Hel arrives first.
The ground at the northern beachhead opens like an inverted gate, rocks and black pebbles sloughing away in a fall that drowns out the crashing surf. My skin prickles. I clutch the armrests of my stone seat as the goddess emerges from the depths, moonlight reflecting off her bone crown. Mist clings to her garments like phantom hands.
I force my old legs to stand, reminding myself of my purpose here. Responsibility for this soul falls to you. The instruction is seared into my mind as surely as the bonfire before me heats the stones ringing it. Yet I can’t remember this mandate’s origin. I only know that someone’s fate depends on the assembly I oversee this night.
The ground closes behind Hel as she steps into the firelight. Though I stand upon a raised stone dais, the goddess towers over me. The right side of her face is perfection, and it is that half that smiles down at me, while the left half undulates like the Northern Lights, one moment a husk of marred flesh, the next a flash of white bone.
“Welcome, goddess,” I manage.
Her voice is the cold wind through the birch and pine woods of my youth, though no one has called me ‘child’ in many decades. The ghost of my late husband must be laughing.
“So the All-Father chose you to mediate?” she says.
I nod, struggling to display my usual competent assurance.
The unmarred side of Hel’s mouth quirks in amusement. “How very him.”
Now the campfire dims and shifts from orange to violet. The chill in the air deepens. Dread settles on my heart, weakening my knees and stealing the breath from my chest. Hel watches impassively as the air to my right shimmers and twists away like a discarded robe, revealing a figure where none stood before.
So arrives the god of the Greeks.
Hades is bearded, with a face so somber I cannot imagine it’s ever smiled. He wears a soot black helm and plain tunic, a bident spear held in his left hand.
Solemn eyes flick over me before turning to Hel. “Why is she here?”
Unlike his northern counterpart, Hades’ voice caries no mirth. His is one of callous inevitability, each word falling upon me like lead.
I steady myself and speak up. “I am arbitrator of this moot.”
Hades frowns, as if I am a crow insisting the wind blow the direction I wish to fly.
“It is as your mountain king agreed,” Hel tells him.
“There is nothing to debate,” Hades says. “The mortal in question became a follower of Olympus. Hermes shall collect the soul and deliver it to the riverside crossing.”
“And when was the last time the mortal actually prayed to your brother’s mountain? Helheim awaits those born amongst snow and stone. Not your dank riverman.”
I raise a shaking but placating hand. “Arguments must wait until all are present.”
This elicits patronizing amusement from Hel and withering disdain from Hades.
Fortunately, off to my left, a pillar of sudden radiance bathes the beachhead, as if the sun is rising. The light fades as quickly as it appears, and from it the king of the Egyptian underworld steps forth.
Osiris is youthful and lovely. His skin is the green of water lilies, and verdant grain stalks grow from his footprints. Gauze wrappings cover his legs, a tall atef crown sits upon his head, and he wears the braided chin-beard copied by the Nile pharaohs. He considers me with the tenderness of a new mother, but when his eyes meet mine, they hit with the force of a lash, knowing my every misdeed, every mistake, every weakness.
I want to curl up and hide. But I remind myself, My daughters and grandsons need me. If I must arbitrate this meeting to return to them, then I will stand straight and see it through.
Osiris flays me with his gentle gaze, then says in a voice that is both music and agony, “Unexpected.”
Ha! A new situation for me, as well.
I sit and manage to keep the quaver from my voice, although it is difficult to draw breath. “All are here. We may begin.”
Horrific silence as the gods of three underworlds look down upon me. I grip the armrests of my stone chair to keep from running.
“The matter is simple,” Hades intones finally. “A soul that prays for Poseidon’s favor belongs to me.”
“Did she not fall before my shores?” Osiris says. “Had the woman not entreated my priests, learned the rituals and rights of the sun? Her body should be wrapped for the journey to Duat, to face the attacks of its creatures, for the judging in the Great Hall, and for the weighing of her heart.”
