“All things mourn him. His death unites us all in misery, god and frost giant, dwarf and elf. The animals mourn him, and the trees. Even the metals weep. The stones dream that brave Balder will return to the lands that know the sun. Let him go.”
Hel said nothing. She watched Balder with her mismatched eyes. And then she sighed. “He is the most beautiful thing, and, I think, the best thing, ever to come to my realm. But if it is truly as you say, if all things mourn Balder, if all things love him, then I will give him back to you.”
Hermod threw himself at her feet. “That is noble of you. Thank you! Thank you, great queen!”
She looked down at him. “Get up,” she said. “I have not said I will give him back. This is your task, Hermod. Go and ask them. All the gods and the giants, all the rocks and the plants. Ask everything. If all things in the world weep for him and want him to return, I will give Balder back to the Aesir and the day. But if one creature will not cry or speaks against him, then he stays with me forever.”
Hermod got to his feet. Balder led him from the hall, and he gave Hermod Odin’s ring, Draupnir, to return to Odin, as evidence that Hermod had been to Hel. Nanna gave him a linen robe for Frigg and a golden ring for Fulla, Frigg’s handmaiden. Lit just grimaced and made rude gestures.
Hermod clambered back on Sleipnir. This time the gates of Hel were opened for him, as he left, and he retraced his steps. He crossed the bridge, and eventually he saw daylight once again.
In Asgard Hermod returned the arm-ring Draupnir to Odin, the all-father, and told him all that had happened and all that he had seen.
While Hermod was in the underworld, Odin had had a son to replace Balder; this son, named Vali, was the son of Odin and the goddess Rind. Before he was a day old, the baby found and slew Hod. So Balder’s death was avenged.
The Aesir sent messengers across the world. The messengers of the Aesir rode like the wind, and they asked each thing they encountered if it wept for Balder, so that Balder could be free of Hel’s world. The women wept, and the men, the children, and the animals. Birds of the air wept for Balder, as did the earth, the trees, the stones—even the metals the messengers encountered wept for Balder, in the way that a cold iron sword will weep when you take it from the freezing cold into the sunlight and warmth.
All things wept for Balder.
The messengers were returning from their mission, triumphant and overjoyed. Balder would soon be back among the Aesir.
They rested on a mountain, on a ledge beside a cave, and they ate their food and drank their mead, and they joked and they laughed.
“Who is that?” called a voice from inside the cave, and an elderly giantess came out. There was something vaguely familiar about her, but none of the messengers was entirely certain what it was. “I am Thokk,” she said, which means “gratitude.” “Why are you here?”
“We have asked each thing there is if it would weep for Balder, who is dead. Beautiful Balder, killed by his blind brother. For each of us misses Balder as we would miss the sun in the sky, were it never to shine again. And each of us weeps for him.”
The giantess scratched her nose, cleared her throat, and spat onto the rock.
“Old Thokk won’t weep for Balder,” she said bluntly. “Alive or dead, old Odin’s son brought me nothing but misery and aggravation. I’m glad he’s gone. Good riddance to bad rubbish. Let Hel keep him.”
Then she shuffled back into the darkness of her cave and was lost to sight.
The messengers returned to Asgard and told the gods what they had seen, and that they had failed in their mission, for there was one creature that did not weep for Balder and did not want him to return: an old giantess in a cave on a mountain.
And by then they had also realized who old Thokk reminded them of: she had moved and talked much like Loki, the son of Laufey.
“I expect it was really Loki in disguise,” said Thor. “Of course it was Loki. It’s always Loki.”
Thor hefted his hammer, Mjollnir, and gathered a group of the gods to go looking for Loki, to take their revenge, but the crafty troublemaker was nowhere to be seen. He was hiding, far from Asgard, hugging himself in glee at his own cleverness and waiting for the fuss to die away.
THE LAST DAYS OF LOKI
Balder was dead, and the gods were still mourning his loss. They were sad, and the gray rains fell unceasingly, and there was no joy in the land.
Loki, when he returned from one of his journeys to distant parts, was unrepentant.
It was the time of autumn feast in Aegir’s hall, where the gods and elves were gathered to drink the sea giant’s fresh-brewed ale, brewed in the cauldron Thor had brought back from the land of the giants so long ago.
Loki was there. He drank too much of Aegir’s ale, drank himself beyond joy and laughter and trickery and into a brooding darkness. When Loki heard the gods praise Aegir’s servant, Fimafeng, for his swiftness and diligence, he sprang up from the table and stabbed Fimafeng with his knife, killing him instantly.
The horrified gods drove Loki out of the feast hall, into the darkness.
Time passed. The feasting continued, but now it was subdued.
There was a commotion at the doorway, and when the gods and goddesses turned to find out what was happening, they saw that Loki had returned. He stood in the entry to the hall staring at them, with a sardonic smile on his face.
“You are not welcome here,” said the gods.
Loki ignored them. He walked up to where Odin was sitting. “All-father. You and I mixed our blood long, long ago, did we not?”
Odin nodded. “We did.”