot get himself out of, and they are calling me to help him. Am I called to rescue him, then? Surely his child-bride in Asgard cannot fight him out of trouble with fire and sword and magic, but I can. And, finally, she rose and took on the form of a great crow, and flew to Asgard. She did not bring a war band, for she feared that they would never let her enter unless she came alone, so she resolved to rescue her beloved on her own, no matter what the price. Apprehension rose in her throat as she saw the white walls, for she remembered well the fate of Thjassi, but no one molested her as she entered. Upon her landing, Odin himself came forward, and welcomed her to Asgard, and bade her come and dine with him to discuss what must be done.
The Hag of the Iron Wood stepped carefully into the great banquet-hall, feeling very much the barbarian. A great feast was served, of which she ate little, waiting for Loki to be spoken of. Perhaps he is imprisoned, she thought. Finally she could wait no longer, and turned to Odin. "Where is my fool of a husband?" she asked. "Is that not why you have brought me here?"
"My business with you does indeed involve Loki," Odin said. "Give me a moment, and I will have this business brought to you, that you might advise me on it." And he stood, ready to leave the hall, and yet before he left he hesitated. He looked upon the tall, proud giantess in her cloak of furs, and he bowed before her respectfully, and Angrboda saw a sorrow in his demeanor. Then he left the hall, and she sat with furrowed brow, waiting.
He had been gone but a moment when she realized that with Odin's departure, all others in the hall had also gone, and she was alone. Sensing danger, she started to her feet and drew her blade - she had wondered why Odin had not insisted that she give up her sword - but there was no one to fight. Then, in a split second, the entire hall burst into flames. Fire ran down the tables as if oil had been poured over them, and the roof was an inferno in moments. Angrboda's long red hair was the first to catch, and she went up like a torch, screaming curses.
Odin and those trusted few who had come to the feast watched the hall burn, and heard Angrboda's screams. The fire-spell was a dangerous one, and cost Odin dear, but he dared not let her get to the door of the hall to fight. As they watched, the roof fell in, and they saw her figure like a torch, stumbling through the debris. Slowly, slowly, she peeled the flame from her blackened body, and fell to her hands and knees on the earth. They heard her mumbling magics, and saw that her skin was beginning to grow back, her charred flesh to heal. Amazed and chagrined, Odin threw a second fire-spell, and the flames attacked her once more. A second time she burned, and a second time she struggled to her feet and began to use her magics to survive. A third time he hurled the spell, though it cost him so dear that he nearly collapsed, and had to be held on his feet. This time, the giantess did not rise from the flames; they consumed her until nothing was left but a heap of ashes, with her charred heart in the middle.
Odin was brought, weak as a babe, to Frigga; she poured what power she could into him. "You should rest," she told him. "Only time will cure this."
"I cannot rest," he said. "There is no time. This is only the first part. You must give me enough life to carry out the next; I shall rest in your arms tonight." So Frigga poured all the love that she could give into his wasted form, and Odin grew strong enough to rise from his bed. Calling together his warband, they made their way to Jotunheim and the Iron Wood as fast as they could fly. It was the first time that so many had made such a fast attack on Jotunheim; there was terrible danger, and Odin knew it. Yet still he trusted to his great luck to carry them through.
No one in the Iron Wood knew of Angrboda's fate, and they believed that she would be honored as a guest of the great Loki, who had spoken much of his blood-brotherhood with Odin, and his comradeship with the Aesir. It was also the case that no Asa had ever attacked the Iron Wood, for the magics of the Iron Wood were strong, and it was one of the sacred places of the Jotnar. Yet Odin had gathered together those among the Aesir and their allies who would dare to enter it, although there were not many of these. Some cried that the Iron Wood was a place of poison, and that it would taint their blood and make them bear twisted children, like unto the trolls that dwelt there. So it was with only a small band that Odin came into the wood, using every ounce of his magics to force the trees to allow them through.
Since it was the night of a great festival, the holiday that Angrboda had been loath to spend away from her tribe, the folk were full of liquor and food, and those that were not dead in drunken slumber were in their beds or the bushes making merry with each other. Odin's people stole into Angrboda's hall, and there they slew all they found in their beds asleep. They found Fenris, her youngest, the wolf-child, and put him in a sack. The snake they found nowhere in the hall, but Odin found it swimming in the lake behind, and seized it likewise in a sack. Then they went to lay hands on Hela, who was but a child no higher than that of nine summers, and who stood watching them silently with old, old eyes.
When they reached for her, however, she lifted her hand, and lo it was made of bone and rotting flesh. And they flinched back and cried out, and she pointed her bony finger and cursed them all if they should touch her. "Death I am, and death I shall be to you if you lay hands on me, with diseases that no healer can cure nor your golden apples abate! Well I know that my mother walks the road to Jormundgrund, and this too is your doing, and there is no one to greet her at the gate!"
