PYRAMID SCHEME – snippet 55:
“I don’t see why we have to go,” said Fenrir sulkily. Liz’s rule against his just gobbling huge volumes of soft meat, and insisting on him getting some bone-meal had definitely eased his aches and pains, and thereby his temper. It hadn’t done a lot for his teenage demeanor, though.
“Because Lizzy asked us to,” said Jörmungand. “And Papa-Loki and Step-Mama Sigyn.”
“But you know what she’s going to be like,” Fenrir complained. “Holier-than-thou. ‘Why don’t you do something useful with your lives’,” he mimicked. “Makes me sick.”
Jörmungand nodded her enormous head. “Our little sister makes me want to do something really shocking instead, but let’s face it, she does mean well.”
“She’s a sanctimonious little cow. Not my fault Odin sent her to Niflheim, and she found it suited her. If she starts lecturing, I’m leaving. What does she expect me to do? I’m a wolf. Minister to people with my paws?”
“Probably something equally unreasonable,” said Liz who had come up behind them. “Something silly like ‘stop eating them.’ A ridiculous idea, I know.”
“Well, if they will run away, it’s hard not to chase them down,” said Fenrir, tongue lolling.
“So what do I need for this place?” asked Liz.
“Warm clothes. It’s dark and full of freezing mists,” said Jörmungand.
It was. And their reception was not a lot warmer, once the queen of Hel got the message about why they’d come. Well, Loki and Sigyn’s reception was an enthusiastic hug from the piebald woman. She was literally half jet-black and half snow-white. She had obviously decided to make everything fit in with her theme colors. Liz could only be grateful that she would never have heard of zebras.
“So soon!” she said eagerly. “I knew as soon as Fimbulwinter began, but I was expecting it to be another few centuries before you broke free. We’re still ready, and by the time Fimbulwinter hits the third year my troops will have swelled greatly.” Then she saw Fenrir and Jörmungand. She took a deep, disapproving breath. “Family solidarity,” she said. “It’s a bit late for that, isn’t it? I haven’t forgotten last time.”
“Oh shut up,” said Fenrir, crossly.
“You shut up! I see that you’ve brought your useless drinking partner with you.”
“I’ve given it up,” said Thor, affronted. “I’m an alcoholic, but I’m currently in remission. I haven’t had a drink for five days. Except for rose-hip and mint tea, which has a delicate acidity to balance the cool clear flavor of the mint. It helps me to get in touch with my inner self.”
Hel stared at him as if he’d just spouted a line of Japanese. “What?”
Thor looked down his nose at her. “I thought you had some sensibilities and would understand that the great warrior is also an artist, and to find his edge needs to get in touch with his creative side, which means he needs to learn to use all his senses.”
“I think I understand why you brought him here,” said Hel, faintly. “Anyway, preparations are well afoot. We should be ready in three years.”
“Uh…. Hel, dear, we’re hoping not to wait three years,” said Loki.
She blinked at him. “Asgard will never fall without my full muster. And it will take Naglfar months to ferry them all across to Asaheim. And Surt’s hosts are going to take a long time to march all that way to set the worlds aflame.”
“Well,” said Loki, “I have been thinking about it. And I have decided not to do that this time around.”
“This time around?” Hel looked puzzled. “The end of Time comes, Papa-Loki.”
“Actually, it’s more like the wheel of time,” said Loki. “If we just let it keep going it never ends. It just keeps endlessly repeating the same old stuff. I had enough of it the first time around. And the more I think about it the more I remember. So I plan to break the pattern.”
Hel shook her head. “You can’t do that. Asgard must fall.”
“Odin must fall. But Asgard I’ll live with. I quite enjoy having a bunch of dimwits to play practical jokes on, and I’ve gotten used to the crowd in Asgard.”
“Asgard must fall,” repeated Hel, a little rosy flush appearing on her white cheek.
“But why, dear?” asked Sigyn. “Our fight really is with Odin. I know how you feel about your lodgers here. Fimbulwinter will bring thousands more.”
“Millions,” said Hel. “But if those already here are to escape, then that’s the way it must be. That is the deal I made with Baldr. And he is going to rule in the new Gladheim. It is foretold.”
Loki scowled. “If I ever needed a reason not to destroy Asgard, it would be to avoid having that pretty-boy on the throne.”
Hel looked pained. “But he has promised that my subjects can have some of the privileges of Asgard’s Einherjar and Freyja’s warriors, and will not have to dwell in the cold and dark any more. I will not bend on that, Papa-Loki. It’s not right as it is.” There was a steely determination in her voice.
Jerry coughed. “Um. Lady Hel.”
“That is a polite form of address, mortal, but not the correct one. I am the queen of Hel.”
“Pretentious baggage,” said Jörmungand, not quite under her breath.
Hel drew herself up onto her toes. She still wasn’t quite up to the size of Jörmungand. “This is my Kingdom and—”
“I apologize, your highness,” said Jerry. “What I was trying to say was wouldn’t you rather be Lady Hel of Asgard than stuck down here? It seems very unfair that you were sent into exile here anyway. What had you done?”
