Name: Danielle Hughes
According to Norse mythology Baldr was the most beloved son of Odin and Frigg. Frigg made all creation swear an oath not to harm him, with the exception of mistletoe. Therefore, Loki tricked the blind god Hodur into killing Baldr with a spear wrapped with mistletoe. Baldr’s death marked the beginning of Ragnarok.
Rain drops splashed onto my face. I blinked up at the thick evergreens as rain breached the canopy with increasing force. The summer squall was not a promising start to a camping trip. Looking back maybe it was nature was trying to warn us.
“Loki, hurry up,” Odin called from atop his eight legged steed.
I looked up to see that the rest of my family was already at the crest of the hill. Yanking my boots free of the mud I tried to catch up with. My legs would not cooperate; swathed in my soaked trousers. I slipped, falling to my knees. I scrambled to stand hoping my brothers had not seen me fall. My frenzied attempt caused my feet to go out from under me again. I landed face first, with an audible squelching sound. Thor’s laughter rang in my ears before I could even try to right myself. I wished the ground would swallow me. The only the ground was becoming mud and getting everywhere including in my eyes. I tried to wipe them and only made things worse. I spit trying to rid my mouth of the grit, but I lost that battle too.
“Quick with his tongue but not so on his feet,” Thor said.
I felt tears prick my eyes. The only mercy was that I was fairly sure the tears would not show with all the rain and muck covering my visage.
Baldr frowned at Thor and then started towards me. “There’s no reason to be mean.”
“Ah yes, because Loki is always the kindest soul.”
Odin dismounted spraying mud as he landed. “Thor, help your brothers up here!”
Despite how much I sometimes disliked my brawny, older brother I was glad Odin made him help us because I was pulling Baldr down into the mud much more than he was pulling me up out of it. With one of Thor’s muscular hands around each of our forearms he dragged Baldr and I up the hill to where Odin was guiding our brother, Hodur, down from the horse.
As Thor began unloading supplies, I rubbed my arm trying to get the circulation back. I watched through the raining thinking there was no possible way all the bedrolls would be dry. I had a feeling it would be a long, cold night.
“Loki, watch Hodur,” Odin said as he tied up his horse. “Take him to get firewood.”
I looked at him and sighed. Hunting through the forest for kindling in the rain, with my blind brother, was another reason I detested camping. If we were home in the palace the servants would already have a fire blazing. They would also be watching Hodur, not me.
“I don’t need to be baby sat,” Hodur said as we started off.
“Good, because I don’t plan on sitting you.” It was not that I had anything against Hodur, I just wanted to be left alone. Also, I hated, absolutely hated every being in charge of anything. All that ever happened was something went wrong and I would get blamed for it. Honestly, I was a little surprised that no one had blamed the rain on me yet.
As we ventured further into the trees the rain only found its way through the canopy enough to cause a light shower. Finding a rock, I climbed onto it and shrugged off my drenched outer cloak. Then I pulled out a small leather pouch and unwrapped its contents. I smiled, seeing my spell book was unharmed. Tucking my legs up underneath me I began to read.
“Father will be angry if we don’t come back with anything.” Hodur was standing with one hand pressed against a tree and his other wrapped tightly around his cane, exactly where I had left him. His milky eyes were flickering back and forth.
I glared at him and then, realizing that he could not see me, gave an exaggerated huff and jumped to the ground with a thud.
“This is not my idea of fun either,” Hodur said. He was patting the ground with his cane edging towards me.
“Ah yes,” I took time to secure my book in the pouch, “but a family who is miserable together, stays together.”
Hodur actually laughed and I felt a sense of satisfaction at that.
I rubbed my hands together looking around. I needed to find something Hodur could do independently. My eyes found some plants growing near the base of an oak. “You can pick some bilberries,” I said leading him over to the grouping. “Meanwhile, I will gather firewood.”
“I will not be able to tell if they are ripe.”
“We can sort them back at camp.” He stumbled after me and I left him by the tree.
