There is a great burden in holding the darkness of mankind. Not even a goddess can do it for eternity.
The wide freight platform jerked and rattled lower, deeper into the earth. Helen unconsciously held her breath. The ice-blue sky was receding above and she shook the last of the fresh breeze from her hair. No one attempted small talk; all gave themselves over to that feeling of being swallowed by the earth.
Once they shuddered to a stop there was much movement. People lifting heavy reinforcement beams and metal scaffolding that would secure the site and others rolling out the huge drums used for removing earth to the surface. Helen recalled the exciting phone call from the archaeological team. A major discovery…a large section of what appeared to be a Viking village near Uppsala…swallowed by a landslip around 880…implements, jewellery, armour and what appeared to be a fully intact wooden tomb.
Helen moved toward the wooden structure. It was lined in oak planks and looked more like a small antechamber than a tomb. It had survived the landslip intact. It had tumbled in the landslip, but the slow motion twisting of the earth had not destroyed it. After a tense hour the door finally groaned open.
Across the black fen comes a wretched soul, in her arms something delicate wrapped in a mess of swaddling rags. Her feet sink in the mud and only the crescent moon bears witness to her passing. She finds the place in the dark. A glowing flame through oaken slats. She thuds on the door and waits…
A blackened form lay in the centre of the room. Tattered threads on remnants of shrunken leather skin, yellow teeth, empty eye sockets and long wisps of white blonde hair. A woman? The soft torch light revealed more. The arms and legs seemed too long; this woman would have been a giant, even among the tallest of Danes. Beside her was a silver knife, a small hand axe and a spangenhelm much larger than any Viking helmet Helen had seen before. Inside it there seemed to be a thick remnant of dark rust. Blood? She bagged a small sample. There were pieces of other skeletons in the room too, mostly animal. One skull appeared small but human. A baby?
She places the babe on the deer hide in the centre of the room. Afterbirth still clings to its matted hair and its mouth opens and closes in a contorted but silent scream. Hel, the daughter of Loki rises to tower above the two souls. She examines the strange body form, the lungs that have grown outside the body; they pulse and quiver in the firelight. The new mother offers a large amber bead, and breathes out the words. Hel, daughter of Loki, keeper of shadows, take away this darkness…
Scattered inside the chamber were various ornaments that seemed unrelated, and Helen was careful to bag and label them all separately before tucking them in her crate. Amber beads. Coins. A brass Thor’s hammer pendant. A bone comb and several whale bone needles. A rusted piece of chainmail. She marvelled over each item.
Hel stands and her shadow looms large as the fire gutters and fades. She offers the mother the blood-filled helmet and the woman trembles as she drinks in the blood of Odin. Hel’s hand forms an arc with the blade and in one swift movement she severs the pulsing pink lungs and throws them on the glowing coals. The babe twists and writhes and Hel leans close and breathes deeply. From the small body there seems to swirl a dark liquid smoke, an absence of light, and Hel throws back her head, opens her teeth and drinks it in. And the earth shudders and moans.
There was not much time before the last lift to the surface. Helen had worked methodically, documenting, taking samples, bagging artefacts and now she felt tired and heavy. She kept glancing at the tall skeleton with its empty eye sockets and web of hair. Removing a whole skeleton would be a delicate operation for another day.
Across the fen comes an old warrior with his eldest born son. Thor is angry with the young man, who in the heat of battle had gone mad and slain three of his friends, butchered them as if they were enemies. He had woken from the stupor with no memory of the event. The brothers of the fallen were sure to come this night, for revenge…
It was beneath an undisturbed pocket of dirt that Helen made her final discovery. She moved carefully, brushing and dusting it clean until she was certain she was looking at the bones of a large hand. The ulna and radius seemed to be sheared cleanly through. A strange find indeed.
Hel looms tall and her shadow grows gigantic as the fire gutters and fades. She offers the men the blood-filled helmet and they drink. The younger man trembles but the old man’s back is straight as he says the words. Hel, daughter of Loki, keeper of shadows, take away this darkness… She is swift and the axe severs the young man’s sword hand in a clean blow. As he howls and gasps, Hel opens her mouth wide and sucks at the dark smoke liquid that flows in place of blood from the man’s wrist. And the earth shakes and groans.
Helen wrapped the skeleton hand in cloth and tucked it carefully into the crate beside the baby’s skull. In that last moment the shadows seemed to grow thick and she shivered, glad to be leaving. As she crossed the threshold she glanced for a last time at the skull. The air in the room seemed to swirl and shift and for a moment she felt much older than her years and her body felt too heavy.
As she emerged, she gulped at the light. Her shadow grew tall and her blonde hair swirled and glowed. The crew had barely unloaded the freight when violent tremor shook the earth and the cavity below collapsed in on itself again.