Excerpt from “The Compass Rose”, Voices of Vanaheim; the story of Qael, the current King of Vanaheim.
The blindfold was taken off me, and I saw the light of sunrise breaking over the horizon. The sun lit the wheat field up like gold. I could smell the ripe wheat, as well as a faint touch of sweat of those gathered around me – it was a hot day, already hot this early in the morning.
The ones who brought me to this space turned my body to face my twin, as silver fair as the field was gold, clad in a white linen robe with the white gold Serpent torc around his neck – the one around mine was yellow gold. His usually smiling face was severe, his usually dancing green eyes humorless, in stark contrast to the play of the colors of dawn and the peace of the Vanic countryside.
My hands were bound in front of me, and my twin cut the ropes binding them with his dagger, a raven and twin serpents gleaming silver on the hilt. The blade was stained with blood – it had tasted his own on the summer solstice, where he was bled to feed the land; the dagger had to know his blood before mine, as he was the Queen and the embodiment of the land.
Then my twin’s eyes met mine, holding them, locking them in a sorrowful embrace. I could feel his pain, his reluctance – what was about to happen was going to be harder on him than it was on me. In that, we would both be sacrificed, in our own separate ways. But he would do what he must and so would I.
I’m sorry, he said to me, privately, between us.
He took a deep breath and drove the knife into my throat. I love you, he said to me, before thrusting the knife into my chest.
I love you, aderano. I fell, bleeding, pain shooting through my entire body, gasping for breath.
Have a safe trip, he said, and then everything went as white as my twin’s robe and I drifted away, no more pain.
I was on a road, cutting through a wheat field. I walked, watching the road shimmer beneath my feet, glowing brighter as the sky got darker with an increasing number of grey storm clouds. The wind began to rage, and a raven swooped down from light piercing through the clouds. Then the raven shifted form, my cousin Jae clad in a white raven feather pelt over black robes, his long blue-black hair stirring in the wind, his eyes as dark as the storm. “I came to keep you company,” he said to me, smiling a little.
“Did you bring any whisky?”
“You know I don’t drink that shit.”
“What good are you? Get out of here, you cheap bastard.”
We both laughed and Jae put an arm around me, walking alongside me. “Still a smartass even in death,” he said.
The storm clouds darkened and thunder rolled. The road was gleaming so bright it was starting to hurt my eyes, and the wheat of the field was like pure liquid gold, a sea of gold with tides rolling back and forth in the wind.
I found myself singing – a song called “Man of Constant Sorrow”, a Midgard song I was fond of, but with a few changes to the lyrics relevant to myself. Jae’s voice accompanied me on the refrain at the end of each chorus.
I am an elf of constant sorrow
I’ve seen trouble all my days
I bid farewell to old Vanaheim
The place where I was born and raised
(The place where he was born and raised)
For six thousand years I’ve been in trouble
No pleasure here on earth I found
For in this world I’m bound to ramble
I have no friends to help me now
(He has no friends to help him now)
It’s fare thee well, my old true lover
I never expect to see you again
For I’m bound to ride that northern Hel-road
Perhaps I’ll die upon this wain
(Perhaps he’ll die upon this wain)
You can bury me in some deep valley
For many years where I may lay
Then you may learn to love another
While I am sleeping in my grave
(While he is sleeping in his grave)
Maybe your friends think I’m just a stranger
My face you never will see no more
But there is one promise that is given
I’ll meet you on Hel’s golden shore
(He’ll meet you on Hel’s golden shore)
There was a moment of silence, and then Jae looked at me, and then he pointed up ahead in the distance. The sky was so dark with the storm it was approaching black and the wind was so furious I was surprised we were able to stay on the road; there was a swirling black vortex at the end of the road. “You have to go in alone,” he said to me, “but I’ll be waiting here when Her Ladyship lets you leave.”
“Presuming she will let me,” I said.
“I’m pretty sure that she’s not going to decide to keep you on your first trip there, avela.”
“We’ll see.” I hesitated, looking at the raging darkness ahead of me. I had been in battle many times over, and prided myself on having no fear – this terrified me. “I really could have used some whisky,” I said to my cousin.