I had not found much wood dry enough to light when I heard Baldr calling for Hodur and me.
“That is all you found?” Baldr pouted at me once I made it back to where he and Hodur were waiting. “It will take dinner forever.”
I rolled my eyes. “I doubt you will starve.” Though he was not wrong, dinner would be a long time coming.
As if in protest to my statement, Baldr’s stomach emitted a deep growl.
“Was that your stomach?” Hodur asked, his milky eyes rotating towards the sound.
“Yes, it will eat me from the inside out if I do not feed it soon.”
I had a rather twisted mental image of that and tried not to laugh. “Maybe you should let him have some berries.”
“Here,” Hodur held the satchel out in front of him. “There might be some unripe ones.”
Baldr took the bag and then gobbled a handful of berries without even looking at them. He winced. “Ooo, you are right about that.”
By the time we were back at camp Baldr had eaten all the berries.
“I would have liked some of those,” Hodur said.
“I think all of us would have.” I said.
Baldr scrunched up his face. “I was hungry.”
“So are the rest of us.” Honestly, I think the rest of us were more so. I had no idea what Baldr’s part in setting up camp had been, but it most likely had not been labor intensive. At least the rain had slackened a bit.
Odin turned and watched as we approached, his eye finally focusing on me. “Is that all?”
I looked down at the bundle of firewood I was clutching. The wood had become steadily less flammable due to its proximity to my soaked clothes. “Yes.” Odin simply turned away.
Thor came over and took the wood from me. “Did you find anything for us to eat while we wait for the rabbits?”
Baldr shot me a desperate look. “No, nothing,” I lied. Hodur snorted, but Thor did not press the subject.
A little while later the rain stopped, but we were all still soaked and huddled near the cooking fire. Waiting for dinner to cook Baldr kept nodding off.
“Are you alright?” I asked him. It had been a long, wet day but nodding off was a little excessive.
“I am fine.” Baldr rubbed his eyes. “I think I just need to lie down.”
I agreed and did not think much of it, but by the time dinner was ready he had begun vomiting.
“You do not think he could have gotten sick from the berries I picked do you?” Hodur asked worriedly. “Can you get sick from unripe berries?”
I shook my head, more out of habit than a feeling of assurance. “No one gets sick from bilberries. His stomach is probably just upset from travelling.”
Hodur nodded and began feeling his way towards his tent with his cane.
The more I thought about what Hodur said, the more restless I became. It was ridiculous, of course, no one could get sick from bilberries, but Baldr was getting worse.
While the other’s tended to Baldr I made a torch and raced into the woods retracing my steps. I approached the plants I had found, and directed Hodur to earlier, with caution. My eyes were squeezed nearly shut, and I opened one fully and then the other when I got close enough to see the berries clearly. When I saw that the bushes were indeed bilberries, I exhaled so forcefully my torch flickered. I walked around the bushes just to make sure that everything was all as it seemed. It was not until I reached the far side that I saw some other plant growing in with the berries. I looked more closely and realized the other plant was mistletoe. My stomach twisted, my dinner threatened to come up on me. No! No! This was not possible. Hodur had not picked any mistletoe berries. My brother was not poisoned. I would not allow myself to believe it.
“Did you think this would be funny?” I had not known Odin had followed me. I turned and stared up at his one-eyed visage.
“I did not see them.” The tree was pressed against my back, twigs digging into my flesh. I had not realized I had backed up until then.
“Your brother is dying!” Odin’s voice cracked with fury. I cringed.
“I did not see them.” I felt my throat tighten. I knew he thought I was lying, because if I had picked the berries I would have seen the mistletoe when I got to this side of the shrubs.
There had to be a way to explain this without hurting Hodur. I tried to think, but before I had time to come up with a plausible excuse I was in a heap on the ground watching Odin’s feet fade as my torch sputtered and went out. My head was filled with a strange buzzing. Something warm and wet slid down the side of my face.
