No Sunshine in Hel

There’s no sunshine in Hel.

They didn’t call it Hel anymore. It was Nornheim now. Icy grey fog roiled at the realm’s boundary with Niflheim. Her mother, Tilda, once Skuld the Norn, Mathilda Eilífsdóttir in the living world, had said never to refer to home by its old ruler and namesake, but “Hel” felt more apt to Erin Eilífsdóttir than the name her mother had given it.

Tilda had been able to conjure her daughters from the void, but only within her domain. The sun had never lit Erin’s face, nor wind tousled her hair. She’d had companions men, women, among the dead—not love. Sometimes she felt like a fire ready to ignite, but one couldn’t build a new life in a dead world.

Erin fiddled with the small pendant at her neck—a worn, grey stone with a hollow centre plucked from a beach she’d never visit. She looked past the giant-bone gates and muttered a curse into the mists. No sound came from the fog; either it, or the falling ash, smothered what little sound the dead’s steps made. Their bodies had no weight, and gave little warning. It was as if all Niflheim’s grey had settled upon her. The gloom wanted to infect a mind. Erin tightened her grip on her axe, the hand-etched runes on its haft glowing in response. If something didn’t change soon, they were fucked.

She repeated her worry aloud. “If the dead don’t come soon—”

“They’ll come,” Erin’s sister Hilde said. Reassuring, as always. Easy to do when one could see the future. Erin could only see the Now. Hilde’s arrival hadn’t surprised Erin; she’d been looking into the Now. It was a game, who could surprise whom. The sister who saw the future or the sister who saw the present. Hilde’s cloak fluttered despite the lack of wind, and her staff scratched over the

“No travellers since Mom went Upworld.”

“Time flows as it needs here.”

Erin rolled her eyes at her sister repeating the axiom to her. But Hilde wasn’t wrong. There’d been long stretches with no new arrivals; this span only felt longer because they’d been left in charge. Tilda hadn’t given them much notice when she’d left. She was still used to being a vagabond at heart, and Hel’s mantle weighed heavily at times.

“All come to Hel in their own time,” Hilde said.

Another axiom. The unsaid bit: “and they never leave it.” Which wasn’t true. The dead escaped—ghosts and draugar who tormented the living. Baldur had gotten his life back (eventually); Hel herself had seen her half-life replaced with a living body. Hilde wanted to comfort, not annoy; but still, Erin was antsy. A distant roar cut through the mist—the only sound that ever pierced the mist. Níðhöggur hungered, and it wasn’t wise to keep a
dragon waiting. Especially this dragon.

Hilde offered, “We could send her some dead from the hall?”

Erin shook her head. “They’ve already been judged, Mom wouldn’t allow it.”

“Mom’s not here.”

“What do we do, then?”

“We could ask Langamma.”

“Mom said never to ask Langamma’s advice.”

“She was a Norn almost as long as Niflheim has existed. Longer than Nornheim. Longer than Hel. She could help.”

“Again, Mom’s not here.” Hilde chuckled. “Since when do you do what Mom says?”

“Mom said no.”

Erin bristled. “The dead can’t be trusted. They’re governed by their loss and by their desires.”

We are dead.”

“We never lived. That’s different.”

“We are dead. The sooner you accept our place here, the better.”

Hilde pulled back her cloak hood and shook out her poker-straight, white-blonde hair. Sometimes Erin resented how Hilde took after their mother’s appearance: tall and willowy versus her short and stacked. Erin ran her fingers through her short red hair. There were no barbers in Hel, so it was typically shaggy and unkempt. The freckles over her nose and under her eyes made her look younger than she was. She had to fight to be taken seriously among the often-warlike spirits who found their way here.

Erin’s fierce red hair, Hilde’s blonde, and their matching blue eyes, were the only colours in Nornheim. Otherwise the sisters looked much the same as the spirits in the hall: greyscale. Muted. Even their clothing. Tilda brought them new clothing from Midgard, but Niflheim’s mist leached their wardrobe’s life the way it stole warmth from the living.

“Not dead. Not completely.”

Hilde acknowledged the point with a wan smile. “Too dead to be alive.”

Read more of “No Sunshine in Hel” in When the Sky Comes Looking for You: Short Trips Down the Thunder Road.