“I’m sure there will be plenty when you get back.” Jae patted my shoulder. Then he shoved me into the darkness. There was a sound like serpents hissing, and a steady thrum like a heartbeat.
For a moment everything was all black, and then it was like the night sky lit up with a billion stars. I saw tiny gossamer threads connecting them, shimmering, making webs like that of a spider. Some of the webs interconnected – some of the webs interconnected to form runes. Without thinking, I reached out to brush my hand against the web closest to me, and a flood of images poured into my mind.
The face of my mother, her singing me and my twin to sleep, my twin and I curled up together in our baby crib long long ago, then crawling around on the floor, in the grass, babbling to each other in baby talk that made perfect sense to us as twins and not at all to anyone else.
I retracted my hand. There was no way I was going to get through this darkness to go to Her Ladyship’s gates without having to walk through the webs, they were everywhere. What the Hel is this, I said to myself.
…yes, came back a quiet, deep but feminine voice. I took a deep breath. You give your life for your people, Lord of Plenty, and here it is. Walk through, relive, so I may take what is mine, the debt owed me.
The threads of the webs looked like tiny perfect serpents, scaled, with faint rainbow iridescence in the detail. Depending on where they were located, different colors were emphasized, some gleaming more golden, some gleaming more green, some gleaming more violet, some gleaming more red, or more blue, while still mainly silver-white in the darkness – I was reminded of my twin. I couldn’t feel him anymore, and wondered how he was dealing with keeping vigil for my body on the ground in Vanaheim.
As if she could read my thoughts, I felt Her Ladyship give me a gentle poke on the chest where I’d been stabbed, and then she said, Move along. You don’t want to keep your twin waiting any longer than necessary, elvenking.
And so I moved along, the webs brushing against me, sometimes tangling around me, mental images and emotions, sensations, entangling me as I stumbled forward.
As Runekta Marusanat approached, I tried to keep my spirits up, but I was honestly dreading the holiday, dreading the inevitable death. I didn’t want to be sacrificed. Even as I understood logically that I would be coming back later that day, and that it had to be done… I very badly did not want to go through with it.
I visited my uncle Ing, who since the change of hands in Vanaheim a year ago had become leader of the Boar tribe – a role that suited him better than King, where he could be more hands-on with the people than I, and reacclimate to Vanaheim after years of being too often in Asgard. He knew why I was there at his farm, before I ever told him. He poured himself some mead, and gave me some particularly well-aged whisky, and we sat watching the sunset, watching the grain in his field roll gently back and forth in the breeze.
“I’m a selfish bastard,” I said. “I have lost so much in my life… and all seemingly for a higher purpose… you’d think I’d be OK with sacrifice, what’s one more. Shit, I even got killed and put back together some months ago, though this is different.”
“It’s still your choice,” my uncle said.
“How is it a sodding choice if the land goes barren and people starve and die, if I sodding don’t.”
“Because you could be That Guy who says ‘fuck all of you, I’m out of here’ and walk away, and not give a damn. If it were someone else… like if it were Hadiss, he wouldn’t want to die for everyone, not a populace that included outlanders and ‘mudbloods’ as he’s so charmingly put it.” Ing snorted.
I took a deep breath, and I said, “I’m afraid She won’t let me come back.” I meant Hel, of course.
Ing nodded. “It was the risk I took every year. She’s highly unlikely to want to keep you there your first time down… and from a strictly pragmatic perspective, it’s easier on her to just keep sending you back every year than have to chip in with the collective forces to find another king to replace you if she keeps you there. And I died every year for six thousand odd years and you see Hel never kept me. She’s probably going to keep sending you back.”
“I understand.” Ing poured me another glass of whisky, sensing I needed it. “But it’s wyrd.”
“I still don’t know why the fuck wyrd picked me for this job. My twin and I just happened to be in the line of descent, born in the right place at the right time, I guess, but wyrd really could have put someone better in there.”