Sitting up, I finally did lose my supper. It felt like I was falling even though I could feel the ground beneath me. I stayed on my hands and knees until the earth settled and then made it to my feet with the tang of acid still burning in the back of my throat. It served as a reminder of what would happen if I moved too quickly.
When I was confident my legs would hold me I began to teeter forward my hands extended so I did not walk into anything in the deep blackness of the woods. I wondered if this was how Hodur always felt and I could not help but be amazed that he kept his sanity.
Eventually, I made it back to the campsite. The embers were glowing, the tents and provisions were still there, but my family was gone. Our walk to the campground had taken the better part of a day, but Odin would have taken Baldr back on Sleipnir at full speed. In my current state I would not even be able to catch up with Thor and Hodur, who were most likely on foot. I was alone. Making a torch and then putting out the coals, I started for the palace.
Even pushing my body to its limits; the sun had risen by the time I reached the city. The mud on my clothing had solidified into a shell that shattered and crumbled as I walked.
I did not dare make my presence known until I knew that Baldr was alive. He had to be alive. Father would have raced here and the healers would have a cure. Then, I would let my family know I was home. I would explain what happened, and probably get punished, but Baldr, Hodur, and I would laugh about it later. So, I took back passages and old sentry gates, making my way into the palace undetected. It was not until I was crawling up the servant’s staircase to the sleeping quarters that I found my path blocked by two small boots. I looked up to see the rest of the person attached to the boots and found myself staring at a disheveled servant girl.
“Who are you, and why are you trying to break into this palace?”
The girl was pretty, in a frail sort of way, with brown eyes too big for her face and thin brown hair. I noticed she had been crying and my stomach rebelled again sending bile into the back of my throat. “My brother?”
She blinked rapidly and then curtseyed so deeply she nearly fell off her step on top of me. “Prince Loki, I am so sorry, my deepest apologies, you look…different.”
Different, I decided, must have been the nicest way she knew to say that I looked like I had been buried alive for three days. I tried to get up and would have failed, but she came down to help me. She was surprisingly strong. “What’s your name?” Baldr would have known her name. He just remembered things like that. All I knew was that she looked vaguely familiar.
After a pause and a few more random blinks she replied. “Nanna.”
“Nanna, how is my brother Baldr.”
“I…I do not think I should be the one to tell you.”
“You are, because I asked you.”
Her head bowed and I could only just hear her response. “He rests in Valhalla.”
“Then so do I.” She glanced at me, but did not acknowledge the statement. There was no way I would be forgiven for this. I had killed my brother.
When we had reached my chambers I knew I did not need some servant girl hanging around. “Thank you, you can go now.”
More blinking and I began to think she might have a condition. “I should at least draw you a bath.”
“A basin of water?”
I sighed. If I did not let her do something for me she was never going to leave. “Yes, fine.”
She curtseyed and went sprinting down the stairs.
The door clicked shut behind me and I took a deep breath of air that smelled of warm spices. I stared at my bed across the room and wanted nothing more than to crawl into it and sleep. I wanted this to fade into some grotesque dream, but it was not. I had no time for sleep. With more effort than it had taken even to get up the stairs I turned my back on the bed and went to my armoire. Just before pulling the doors open I caught an image in the dressing mirror and jumped. It took a while for my brain to register that the thing being reflected was me. Different, was certainly not the first adjective I would have used to describe my present state.
I walked closer and blinked. My skin was so covered in dirt that it looked a dusty brown. There was a trail of dry blood from my nose and another from my left ear. The hair on my head was caked in dirt, causing it to stand on end. I was very thankful for the water Nanna was bringing. There was no possibility of leaving unnoticed looking like this. It was a miracle I had gotten in with only one servant stopping me.
There was a knock at the door and I turned away from my self-assessment. “Yes?” I closed my eyes hoping that it was Nanna.
“I have your water, and I brought some food as well.”