I blink at the thought of the grueling process, and that the soul in question is female. I’d guessed this voyager shared my occupation—only a merchant traveler would know the frost-bitten north and the isles of the Greeks and the sun-scorched river empire—but merchants are most always men. That a woman would keep and expand a merchant-fleet after her husband’s death was not common.
I regret, then, that I never met this fallen woman.
I ask Osiris, “Are all who visit the shores of Egypt subject to your judgment?”
The god’s eyes flood with the star-filled black of eternity. My gaze falters.
Hel cackles, a raven in snow-filled forests. “A fine point. The southern claim is the weakest.”
Osiris turns to the Nordic giantess. “Are all those born upon ice and snow fated for your realm?”
Hel’s ruined eye glows red. “If they are of the All-Father’s people.”
Of the All-Father’s people? A horrific suspicion gnaws at my heart.
“The soul joined in worship to Olympus,” Hades repeats. “A claim based on birthplace —” he flicks a dismissive hand, “—is irrelevant.”
Hel levels her dark gaze upon Hades. “The mortal worshiped Njord before ever acknowledging your brother. Your kin’s mountain is not the world’s center.”
Hades expands, growing to match the giantess in size. “My worshipers have created art, science, marble temples, great writing, philosophy. A civilization. Your people shiver in huts and write only scratches upon stone.”
The unmarred side of Hel’s face grins, the other flashes to bright bone. “Your civilization keeps its women bound in silence and reviles outsiders as barbarians. Mine explores and trades throughout Midgard, protecting it from the Northern Frost Giants. My people’s women are free individuals.” She lifts a finger to indicate me. “Our disputed soul evidence of this truth.”
I rasp out, “No society’s status pertains to… to the subject… ” But I cannot finish. My gaze fixes on the goddess’s finger, still pointing at me.
“She does not know,” Osiris says.
Hel raises an eyebrow at me. “The All-Father did not tell you?” She tosses her head in a cavernous laugh that echoes off the rocks. “A joke or a test?”
“You are drowning in the Egyptian harbor beneath the lights of the Pharos,” Osiris tells me.
Now I know why breathing has been difficult. I desperately search my memory. I had sailed from the Aegean in a Greek galley to the port of Rhakotis, one of the great cities of the world. I met Egyptian priests and learned their language, studied their customs, discovered their gods. By such ways have I expanded my merchant empire. I was just setting out for Crete, trade agreements in hand, when my eyes caught a darkening sky. The wind rose, then…
“I cannot remember how I came here.”
Hades shrugs. “Perhaps, out of pity, Lethe has taken the memory from you. But your time among the living is ending.”
My fleet is a patchwork of captains from across three continents, held together by my promises, wisdom, and force of experience. I learned their languages, learned their ways, and brought them into the fold. My daughters and grandsons haven’t yet learned the many tongues, when to stand strong, when to concede, the nuances in holding together a sundry union.
“No! My children are still learning. They’ll never hold the fleet without me. I need more time to teach them.”
“Needing more time,” Hades says, “has never been relevant.”
“In that,” Hel says, “the Greek and I agree.”
Osiris lifts his chin. “The Greek may scorn you and the Northerner make a jest of you. See clearly, my mortal friend, that I do neither.” He extends his hand before the bonfire, casting shadows across the ground. In the shadows is a galley rocking upon sharp seas. Sailors scramble to retrieve a body floating among the waves.
“Your soul is in waiting, your mortal flesh held at the cusp until your destination is decided.”
The wind gusts through the bonfire and chills me to the marrow. I gasp for air. I am so deeply tired. An end to all my long sailing and struggling? My aged bones no longer needing to bear biting sea storms, hot-tempered captains, scorching ocean sun? Weariness is the companion that replaced my husband. Unlike losing him, though, I would not be saddened to lose weariness.
