“You will do nothing of the kind,” said the other gods.
“I’m not happy about any of this,” said Thor. “I’m going to kill somebody soon, just to relieve the tension. You’ll see.”
Balder’s body was brought down the shingle, borne by four gods; eight legs took him past the crowd assembled there. Odin was foremost in the crowd of mourners, his ravens on each shoulder, and behind him the Valkyries and the Aesir. There were frost giants and mountain giants at Balder’s funeral; there were even dwarfs, the cunning craftsmen from beneath the ground, for all things that there were mourned the death of Balder.
Balder’s wife, Nanna, saw her husband’s body carried past. She wailed, and her heart gave out in her breast, and she fell dead onto the shore. They carried her to the funeral pyre, and they placed her body beside Balder’s. Out of respect, Odin placed his arm-ring Draupnir onto the pyre; this was the miraculous ring made for him by the dwarfs Brokk and Eitri, which every nine days would drip eight other rings of equal purity and beauty. Then Odin whispered a secret into Balder’s dead ear, and what Odin whispered none but he and Balder will ever know.
Balder’s horse, fully caparisoned, was ridden to the pyre and sacrificed there, in order that it would be able to bear its master in the world to come.
They lit the pyre. It burned, consuming the body of Balder and the body of Nanna, and his horse, and his possessions.
Balder’s body flamed like the sun.
Thor stood in front of the funeral pyre, and he held Mjollnir high. “I sanctify this pyre,” he proclaimed, darting grumpy looks at the giantess Hyrrokkin, who still did not, Thor felt, appear to be properly respectful.
Lit, one of the dwarfs, walked in front of Thor to get a better view of the pyre, and Thor kicked him irritably into the middle of the flames, which made Thor feel slightly better and made all the dwarfs feel much worse.
“I don’t like this,” said Thor testily. “I don’t like any of it one little bit. I hope Hermod the Nimble is sorting things out with Hel. The sooner Balder comes back to life, the better it will be for all of us.”
Hermod the Nimble rode for nine days and nine nights without stopping. He rode deeper and he rode through gathering darkness: from gloom to twilight to night to a pitch-black starless dark. All that he could see in the darkness was something golden glinting far ahead of him.
Closer he rode, and closer, and the light grew brighter. It was gold, and it was the thatch of the bridge across the Gjaller River, across which all who die must travel.
He slowed Sleipnir to a walk as they crossed the bridge, which swung and shook beneath them.
“What is your name?” asked a woman’s voice. “Who are your kin? What are you doing in the land of the dead?”
Hermod said nothing.
He reached the far end of the bridge, where a maiden stood. She was pale and very beautiful, and she looked at him as if she had never seen anything like him before. Her name was Modgud, and she guarded the bridge.
“Yesterday enough dead men to fill five kingdoms crossed this bridge, but you alone cause it to shake more than they did, though there were men and horses beyond all counting. I can see the red blood beneath your skin. You are not the color of the dead—they are gray, and green, and white, and blue. Your skin has life beneath it. Who are you? Why are you traveling to Hel?”
“I am Hermod,” he told her. “I am a son of Odin, and I am riding to Hel on Odin’s horse to find Balder. Have you seen him?”
“No one who saw him could ever forget it,” she said. “Balder the beautiful crossed this bridge nine days ago. He went to Hel’s great hall.”
“I thank you,” said Hermod. “That is where I also must go.”
“It is downward, and northward,” she told him. “Always go down, and keep traveling north. You will reach Hel’s gate.”
Hermod rode on. He rode northerly, and he followed the path down until he saw before him a huge high wall and the gates to Hel, which were higher than the tallest tree. Then he dismounted from his horse, and he tightened the girth strap. He remounted, and holding tight to the saddle, he urged Sleipnir faster and faster, and at the last it leapt, a jump like no horse has made before or since, and it cleared the gates of Hel and landed safely upon the other side, in Hel’s domain, where no living person can ever go.
Hermod rode to the great hall of the dead, dismounted, and walked inside. Balder, his brother, was seated at the head of the table, at the seat of honor. Balder was pale; his skin was the color of the world on a gray day, when there is no sun. He sat and drank the mead of Hel, and ate her food. When he saw Hermod he told him to sit beside him and spend the night with them at the table. On the other side of Balder was Nanna, his wife, and next to her, and not in the best of tempers, was a dwarf called Lit.
In Hel’s world, the sun never rises and the day can never begin.
Hermod looked across the hall, and he saw a woman of peculiar beauty. The right side of her body was the color of flesh, but the left-hand side of her body was dark and ruined, like that of a week-old corpse that you might find hanging from a tree in the forest or frozen into the snow, and Hermod knew that this was Hel, Loki’s daughter, whom the all-father had set to rule over the lands of the dead.
“I have come for Balder,” said Hermod to Hel. “Odin himself sent me. All things there are mourn him. You must give him back to us.”
Hel was impassive. One green eye stared at Hermod, and one sunken, dead eye. “I am Hel,” she said simply. “The dead come to me, and they do not return to the lands above. Why should I let Balder go?”