I took a long steadying breath. “Leave it outside.” Only after she had left did I retrieve the items.
I washed the best I could, wincing as the water stung my wounds. Then I put new clothes on and filled a satchel with some supplies, including the food Nanna had brought. I got my bow, usually only used for competitions, but a weapon was still a weapon no matter how fancy it looked.
I made it outside the palace without incident, and then I heard a scream from above. I looked up and saw a woman about to throw herself over the balcony. Mother! I was about to call to her when her servants appeared, rushing to halt her suicide. She began fighting with them, still edging toward the balcony rail.
Oh, mother I am sorry, so sorry. I wanted to run up and explain everything to her. However, nothing I could say would fix this. No apologies or explanations were going to bring my brother back. I had started crying without meaning to and swiped my eyes furiously. On the balcony my mother continued to fight her servants. She was screaming with a demented fury. Upon hearing that sound a part of me died. I sank to my knees, eyes locked on the calamity above. Then Thor was there scooping my mother up as if she were a belligerent child and not a grief filled queen. As he turned to take her inside he saw me and for just a moment our eyes met.
I jolted to my feet and began running. I could not be caught. Odin would kill me. I knew this as surely as I knew my own name. He had left me injured in the woods because Baldr was sick; now that Baldr was dead I would receive much worse. The road seesawed in front of me. Blood pounded in my ears, blocking out any other sound. I fell into a cart, sending vegetables asunder, but pushed up and kept running, ignoring the pain in my limbs. By the time I escaped the city gates my vision had gone dark on the edges. Breathing sent stinging pains through my torso. Still I willed my legs to keep pumping. Then someone hit me from behind and wrapped around me. I fell, hitting the ground, a jarring pain rippling through my body.
“Off!” I tried to yell, but the word came out more as a gravelly rasp as grass fell out of my mouth.
Thankfully, the thing that had fallen on top of me must have understood because it obeyed. I scrambled to my feet to face my older brother. “What do you want?”
“Hodur told me what happened,” Thor said, as if it were a revelation.
“Make sure he doesn’t tell anyone else.” I said, my tone sharp.
Thor bulked. “But I know it was an accident, if you explain that to father…”
I glared at him. “Like I did earlier when I got abandoned? Oh yes, Odin is so much more likely to show mercy now that Baldr’s dead and not just ailing.”
“This time Hodur will back your story.”
“No,” I shook my head, wincing at the pain the action caused. “It would still be my fault. I was the one who found the berries in the first place. I was put in charge of Hodur. Besides, Hodur would never be able to survive if Odin punishes him. I can take care of myself.” I sounded remarkably confident. I was doing the only thing I seemed good at; lying.
“Is that so?” Thor was staring at my nose.
Tentatively I stuck my tongue out and tasted blood, obviously my nose bleed was back. “Yes, besides, I won’t be missed.” Now I was failing at lies as well.
“That is not true.”
“It was last night.”
“I…I am sorry about that. Baldr was so sick and…”
“It does not matter. I’m leaving; let me take the blame with me. It will be easy. No one likes me much anyway. If you want to help, make sure Hodur keeps quiet.” I turned and began to walk away, refusing to limp, despite the fact that my ankle was sending jolts, which felt like a thousand dagger cuts, through my right leg with every step.
“Loki, please, I do not want to lose two brothers today.”
I stopped and tried to keep my tears from falling and failed. I did not turn around. I could not make my face lie right then and he could never see the truth. “You already have,” I whispered and kept walking. Thor did not stop me.
There would be a thousand versions told of this tale, a thousand times over. Eventually it would come to be known as the beginning of Ragnarok, the death of the gods. It was nothing so grand, but perhaps just a tragic, the death of a family. The was no chance of restitution. No matter what the tales said that came after there was no quest of tears, no call to Hel to return Baldr. Hear is the secret that no god wants their worshippers to know. We are not immune to tragedy, nor can we prevent it. If people looked to their own stories, they would know that. They would stop issuing prayers.