“No, not really.” Ing sipped his mead, glowing in the light of the sunset. “You of all people are intimately familiar with sacrifice and loss. You have had control wrested away from you time and again… and you have come to understand it works itself out for the best… usually.” He downed his mead. “Not always. But often enough.” I sighed. I hate it when other people are right. “There is no greater sacrifice when one who has already lost so much, gives himself, trusting that wyrd will honor his sacrifice and do the right thing with it… when one who has had so much in his life outside of his control, chooses and controls this.” Ing’s eyes met mine, green like my twin’s but not as intense, and then a butterfly landed on his shoulder, as if the butterfly of chaos was agreeing with Ing’s perspective of order. It flitted off again, to go wherever it would. I sighed again. I was going to need a lot more whisky. “You will choose this, and you will choose this because it is right.”
“Why does my twin get to have all the fun?”
“He doesn’t,” Ing said to me, frowning. “The sacrifice he made was to open himself to love and trust, after he had been so hurt. It was more painful for him to do that than you will ever know or understand. He feared rejection, but he fought the fear, and the land honored that, rejoicing with him in beautiful spring… and every spring will be beautiful and fertile, so long as he reigns.” He poured himself more mead, and poured me another shot of whisky. “Yanlin reminds me of Gerda, but flashier.”
“‘Flashy’ would be the word for it. ‘Whore’ would be another,” I said, not unkindly.
Ing chuckled. “Some of my favorite people are whores. Like my sister.” Then Ing said more seriously, “You have it comparatively easy. You just get to die. Your brother’s sacrifice has been to live, every day battling with fear, to live and to want to live when for so long he wanted to end it.”
As someone whose life motto seemed to be “fire, ready, aim”, it was sometimes hard for me to remember that my twin was not as carefree and… sometimes reckless… as I am. I often acted first and thought later; he analyzed everything to death, worrying about every last detail. And while I had been through a great deal of tragedy, my default state when things were calm was happy-go-lucky… loud and enthusiastic, exuberant… my twin’s default state was that poetic melancholy, still waters running deep, such a sensitive little thing.
“So you both have lost so much, and yet give yourselves,” he said, “and just like the land honors your twin’s sacrifice to live with the joyful beauty of spring, the land will honor your sacrifice with the harvest, and many fertile seeds from what is consumed. And when you come back, you will come back clean… reborn, renewed. The pain of your past will feel farther away, you will be better able to walk the road of the present.”
“I really want to believe you.”
“All you can really go on with this is belief,” he said. “Faith. Trust. That just as you let go and things worked out, wyrd will lead you back.” He raised his glass of mead to me. “That love will lead you back.”
The sunset was becoming twilight now, and the first star shone upon us, and before long, the sea of stars emerged. Ing pointed to the bindrune compass pendant I wore around my neck, that I had worn every day since it was given to me. “You’ll find your way,” he said. “Have faith in wyrd, as I have faith in you.”
I made my way out of the webs, arriving at a gate, guarded by a severe-looking raven-haired woman wearing leather armor, holding a spear; wordlessly she opened the gate and I walked through, down a path into a crystal cave that looked a bit like a castle. The entryway was a long crystal hall, lit by torches; I heard running water in the distance. As I approached the end of the hall, with multiple avenues to turn – new caverns – I saw her, half-dead, half-alive, and she extended her living hand to me, so I knew I was truly dead.
“Hail, elvenking,” she said. “Come.”
I followed her into what seemed like a large underground city, with waterfalls and fruit trees, people roaming freely, in and out of different cave mouths, some of them gathered in different spots around the fruit trees to sit and talk, or knit, or play chess, or other activities.
Her Ladyship and I sat underneath a golden apple tree – I was reminded of Idunna’s apples – and we smoked a pipe together, watching the folk of her realm. “They seem quite happy,” I said. “You take good care of them.”
“I try my best,” she said.
“Does it get lonely? I know a ruler is set apart from their people, and you do not exactly have a support group in the above worlds, when so many fear you.”
“It’s a loneliness I’m used to.” Hel shrugged. “In my melancholy, I better understand the sorrows of the souls I take in, and strive the more to give them proper comfort and rest, before they are called back out again.”