And Odin fell back, and even he did not dare to touch her, and he saw that his plan to control Death had came to nothing. "Go then and meet your mother at that gate, if you can, corpse-child," he said to her, "and as you will not come with us, you shall be banned from Asgard forever and never step your stinking foot into our fair land!" And, angered at being driven off by a mere child, but still fearing her with a deep revulsion in his belly, he fled with his men and their burdens, first setting fire to Angrboda's hall. The serpent they flung into the ocean around Midgard, and Odin wove a spell to protect Midgard by its living body, that it might always be a barrier of magic. The wolf-pup Fenris Odin brought back to Asgard and gave to Tyr to raise, hoping to turn Angrboda's child into an ally of the Aesir.
But Hela, fearing for her mother, began to make her first and last journey on foot to the Land of the Dead. Alone and unaided she left the burned hall and the Iron Wood that had been her home and crossed the River Slith, going downwards to Niflheim. Mile after mile she walked, for days and days, and with each mile closer to the Deathlands more of her became as a corpse, until she was limping painfully on one rotted leg. Yet still the corpse-child kept on until she came to the deserted road and the great dark gate, and there she waited for her mother's ghost, patient and silent in the snow and ice.
Yet the days drew on in that lonely place, and Angrboda did not come. For Loki had arrived at night, while Odin was looting his wife's house, and some took joy in telling him of the death of the Hag of the Iron Wood. He rushed to the hall, which was still roaring in flames, but he had not learned nothing from his foster-father Surt the Black. Leaping through the flames unharmed, he found Angrboda's burned body, which crumbled at his touch. All that was left was her ashen heart, still solid, so he placed it next to his and fled Asgard as fast as he could.
When he reached her hall, he found it plundered and burned, and her kinsmen dead, and his children gone. He screamed and raged, and the folk of the Iron Wood arose, and they all wept and raged with him. They would have marched on Asgard as they were, armed only with their fury and rude weapons, but Loki recovered himself enough to stop them. "There has been enough death for one night," he said. "Now it is time to undo at least one of them." And he placed Angrboda's ashen heart on the hearth of the burned hall, and took a knife and let blood onto it from his arm, and every one of her kinsmen in the Wolf tribe came forward also and let their blood drip, so that the hearth ran with blood. As the sun rose and the word spread, Jotnar from the other tribes came as well, and may of them shed their blood for her life also, as Loki danced about the hearth and the Wolf tribe howled a strange song.
It is said that half the luck of the Iron Wood clans went into that spell, but that not a one of them ever regretted it. Even those who did not love the wolf-chieftess would rather have seen her alive than bear this insult from the Aesir, so even the trolls from the Hound-Beetle tribe came, and some of them shed blood for her - not for herself, they said, for the Wolf tribe had often fought with them, but because her daughter Hela was much beloved of them. And when the thunderstorm rose that night, Farbauti's son called lightning down to strike that bloodsoaked hearth, and Loki's spell came true. Angrboda rose again alive from the ashes of her heart.
"Where are my children?" was the first thing she asked him, with the rage of a mother wolf in her eyes. And Loki wept for the first time in front of her, and admitted that he did not know, and begged her forgiveness for all he had done that had brought this upon them. "If you had not gone to Asgard, if you had not turned your back on your tribe, the Aesir would never have known until they were grown," she said to him, and her words were as a razor blade. "If our children are dead, it may have been Odin's hand that held the knife to their throats, but it was yours that pushed his arm."
Loki swore that he would find his children, if they were alive, and avenge them if they were dead, and he fled her burned hall with such speed and wrath that the leaves were torn off the trees. Back to Asgard he flew, where Odin was seated in his chair at Valaskjalf. Odin could not see into the Iron Wood, but he could sense that great magic had been happening there, for the trees tossed like a sea during Ran's storm. Then he saw Loki in the form of a falcon, winging through the air to Asgard, and he came down from the tower as Loki arrived. Geri and Freki growled at him, but Odin quieted them with a word and waited for his blood brother's arrival.
It is not known what happened there in the doorway of Valaskjalf, for Odin sent everyone away and spoke to Loki alone. Some say that they heard screaming, others sobbing, others only a grumbling silence that made their skin crawl. Some claim that Loki came within an inch of slaying his blood-brother, others say that Odin charmed him with words and talked him into submission, still others that Loki's rage was all a show to demand weregild. Afterwards, Loki would tell no one of what was spoken between them, not even Angrboda when she demanded and raged at him. But when he came forth from that courtyard, his face was like a smiling mask behind which empty darkness loomed. Some who saw him were relieved, but those who could see past his smile were terrified.
Loki knew, now, where Fenris and Jormundgand had been taken, and at least that they were safe. Hela Odin denied taking, so he searched for her everywhere, in falcon form or many others. It was not until he came upon the frost-thurses of Niflheim that he found one who had seen a half-rotted child limping through the snow towards the Road of Death, and he understood where his daughter had gone, and why.
Back he flew, downward and northward, though the cold wind battered at him and he was near exhausted. He found his daughter where he thought that he might find her, crouching in the snow near the great black Gate. Her pale hair was stiff with frost, and snow had fallen on her thin form, for she had not moved in days. As she turned her head, he saw that the side of her face was as a skull with rotted flesh hanging from it, and there was sorrow and compassion as he approached her and called her name.
