The Goddess Hel could be found deep in the woods, far past any area a hunter or warrior would dare to travel alone, but it was demanded that each ruler of Kattegat do so. She had to be appeased lest she is insulted and bring ruin and disease upon them all.
The traditions held that if one were to follow the east river to its very end there would be the entrance to a cave, one in which there is no end. If a ruler were found favourable, she would appear and lead them back to the light. Otherwise, a ruler may stumble and search for her or the exit until Ragnarok began - and only then would he be given his end.
This tradition had slowly ended when one of Earl Harald had refused to venture and appease the Goddess, and there appeared to be no punishment. Neither Haraldson nor Ragnar had taken the journey, so the myth of a vengeful Hel became nothing but a warning for mothers to tell their children for venturing too far in the woods.
But, there was one in Kattegat who still believed in the presence of the Goddess deep in the woods. For over a year he dreamed of the long journey by the river, through the woods and deep into the cave. Night after night, the vision came to him of the route, of the locations for food and safe places to sleep. It wasn’t until a month past that the visions had stopped, but in their place he heard a soft female voice whispering for him to come.
It had taken him a couple of days to get the needed supplies without rousing suspicion and had left late at night when the whole village had fallen into a slumber from which no-one could wake. For three weeks, he had dragged himself along the route that had been laid out for him. Ignoring the tearing of his flesh and muscle, he at last found himself at the cave entrance with a swirling pool of water in front of it.
It was the silence that unnerved him, throughout his whole journey the woods had been full of sound. From the loud call of various animals, birds singing around him, wind whistling through the trees, the sound of the woods showed it full of life. But here, just before the entrance where he lay, everything was utterly still as if nothing dared to disturb the silence.
Gritting his teeth against the feeling, Ivar put one arm before the other and began to drag himself into the cave itself and kept going even when all light itself was extinguished. Closing his eyes to attune his senses in the dark, he crawled for what felt like an age until a small gentle hand was placed upon his shoulder to stop him continuing.
“Careful little brother, you do not want to go any further.” echoed a cheerful female voice.
Eyes flashing open, Ivan stared up at a beautiful brown-haired girl who was kneeling before him whose features he had seen before in his fathers’ face.
“You’ve come all this way you don’t want to miss her. She has such great plans for you.” the girl smiled and pointed just a way behind him and to the side, “M’lady waits for you over there.”
Spinning his head around he found a campfire burning with a hooded figure standing behind it. Opening his mouth to talk, Ivar turned back to the child but found her gone and only the endless dark ahead of him. His heart trembling for but a second, he turned around and pulled himself back towards the campfire where he found a bedroll and pillow laid out.
Unsure if it was for him, he looked up at the hooded figure questioning. A pale, feminine hand emerged and waved him towards the bedroll.
“Welcome Ivar Ragnarson, long have I awaited your arrival,” came the voice from his dreams, “we may speak more after you have eaten and rested. Your journey has been a long and painful one.”
Before he could refuse, a banquet of rich and enticing food appeared next to the bedroll and the hooded figure disappeared in a wisp of smoke. Crawling up on the bedroll, Ivar allowed himself to indulge in the food and wine. The last week of his travels had seen the near depletion of his supplies, so his body in desperate need of nourishment. So fierce in his need to eat, he didn’t notice his weariness until it was too late and sleep took hold over him.
Awareness came slowly—a weary opening of eyes that lazily examined his surroundings. The campfire still burned brightly, the only source of light near him with the small tunnel leading back to the main cave being swamped in darkness. On the walls of the cave were a number of shelves that held several gold and silver bowls, urns, weapons, trinkets and delicately woven tapestries.
“Offerings from those that have called on me, including the previous Earls of Kattegat.” the robed woman said as she emerged from the darkness and sat opposite from him across the fire.
Reaching for the bag at his waist which contained one of the jewelled necklaces of his mother which he had bought as an offering, the other raised her hand to stop his actions.
“Your journey here, Ivar the Boneless, has more than proven your worth to sit before me and be heard. I require no offering from you.” She said as she pulled down her hood.
Ivar drank in the sight of the Goddess. The myths of her appearance were incredibly wrong as before him sat no half-skeleton, half living being. Instead, a pale-skinned beauty with deep emerald eyes, raven black hair and blood-red lips. On her forehead, the rune sowilo.
“Why have you called me here?” Ivar asked. The question of why Hel would call a cripple before her, one that is no ruler or king, had plagued him from when the dreams first began to start.
“Because you are willing to listen Ivar while those around you are so caught up in their power games they refuse to hear. Floki has taught you well.”
Ivar remained silent as Hel continued.
“For a mortal, life and death are clear - once born you will eventually die, time is straightforward for you. For Gods, however, things aren’t so clear. Instead, we are like a wheel- life, death and even time occurring in cycles. I called you here because I have before, and I will do so again.”
“For what purpose?”
“Because death is coming Ivar, but a death unlike you know. It will be the death of the old ways. The death of the Northmen and their ways will give birth to the Christians and their God.”
“How can I stop it?”
“You can’t, it is inevitable.”
Ivar reeled, the very core of his being shaken. The thought of such loss was almost incomprehensible to him, but he could see how it could occur. Already Christianity was creeping across the lands, their insidious schemes to ally themselves and spread their religion while destroying the old.
“What if we killed them all? Wiped them out to the last man, woman and child.”
“More will come, in greater numbers and strength, and will return death for death.”
With a flick of her hand, the fires grew taller and turned green. Ivar watched as strange boats appeared upon the shores with scores of armoured soldiers wearing a white garb with a red cross. Watched as Kattegat was burned and its people slaughtered, and the only living beings were the animals left alive in the chaos.
“Nothing can be done?”
“Not for the Northmen no, but there is an alternative.”
Tearing his eyes away from the flames, Ivar looked up and into the green eyes of the Goddess.
“The Seer promised your father many sons who would be talked about as long as man shall have tongues to speak. That is true, but you Ivar the Boneless, will be the father of a nation of people unlike the world has seen. Blessed by the Gods with their power so long as they remember and uphold the old ways.’
‘This is not possible; I cannot father a child.’
Hel let out a laugh before standing up.
“Not with a mortal woman, you can not. You are to be the father of a new people Ivar, but I am to be its mother.” Hel announced before unbuttoning her robe and stepping naked out of it. With a seductive sway of her hips, she was over and straddled the stunned Viking.
“The Christian God says that those who are baptised unto him die a sinful death and are reborn into everlasting life. Such dramatics, but a little poetic, I suppose.” She mused while placing her hands on either side of his hips.
Suddenly a wave of rush warmth washed over his hips down and feeling he could feel his very bones begin to reform and strengthen.
“Tell me Ivar, are you willing let me give you a little death so that you can give me life?”
Wrapping a hand around the back of her neck, Ivar pulled Hel to him and down to the bedroll.
They stood on the ridge of the hill together looking down upon the small village, watching the workings of people below who had yet to notice them.
“The babe. When they are born…” Ivar began hesitantly.
“The babe must know its father and the old ways Ivar, I never intended to keep them from you,” Hel interrupted and gave his hand a reassuring squeeze.
Gently he laid a hand on the Goddess’s slightly rounded stomach, reassuring himself once again that the past couple of months had not been a dream.
The shouts of loud voices below interrupted them and let them know that they had been seen.
“Upon their birth, I will return,” Hel promised before disappearing into a wisp of smoke.
Relieved, Ivar headed towards his brothers who were running up to him only to laugh at their shock when they saw him walking. Things were about to change in Kattegat.