Hel nodded. “It was unfair. But they need me.”
“I think they’re lucky to have you,” said Jerry, trying not to feel as if he was as slimy as Odysseus. “However, I’m not au fait with the hierarchy of Asgard, but if Baldr didn’t get reborn, then who would be ruler of Ás?”
There was a moment’s all-round silence, broken by Thrúd. “Why… you would, Papa-Thor.”
“I suppose that would be true,” said Loki, sounding as if he didn’t know whether to be horrified or amused by the idea.
Jerry nodded. “And while you may have other criticisms of Thor, he is known to be honorable and fair, to the best of his ability.”
“True,” said Hel, doubtfully. “But I am not sure…”
“I am,” said Loki. “I’d rather pull Thor’s beard than Baldr’s any day. Red beard knows how to laugh. Baldr doesn’t.”
Jerry wondered where his confidence was coming from. Could that time spent talking to the corpses on Yggdrasil have had some effect? “Tell me, Thor. Could you see your way clear to improving conditions down here?”
“I don’t know,” rumbled the thunder god. “I am a strong believer in tradition. What would there be to encourage men to die well in battle if they did not have the hope of joining the glorious ranks of the Einherjar or Freyja’s warriors?”
“What about the brave warrior who dies after the battle?” asked Liz. “He gets hit on the head trying to be a hero, and takes three weeks to die.”
Thor wrinkled his broad forehead. “It happens. I see your point. Not really fair, is it?”
Jerry continued. “Or a warrior who dies before the battle—that he was ready for, brave enough for, but was unlucky enough to eat some bad fish on the eve of.”
Thor rubbed his forehead, as if trying to rub out the wrinkles that were threatening his brain. “Loki, help me on this one.”
“You’re on your own, O future Lord of the Æsir,” said Loki with a crooked smile. “You will be, if you hold that position.”
Thor shook his head. “Then I will have to draw the line somewhere. I understand now why Odin drew it where he did.”
“What if,” said Jerry, speculatively, “you judged someone’s life instead of their death. That would be fairer than just choosing one moment.”
“Yes,” said Hel.
“It’s an important moment,” said Thor.
“That can be weighed too,” Jerry smiled. “It is done that way in some other mythworlds. I’ve seen it. And it works. You add together the good and subtract the bad.”
Thor shook his head. “It’s not that I don’t like the idea, but, well, I’m not so good at counting, let alone addition.”
“Delegate,” said Liz.
“But to whom?”
“Forseti,” said Thrúd. “What do you think, Hel?”
She nodded, slowly. “Baldr and Nanna’s son would be a good choice. Of course, you would have to create a new hall for the dead of Hel. A great one, but unless you succeeded in getting Idun to part with her apples to them, one with good beds and comfortable chairs and easily digested food. Not all of those here are as young as they once were, you understand. Mead and fighting are very nice when you’re twenty.”
“Uh,” said Thor.
“A bit immature and uncultured, though,” put in Liz, seeing him waver. “You could have a tea house. For the more sophisticated corpse.”
“And a chess room,” said Thrúd.
“Chess is a battle game,” agreed Thor. “And I would like to see the appreciation of fine teas spread. I could see that happening. And there’d be less fuss in Valhöll among the Einherjar that way.”
“I think we could just have a deal,” said Loki, looking at his youngest daughter.
Hel looked thoughtful. “Maybe.”
“Come on, girl, it’s better than Baldr would have offered. And more than that, you can be sure of old Thor.”
Hel looked at the big red-beard. “I see that you have Mjöllnir back.”
“It’s twin, anyway. And I’m not letting it out of my sight again. I’ve taken a few hard knocks but thanks to the twelve-point plan I am my own Æsir again. We’ll have to start a chapter of AA for your subjects too.”
“Baldr is not going to be pleased,” said Hel. “I can live with that.”
She now looked at Jörmungand and Fenrir. “Neither of them are full grown this time…” She paused, and then stamped her foot angrily. “Now I remember last time too. Thor, you have a deal. Except that Baldr stays here. When do you want my subjects to march, Papa-Loki?
“Soon, girl. We have some ideas—my new artificer, a fellow called Lamont and me, assisted by this mortal here. He’s a trickster too. I owe him for freeing Sigyn and me. Now… two things. Can we see Narfi?”
Hel shook her head. “No. You know the rules, papa. No visiting times.”
“Oh.” he sounded utterly crestfallen.
“But I will tell him that you came. And he will march with the dead… and hopefully face Forseti’s judgment.” By the smile on her face she had figured out that that would keep her father and step-mother watching over Thor. “And what is the second question?”
Loki looked at Thor, Jerry and Liz. Lamont and the children were back in Ran’s watery cliff-castle. “I need to know if a soul called Marie Jackson has entered through Nágrind. If she has, I am honor-bound to tell her husband.”
The wait seemed interminable.
Then Hel held up her hands. “She sits on the threshold, Papa. Only the thorn of sleep holds her from time.” She paused. “She is a strong and valiant spirit. Lesser ones would have passed through.”
“Stronger than a god,” said Thor quietly.