She turned her head, patiently. "So you are come, my father," she said. "I am waiting for Mother. They slew her; did you know? I felt her die."
Loki knelt in the snow and took his daughter in his arms. Her little body was cold as ice, and crackled with frost. "Yes," he said simply. "But she will not come down this road, dear one. I have brought her back to life. She waits for you in the Iron Wood. Her arms are open; they will heal your hurts. Come back now, my daughter. There is no need to wait here in Niflheim, in the cold. Come home."
Hela did not move, and Loki lifted her in his arms, but as he moved away from the Gate, there was a great rumbling sound. To his astonishment, the great Gate opened, and the ghosts of the Dead came pouring through. "My friends," Hela said, gesturing with her flesh hand. "They kept me company while I waited."
The spirits surrounded them like a cloud, frightened, angry, buzzing like flies. Hela hushed and calmed them from her position in her father's arms. "Do not fear," she said to him. "They will not harm you, so long as I am here." Then she slipped from his arms and stood in the snow, knee-deep. "I cannot go home, Father. If I go, the ghosts will come with me, and the Iron Wood will be vexed. I must stay here with them."
Loki bowed his head, and fell to his knees next to his daughter. He tried to speak a few times, but no words would come, something that almost never happened to Flame-Hair. Finally he managed to say, "If this is what must be, then so be it. But you cannot stay here, in the cold and the snow, my child!"
The ghosts buzzed around them, and surrounded the half-rotted child, and seemed to push her towards the Gate. "I will not stay here in the snow, Father," she laughed, and it was rare to hear her laugh. That laughter bubbled forth as she moved through the Gate, accompanied by the great mist of ghosts, and as she passed the threshold the dim, dank grey land beyond began to bloom. It burst into springtime and greened into summer. The dead apple trees just inside the wall bloomed from flowers to ripe fruit. The leaves turned to autumn in a blaze of color, welcoming their new mistress, and then paused, just at the moment before they might fall to the ground. A few brightly colored scraps dropped to the ground before Her, as if offering themselves as a carpet for Her entrance.
Through his tears, Loki watched his daughter wave goodbye to him, a small dark figure against the background of sudden bright color. She was still laughing with joy as the Gate slowly swung shut.
When he returned to the Iron Wood, he found Angrboda staring into a fire built outside the wreckage of her burned hall. "At least she is safe from harm now," she said, not looking at him.
"More than safe," he breathed. "More than safe. She is where she is meant to be, although we shall miss her sorely." He dropped to his knees by the fire, exhausted. "I did not foresee any of this," he said. "Forgive me! Please forgive me."
Angrboda kept her eyes on the fire, not on him. "I may forgive you in time," she said, "but I do not know when that will be." There was no fire in her, only coldness, like a silent winter. "You may as well go back to Asgard," she said. "Go back to your child-bride, who will forgive you anything without even being asked. May she have luck enough to protect her children from the doom that lies between you and your blood-brother, since I had not enough to protect my own."
"What would you have of me?" he cried. "What can I do now?"
She was silent for a long moment. "Hela is safe," she said, "although I would have seen her to her coming of age with a mother's love; I fear that she shall grow cold, there among the Dead, and she so young. My serpent-child is bound in Odin's spell, and we have not the power to undo that. But I think that it will grow to love the ocean, and it is not that one I fear for the most. That one is our son. They know not how to raise a wolf-child, there in Asgard. Without the love and training that I can give him, I foresee endless grief for him."
"He is held hostage," Loki said. "As long as we have no more children together, make no more Gods between us, Odin will not harm him. And he is given into Tyr's hands, and Tyr at least is a man of honor; he will not slay a child for the deeds of his parents."
Angrboda turned to stare at him, then, and he could see the cold fire that gleamed in her eyes like steel being forged. "Then we will burn the hut in the center of the Iron Wood," she said, "but I tell you this: If any harm comes to my son, I will have vengeance on your blood brother and his whole family. I will take out my weregild in trade, a son for a son. Hela will help me...and so will you, no matter what price you must pay for that vengeance. Do you so swear to me, my husband, on the ashes of my heart and my hearth and my hall?"
Loki swallowed. "I do so swear," he said, although his heart sank with the words.
"Then go, and do as you will," she said, and her voice cracked, but she did not finally weep until the sound of his heels was long gone into the woods, and she was alone.
Loki went back to his hall in Asgard, and even Heimdall said nothing to him as he entered. He went straight to Sigyn's arms, but in the night he arose and went to the bed where their young sons lay, and caressed their brows in their sleep. A son for a son, the words echoed in his head, but he turned his thoughts terrified away from that path, and buried himself again in Sigyn's bed. Yet though he hummed a hundred songs, sleep eluded him still.
Far away in the Iron Wood, the Chief of Chiefs still sat, humming also, staring into the fire, sleepless and alone. She did not turn her thoughts away from the future. She had very little left to lose.