The Bargain with the Mistress


'Hermod before Hela' by John Charles Dollman


Hermod rode down to the foot of the world tree, Yggdrasil. There, he came to three thick roots. One would lead him to Mimir’s well. The other would take him to the Well of Fate. The third went down a steep slope that bore deep into the earth.


He hesitated and followed the third root. The further he went, the darker it became. Eventually, he could no longer see what was around him. All he could do was keep going.


Soon, the ground flattened out, and he heard rushing water. A deathly chill was in the air, and Hermod began to shiver. In the distance, he could see the ebbing silver light of a river. This was the river Gjoll. There was a bridge that ran over it. It was made of crystal and had golden archways. As he drew nearer, everything became brighter. He could see that he was no longer alone. Around him, the dead roamed. Some were on foot, and some, like Hermod, were on horseback. They were all heading across the river.


When Hermod made it onto the bridge, Modgudr, one of the wardens of Hel, blocked his path. Battle scars covered her face, and her hands were calloused. ‘Why do you wish to enter this land? You are not one of the dead?’


‘I wish to speak with your master.’


‘Why?’


‘I wish to bargain with her.’


Modgudr looked Hermod in the eye. The corners of her mouth twitched. ‘You’re welcome to try,’ she said, stepping aside. ‘Now, go. You have a long road ahead of you.’


Hermod bowed his head at Modgudr and crossed the bridge.


On the other side, Hermod found himself going into a dark forest. Trees with silver leaves sprung up all around him. Soon, it was like he was in a maze. This was the Ironwood. It was clear that he could not go any further on horseback. Hermod dismounted his horse and unfastened her harness. He patted her back and watched her gallop away. Hopefully, she would soon see the sun once more. As for Hermod, he turned around and headed deeper into the Ironwood.


Once he made it through the winding woods, he came to an enormous cavern. A vicious black dog was guarding the entrance. This was Garm. It snarled and barked at Hermod but allowed him to enter.


Inside, vast swarms of the dead walked back and forth. Their moans echoed through the cavern. Hermod could also hear the gushing of water above his head. He looked up. There were no signs of water, only high, craggy ceilings with stalagmites spiralling downwards like sharp spears.


Hel sat at the cavern’s centre, looming high on her rusty throne. She was a fierce-looking giantess with long black hair and deep-set black eyes. Her skin was ghostly white. Hermod’s heart turned cold as he approached her. ‘Excuse me, mistress,’ he said.


Hel’s eyes fixed on Hermod. ‘Speak.’


‘I have come on behalf of the Aesir. We wish to strike a bargain with you. One of our most beloved gods, Baldur, has been sent to your realm through trickery. Is there any way you would be willing to release him back to Asgard?’


‘Tell me of this trickery.’


‘It began when Frigg had a dream foretelling her son, Baldur’s, death. To stop this from ever coming to be, she resolved to go to each living thing and make them swear never to harm Baldur. She went to see the wild beasts of Niffelheim. She went to see the most venomous plants that grew in the nine worlds. She even visited the dwarves of Nidavellir. The beasts agreed they would never attack Baldur. The plants agreed they would never poison him. And the dwarves agreed to enchant all the weapons they made so that they would never harm him.


‘When Frigg returned to Asgard, she was overjoyed. She told us all about how she had saved her son. We were all so happy for her that we went to the mead hall to celebrate the news. We didn’t realise, however, that not everyone was so happy. While we drank, Loki sat in the shadows, deep in thought.


‘I regret to say that we became so drunk during the celebrations that we decided to throw weapons at Baldur to test his invulnerability. We threw swords, axes, and hammers. Each one just bounced off him. At some point, Loki approached Hodr, Baldur’s brother. He asked him if he would like to join in with the game. Hodr nodded but said he could not join in because of his blindness. “Then, I will help you,” Loki said. “I will guide your hand.” Then, he handed Hodr a spear. Hodr snatched the spear. He was so excited to be included in one of the Aesir’s celebrations that he didn’t think of the implications.


‘You see, Loki remembered Frigg saying that she had pleaded with every living thing that could do Baldur harm, but not the ones that couldn’t do him any harm, such as the humble mistletoe. Loki had tied some mistletoe around the spear’s blade.


‘When Hodr threw the spear, the Aesir went silent. All that could be heard were Hodr’s laughter. “Did I hit him? Did I hit him?” he squealed.


‘Loki smiled. “You certainly did,” he told Hodr. Then, Loki turned into a crow and flew away. We have not seen him since.


‘This is why I ask you to let Baldur return home with me. Hodr does not deserve his fate. To kill one’s brother is a grave crime. He does not deserve to live out the rest of his life as a criminal for the sake of a cruel trick.’


‘I will give you your bargain,’ Hel said. ‘If you can get every person in the nine worlds to mourn for Baldur, I will release him.’


‘Thank you, mistress,’ Hermod said. ‘I will now leave and begin my task.’


Once Hermod had finally made it out of Hel, he ventured far across the nine worlds. He pleaded with everyone he met to mourn for Baldur. He laid it on so thick that even Bragi, the greatest poet in Asgard, would be impressed.


By the time nightfall came, there was only one more person left to convince - a giantess who lived in a small hovel in Jotunheim.


Hermod knocked on her door. He noticed a crow’s feather by the doorway but thought nothing of it.


Eventually, the door creaked open, and an old giantess with a scrunched-up face poked her head out. She squinted at Hermod. ‘What do you want?’


‘Have you ever heard of Baldur, my dear lady?’


‘Look around. What do you think?’


Hermod frowned. ‘Well, Baldur is the best of all the Aesir. He is loved by everyone he meets. He is the kindest go—’


‘Sounds like one of them do-gooders,’ the old giantess interrupted. ‘I don’t like him already.’

Hermod ignored the giantess’s remark and continued. ‘Unfortunately, Baldur is dead through an act of vile trickery. The mistress of Hel, however, has agreed to a bargain for his life. If I can convince every person in the nine worlds to mourn for Baldur, she will release him. So, I ask you, dear lady, will you mourn for Baldur?’


The giantess rubbed her chin. ‘No.’


‘Please, dear lady. I beg you.’


‘No! I told you.’


‘Why not?’


‘Because I’m old and I’m miserable, and I don’t see why anyone else should be happy. Now, goodbye!’ She went inside and slammed her door.


Hermod sighed. He left the hovel and began his long ride back to Hel. If he’d stayed five minutes longer, however, he would have seen a crow fly out of one of the hovel windows.


When he returned, he approached Hel’s throne. ‘What of our bargain?’ she asked.


‘I could not convince everyone.’


‘Then Baldur must remain here.’


Hermod nodded and began the long walk back to Asgard to tell the other Aesir the sad news.