“Aye, sorrow… ’tis something I know well.” I smiled, sadly.
“That you do.” Hel stroked my face with her dead hand, which was like ice.
I sang to her, the song I’d sang on the Hel-road, and then she encouraged me to sing some more, so I sang several other songs of sorrow and woe – the last in my set was a Midgard song called “Hurt”, from a band called Nine Inch Nails, covered by the great singer Johnny Cash – and at last I started to cry, not able to help myself.
Hel pulled me into her embrace, stroking my hair for a moment, and then she let go, and took my hand, in her living hand. “Come,” she said, “I have a use for your tears.” She led me to the river flowing through the caves. “Cry, Vanir Lord. The river runs a bit dry this summer.”
I cried like I had never cried before, cried to the point where I felt like I would start crying blood, my body so wracked with sobs. I cried not just for myself, but for my family, and indeed, for the pain my realm had known, thrice war-torn, forgotten and forlorn for too long by folk we had considered kin, only to be met again but misunderstood by most who engaged with us, at best. I cried for Vanaheim, and then I cried for the realm of Hel, for all who had died in sorrow and suffering, who had left behind family who sorrowed and suffered, and for Hel herself, for her loneliness… she who had been separated from her siblings when she was young… she could walk away from this place if she chose, but she stayed here, as bound to duty as I was, in the friendless way that rulers too often were, set apart from her people, but loving and serving them just the same. She was a kindred spirit, and I would willingly go to her once a year, if only to be around someone else who understood me for a brief while.
At last the tears subsided; I still felt like I had not given enough, though the sound of rushing water was stronger now, from a trickle to a roar. “Thank you,” she said, dried my tears with a lace handkerchief, and then kissed my forehead, her lips like ice. Not able to help myself, I kissed her forehead back, my lips lingering, as warm as hers were cold. I took a deep breath and I did what I can only describe as “blowing light” at her forehead, my arms around her, and for a moment she was wholly alive, her black hair turned silver blonde… she looked frighteningly like my twin for a moment, when my twin had been female. Then she was back to the dark hair, and half-living, half-dead, looking a bit stunned.
“Would you like anything to drink?” she said.
“Do you have whisky?”
She indeed had whisky. She had a glass of it herself; we sat in her feasting hall, watching people eat. “Nobody from the aboveworld has ever cried for me,” Hel said, softly.
“I’m sorry.” I didn’t know what else to say.
She pressed my hand to her heart… her skin was like ice again, but grew warmer under my touch, and I saw her eyes become too bright… and then tears flowed down her cheeks, silently. After a moment she took a small green glass vial and cried into it, putting a stopper in it when it was full – it didn’t take much – and she handed it to me. “If there is ever anyone dying, who you wish to not die, just then… sprinkle this upon them, and they will live, for awhile yet.”
“…Thank you,” I said. “But I can’t accept this.” I put the vial back in her hand. “People go in their time, when wyrd wants them. I can’t fight that, even if I wanted to. Not even Odin could fight that, with Baldur, and he’s a conniving dirty bastard.”
Hel laughed. I was shocked to see her laugh – I wondered if it was the first time she’d ever laughed. Her laughing out loud made me laugh, which made her laugh harder, which made me laugh harder, which made her laugh harder, which made me start to snort, which made her laugh so hard she started crying again.
She took her tears, and wiped them on the compass pendant. “May you always find your way, elvenking, even when you think there is no way.”
That was a gift I could accept; I took both her living and dead hands, kissed them, and pressed them to my heart. “Thank you,” I said to her.
She put the vial back in my hand. “A shot of faith, hope, and courage, then, if not a gift of life. For you, or anyone you think needs it, when their hope is gone. When they’ve lost their way.”
“And thank you for that, as well.” I took it from her, and she gestured to my necklace; I took off the chain, and slipped the vial onto the chain, so it rested next to the compass pendant. I blessed her trees, letting her cut me and I bled onto them, onto their branches, over their roots.
When all the trees were blessed, she put her arms around me, and then she said, “Go.”
“Aye,” I said.
