Children tell each other there are monsters under the bed, and they lie. We tell our children there are no monsters in the darkness, and we lie too. There are monsters. Winternights have passed, and the long decline towards Yule allows the darkness to ascend. The Hulderfolk, trolls, draugr and other baleful wights no longer fear the sun, and stretch forth their grasping hands from the shadows.
Oldest and strongest of magics are those of hospitality, greatest of all is the simple magic of the hearth. What is warmed by a hearth, what is touched by its fire, whose boundaries have been marked by it, is warded by that hearth. House wights chuckle in the firelight and dance in the shadows. Petty mischiefs are theirs, yet also great wardings and healings are worked by their tiny hands, grown strong from a thousand offerings of mirth and laughter, stolen socks and offered treats. In the center stands the hearth, the heart of the home, the flame that calls to Frigg, the smoke that carries every whisper to the Disir, and the ashes that hold the answers to a thousand questions never asked.
Against the wardings of the hearth come the claws of the Hulderfolk, but they cannot pass, for although the long night is theirs, and the moonlight their dawn, the hearthfire will bar them as strongly as Sunna’s own sun. Any save the monsters we make ourselves.
Clara was crying again. She was a fine strong girl, proud, bright, but the last years before the divorce were hard and ugly. Her father had been a smart, laughing proud man. Everyone loved him; mostly because he wanted them to. He was always good at getting what he wanted, and even better at making sure those who didn’t give him what he wanted regretted doing so. The worst monsters Clara met wore the smiling faces of family.
Chelsea was not crying, because Mother’s didn’t get to cry when their children were. Mother’s had to be strong, even when they had nothing left. Chelsea had gotten them out, her daughter and two sons had been won free from her husband and his controlling cruelty. When Dominic could no longer control her, he tried to take them away. When that failed, he chose to make sure he had the last laugh. He killed himself, and left a note detailing that she had driven him to it.
That wasn’t the end. He began to haunt Clara’s dreams first, then the boys. The boys became sullen and distant, Clara became addicted to coffee and energy drinks, trying anything to avoid having to go to sleep, because at night, he came.
The hearth will protect you from anything save what you invite in. Clara and the boys loved their father, for all that Dominic could be cruel when he wanted to be, when he wanted you to love him, you did. Even when he was cruel, you wanted so much to please him, to make him be happy with you again, so that he would smile at you again. Chelsea remembered that well from when he was alive. She struggled so hard to protect her family from Dominic when he was alive, how was she to protect them from him now that he was dead.
Sitting sipping her wine she looked at her tarot cards and remembered Dominic laughing at her, telling her that there were no answers there. Nothing on a piece of paper that wasn’t money could make a real difference, and gods knows he proved himself right when her restraining orders proved to be worth more as toilet paper than protection. She spread the cards and winced.
King of Swords reversed. Dominic. Cruelty and manipulation. Fine. She knew it was him already. What was she supposed to do about it? She spread three cards
Nine of Wands, High Priestess, Death.
Nine of wands, last stands. High Priestess, that was as much her card as the King of Swords was Dominic’s. It was supposed to be her call to her magical self, her intuition, her maternal ancestors and magic. Now it just reminded her of her inability to protect her children. She looked at the last card. Death. Death didn’t stop Dominic. He came for them in the night dead, even worse than he did when he was alive.
Slamming her deck to the table she went to reach for her wine glass when two cards spilled face up unasked.
Ten of cups reversed, broken family, broken dreams. That she knew already. Ten of Swords reversed, can’t get any worse. Trembling, she reached out to turn one last card over. What she had was losing her family, and it could not get worse. What could she get if she dared?
Six of wands stared back at her. Victory. If she dared.
Around the beds of her sleeping children she poured the sea salt. Ringed round with Ran’s salt, she knew no dead would dare cross those lines, for Ran is a jealous goddess, and those she drags down into the dark are hers forever. No thing not living may touch the salt of her sea blood and not be bound forever to her lightless depths.