But to be taken from the world at the height of my success? I have built my fleet from many different peoples across miles of sea. I have just secured an agreement uniting trade empires, making me one of the great trade-masters of the world. Should I now feed sharks and gulls while my family flounders and their inheritance crumbles?
“Fear not,” Hel tells me, “we will determine your proper place.”
“I would determine my own place.”
“Irrelevant,” Hades states. “Free will is no longer yours to wield. You were given leave to moderate this discussion, no more.”
My mind spins, years parleying and deal-making coming to bear. I sway to my feet. “No. It was said to me – ‘Responsibility for this soul falls to you’. The power of choice belongs to the living. I am drowning. But I have not yet drowned.”
Again the gods stare down at me. I hear only the heavy surf pounding the beachhead and my own labored breathing. I am unable to stop my knees from shaking, but I do not sit. Nor do I avert my gaze.
Osiris nods. “Agreed. The mortal chooses.”
“Very well,” Hades says, sighing like a bellows.
A playful smile curls Hel’s mouth. “Father will consider it a fine jest. If you insist on setting your own course, child, then I shall remind you of your heritage.”
The giantess strides across the fire in two steps. She bends down and bids me look into her ruined eye. Within, the world spins. I fall into it, into a land where cool mist lies across fields encircled by an impassable river. The great eagle Hraesvelg watches over the peaceful realm of Helheim, safeguarding his queen’s domain. A slight flutter of his wings swirls the mist into eddies.
You are not a warrior to dwell in Valhalla, Hel speaks into my mind, but neither are your accomplishments small. You have traveled as far as any sailor in Midgard, discovered more than most of your kind. My house is a house of rest and peace, and I welcome you to it. You have earned your respite.
I fall back into the shell that, for the moment, houses my soul. Briny night air surrounds me. The stone chair is beneath me, the fire before me.
Hel straightens. She holds out her open palm, beckoning. “Come.”
The repose she promises is so compelling that I reach for her, stopped only by the thunderous roar of Hades.
“Scraps and shadows! The trickster’s daughter offers gray oblivion. See what awaits those who prove themselves before Olympians.”
Hades reaches out and grasps my arm. In an instant we are hurtling through darkness. Shapes form, becoming earth and dangling roots, then an ancient underground river. Groans echo from its depths. Charon raises his infernal gaze as we sweep overhead. His chagrin at being denied his toll touches like frostbite. A massive gateway rears into view, before which a great dog slumbers. The gate swings open onto a three-fold path. One leads into bright light, another to muted gray, the last to utter blackness.
“You will not know the dull Asphodel Meadows,” Hades says, “but the glory of Elysium.”
We bank into the light. Glorious sunshine floods my senses. A cooling breeze carries the scent of fruits and wildflowers. There is no sorrow here, no toil. Rolling hills stretch to the horizon while songbirds sing in an eternal light. A palatial marble home stands near the seashore. My sigil is engraved over the entrance, the occupants preparing a feast in honor of my deeds.
We traverse the Elysian Fields for a single heartbeat, and then we are back within the firelight of the cold island, seawater foaming upon the beach.
“History will speak of you,” Hades tells me. “Now let us be done here.”
I cannot keep the grin of triumph from my face. It is perfect, a paradise beyond anything I’d dreamed. I rise from my seat to join Hades before I am even aware of what I’m doing.
“You would be wise,” Osiris says, “to be wary of promises from a being who will bind you within a realm where he wields power absolute.”
I stare at Osiris, the splendor of the Elysian Fields still bright in my mind.
The green-skinned god takes my hand in his own and the spell breaks.
Osiris says, “I promise nothing. You will be judged by Anubis, and should your heart be heavier than the feather of truth and justice, Ammit will devour you. Should it be light and pure, you will proceed to the Field of Reeds, where one finds neither rest nor glory, but satisfaction. The worthy farmer plows fields of perfect dark earth. The shepherd tends flocks of white-cotton ewes. You, the explorer, would sail endless frontiers, joining the Sun God in his journey through the stars, discovering lands beyond imagination. In such ways are the worthy of my realm rewarded. If they are worthy.”