She pointed the way, and on my way out I saw Baldur, bright and smiling, and he made his way to Hel’s side – she greeted him with “Hello, Valraven,” and put her arm around him, and he around her, and they kissed, softly. She was fully alive, and fair, with him standing beside her; I could feel her energy radiating and the trees and ground responding to it.
As Hel bore a somewhat unnerving resemblance to my twin, Baldur looked a bit like Yanlin, though blonde (Yanlin had brown hair), and without the wistful, haunting melancholy in Yanlin’s eyes. Seeing Hel and Baldur stand together, so much like my twin and his consort, made the hair on my neck and arms stand on end.
As above, so below, echoed in my mind. Queen of Fertility, Queen of the Dead. Not-twins, mirrors, opposite numbers.
Baldur’s twin, Hodur, was blind, and had accidentally killed him; Kaeherys could… see, and had saved Yanlin’s life once. Hel’s twin, Fenris, was the Wolf, in chains given by the Lawspeaker of the Aesir, his power fettered for he would devour everything otherwise; I kept my own rage tightly fettered, unleashing it only in service of the Law, as Vanaheim’s Lawspeaker. Baldur had died and then gave himself as Hel’s consort, his light and life where it was needed most, Helheim’s sun; my twin had arguably died a year ago, reborn as a new person – the person he always was, deep down – necessary to be able to have what he has with Yanlin, and their love was the Grail of Vanaheim, poured out like water, feeding the land with gentle rain, tears of joy.
I was yet more unnerved by this revelation, but it also “clicked” in my head, that moment of understanding. More mirrors, more opposite numbers, the double spiral between worlds, connecting them, the cosmic cycle of life and death.
It all made sense. For all that wyrd often seemed inexorable – a force of discord rather than order – the weaving was still in patterns. I was part of that pattern, part of something larger than myself. As are we all.
I gave one final nod to Hel and Baldur; I was glad she had him. But he could not be everything to her… she needed a friend. I could be that for her, when it was my time to walk the Hel-road each year. I wouldn’t just die to feed my people… I’d be visiting a friend. I’d be visiting family.
I felt a hard thump on my chest and came back into my body with a gasp, and shooting pain.
My twin was kneeling above me, wielding the Serpent staff we had been given; he had resurrected me, Jae had given the signal that I was ready to rejoin the living. Anar kissed my lips softly, smoothing my hair, his eyes bright with tears that were softly falling, silently. My wounds were already closing, with his tears falling onto them.
It had been the plan that Anar would then fuck me, to ground me back into my body – but he gestured for Syddan to come over. He was giving me to Syddan… formally acknowledging Syddan as twin of my heart, my soulmate. This will be the way, each year, Anar said between us, and I nodded. The love my blood-twin and adopted brother shared – the way they brought each other joy after both having known great sorrow – would feed the land for high spring, blessing Vanaheim with abundance; Syddan would be there when I returned each year, The Law honoring the debt paid, and the reaping. It was right.
“Welcome home, aderano,” Syddan said, leaning in to kiss me.
I kissed him back, hungrily; I watched as Yanlin put his arm around Anar, escorting him away from the ritual site… Anar was shaken, and would need his gentle care, and no doubt he’d enjoy “caring” for my brother – fun for the whole family. Then Syddan put his hand on my chest, where I had been stabbed, where I wore the compass and the vial of hope, where I had been struck back to life… touching my heart with his fire, and breathed on me, breathing his breath into me, his life.
“Merendi,” I said, reaching up to him, too moved to say anything else. We kissed again, and he loved me before my people… claimed me before my people.
I was indeed home, and alive again… ready to taste life, and give the fullness of my life each year, to the land, to the Lady of the Dead, my rebirth a testament that nothing ever really dies, is just changed…like my very heart.
Love will find a way. Would you know yet more?
 Aderano: Vanic for “brother”.↩
 Avela: Vanic for “sweetheart, honey, sweetness”.↩
Runekta Marunasat: “Feast of the Fallen”, the Vanic version of Lammas. Where Frey was sacrificed each year until 2014 when Qael took his place as the sacrifice.↩
Merendi: Vanic for “one who completes”.↩