Dominic would react badly to being denied. Living or dead, he was not a man it was safe to say no to. She sipped her wine. Tonight there would be an ending. She prepared for their last night together similar to how she prepared for her first night as his wife. Showering and doing her makeup, she turned her right cheek to the mirror, and made sure she showed him exactly the beauty he loved to possess almost as much as he loved to show off. Turning her left cheek, she nodded and moved to the hearth.
Before the fire she stripped, for what was to come was a thing of naked truths, and naked power. Love, hate, desire, life and death were too pure to be masked by clothes or lies. Tonight, was about final truths.
To the hearth she stalked, and knelt before the flickering firelight. With her fingers she traced in the ash and worked carefully to mark left side as her instinct told her she must. Turning to place her right side in the firelight, she drew the last salt circle around herself. Magnificent as any temple statue, she stood in bronze lit perfection awaiting the shadow that would come for her children.
Opening herself to the other world, letting her mind drift into magical awareness, she felt the cold power, the mocking cruelty of Dominic as he came. The ashes of her desire stirred, as ten thousand inner wounds also shrieked as all he was and once had been to her answered the feel of him. She raised her head, and posed, right side painted bronze perfection in the firelight as his darkness took form and crept to the children’s bedrooms. First the boys, then Clara he sought, and she felt his rage, heard his hissing and the vile threats he whispered as he stalked to her.
Dark hunger shone in his coal black eyes, and the lewd slash of his lips moistened under a pale and lifeless tongue as he traced them in visible desire as he stalked slowly towards her. His voice was ghost cold, it made her flesh tremble in the cold horror of its malice.
“You can’t hide them forever, you can’t keep them safe. No one can. I can come in whenever I want, and I will never stop coming for what is mine. Them first to punish you, and then you when they are broken, because only then will you understand why you shouldn’t have angered me.”
Right side lit in firelight, she gave him the yielding smile he knew so well. She always let him get his way, it was safer. With a toe, she carefully broke the salt circle protecting her, and let him surge inside to take what he was owed.
As he surged into the ring of salt, his cold white hands reaching out, and black eyes drinking in the naked perfection of his perfect conquest, his perfect trophy, the woman he loved only so long as she submitted, he froze in confusion.
Turning to face him boldly not submissively, while her right half was bronze perfection, black ash marked off naked ribs on her chest, and fine powder rendered her left side corpse pale, her lips the dead blue of the dead.
Half maiden fair, half corpse foul, she did not shy from his reaching claws, but reached out and folded him in her embrace. Her hands wrapping in the tendrils of darkness that replaced the hair on his shadowed form as her lips sought his with a whisper of her own words and cold hunger of her need.
“I could never keep them safe so long as you could walk. I could never keep you out so long as any love for you remained. You used our love to destroy our home and our lives, so now I use that love to end you. Take the kiss of Hel, feel now the embrace of the keeper of the dead. One last kiss, dearest Dominic, to send you forever into the dark.”
There was too much hunger for him to resist her light, and there was too much darkness in him to resist the gateway she had made of her flesh to Hel. The kiss tasted of salt, tears for what was perhaps, tears for what should have been. He didn’t scream as she devoured him with that kiss, his final surrender was too complete for that.
Standing between the firelight and shadow, her maiden’s face wept tears of loss and regret. She was a healer who had killed, a lover who had destroyed. Her corpse face bore a cold smile of completion. She was a mother whose children will no longer fear the night. She was a priestess who had balanced unjust scales.
Crossing to the altar plate, she poured out a splash of wine.
“Frigg, great mother, thank you for your wisdom and strength. Ran, dark mistress of the sea, I thank you for your protection. Hel, keeper of the dead, I thank you for your power, your grace, and your aid in this night.”
When she left the showers for her bed, none but the goddesses could tell if tears had joined the water with which she washed away the last touch of her husband, and they keep their secrets.