Osiris releases my hand and steps back to the edge of the firelight.
The three deities speak no more. Crushing silence returns, the weight of the choice before me a mountain upon my heart. Hel’s clear eye twinkles before the glowing coals. Hades’ face is carved from marble. Osiris touches his fingertips together in curiosity.
I see, now, that this place of suspended time was not made for my benefit. My fate is a contest between the worshiped, a rare opportunity for rival faiths to declare supremacy. I am prized because I am the overlap. Hel plies my soul with temptations of relief, and gods-know my old bones desire rest. Hades offers glory, my pride supplicated with everlasting honors. Osiris, with his quiet empathy, hopes the frontiers of discovery will win my explorer’s heart.
The gods wait, as only immortals can. But they will not hold time still forever. Already my sight is dimming, my breath a shallow wheeze barely there anymore, and if I were to die without making a decision… ? My family needs me, and I find one very narrow path forward. I sit back down.
“Thank you all,” I say. “Each of you has decreed that a mortal soul is molded by the choices made in life. And by these choices is one’s afterworld decided. But now we stand outside mortal existence, upon a phantom in-between. Choices made now, within this liminal place—” I glance at Hades. “—are irrelevant.”
Hel’s half-face becomes a skull. A low rumble emanates from Hades, and Osiris frowns, benevolence vanishing.
“I would not deny death,” I say as it becomes harder to speak, “but as arbitrator of this forum, I declare that the fate of my soul must be decided through those channels established by precedent. Only in life is that path forged, and my actions there have led to an impasse. With no course forward, you must annihilate my soul, and send me into oblivion. My apologies that I did not have time to determine whose dominion held sway.”
Centuries seem to pass as the gods of three underworlds stare down at me, weighing the fate of my soul.
Finally, Hades snorts with the force of a gale. “Determine it, then, mortal. I will be there when inevitably you come to me.” He waves a hand in dismissal, his form already beginning to vanish.
Hel’s half-skull fades back into charred flesh, a knowing gleam in her eye. “Aren’t we sly.”
I say nothing, keeping my face neutral.
She gives me a wink, turns, and descends back into her domain.
“I, too, will be watching,” Osiris says. He steps away into a bright light, which disappears with him.
I bow my head and find myself alone. The sky, the ocean, even the bonfire, dissolve into darkness. There is nothing. Is this the oblivion I demanded? Did they leave me to wander an in-between nothingness? Did my gambit fail?
A spinning dizziness interrupts my thoughts. I hear large breakers crash across a stony shore. Spray drenches me. I flinch, mouth and throat filled with salty ocean. My eyes sting, and I fall to coughing. Rough hands are gripping my arms, hitting my back. I wretch seawater and blink into a night sky brightened by Alexandria’ great lighthouse. The panicked faces of my grandsons crowd around me.
“She wakens,” one says, slapping my back. “I was certain she’d gone to the gods.”
I draw briny air into my aching lungs and wheeze a pained laugh.
One of my daughters kneels beside me. “Umma is back with us. This is a gift from the gods.”
I shake my head. “No. It was… a negotiation. One of the many things I need still teach you all.”
They know me, and they laugh, relief heavy in the sound. This family and this peaceful fleet are my legacy. I’ll not waste what time I’ve procured. I recognize the future I’ve neglected. Responsibility for these souls, and for my own, falls to me.
“Soul Arbitration” © Rustin Lowell, first published here in Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores on April 30, 2023
Rustin Lovewell enjoys mashups: be they story genres, mythical deities, or french fries dipped in frosting (give it a try). A native New Englander, he now resides in Maryland with two young kids, one old dog, and a wondrous spouse who tolerates his contradictions.
Illustration by Fran Eisemann, stock from Pixabay