The Well-Worn Path to Hell

Arwald, King of Witwara, lay dying. His men had been routed and his people ran if they were to live. The air smelled of metal, the earth under him provided no comfort. The battle would never have been won, it was inevitable, but to have submitted would have meant death regardless and an end to all he believed. His wounds were mortal, he lay there waiting for the end and knowing that no one would be there to give him rites.
“Why is it that such suffering and death exists in this world?” whispered King Arwald as he lay dying.
From somewhere out of sight he heard “This question cannot be told here, it can only be learned in the lands of the dead.” Arwald turned his eyes and saw a cloaked woman, gray and almost ephemeral; he would have sworn she was not there only a moment before. The goddess looked towards him and a kindly gaze washed over her gray, weathered face. “I do not usually come myself, but yours will be one of my last visits to this land for a long while.”
Arwald was full of questions, but before he could speak she said “It is time.”
She leaned towards the king and wrapped him in her cloak. He felt the world leave him as he sank down. When she unwrapped her arms from him, he found himself upon a well-worn path in a land surrounded by thick mists.
The fog was oppressive and cold on his skin; “What is this place?” he asked fearfully. She just silently urged him forward until he stepped a few steps and he came through the mist. Having pierced the fog, King Arwald looked onto a vast green rolling land. Only then did he realize that he was now alone, the goddess had not come through the mists with him. Yet the mists seemed almost as solid as stone as he tried to return back into them.
He began to become very afraid indeed when he heard a voice like a hum in his ear urge him onwards, “This is a journey that can end at any time, it always was and always is, but if you want to know the answers to your questions you must continue.”
He called into the mist, “Why will you not come with me? Must I go alone?”
He heard the voice once more, “This is a journey that every man must walk on their own, I cannot be there with you.” And with that, the humming ceased and he heard her no more.
Looking around he saw that he was on a well-worn path, trod by such countless many that the path had been worn into the earth. Following the path as it wound between grassy hills; soon he came upon a wide green valley dotted with many men and women of all kinds. These people sang in strange tongues, dressed richly in robes of purple and gold. As they saw him, some of them came to welcome King Arwald.
“Welcome, you have arrived!” said the people of the robes. But as Arwald looked onto the faces he could not see anyone familiar. They looked glassy eyed and dull, singing their strange songs.
“Where is it that this path leads?” asked he of them and of this they answered “Here of course, for here we wait.”
Wondering if he had found what he was searching for he asked, “Why is it that suffering and death exists in the world?”
The people of the robes looked at him and then one another and chittered and chirped in their own way before saying, “We’re waiting here for the final end and then all will be reveled; there is no need for questions here in this place. Take a seat with us, join in our song.” They urged and brought forth a brilliant purple robe and tried to present it to King Arwald. They brought forth gold finery, necklaces and rings that would have made an emperor of old pale with jealousy. But Arwald could not but think of their dull eyes and the emptiness of their promises.
“I have no use for your robes or for your songs or for waiting, I will seek the answers myself.” Arwald replied. The glassy eyed folk merely turned and returned to their singing. He passed through their land following the path as it led away from their fields.
The farther he walked along the path it became sunnier and warmer until he felt he was in the gentle days of summer. Around the path bloomed and flourished all manner of beautiful plants, herbs, and flowers. He pressed onward. These lands gave way to a great wood with green trees of many countless variety. The boughs sang with birdsong and the brush rustled with life. King Arwald felt safer for having his sword in this place, with animals heard but not seen just out of sight. Yet as he went further he began to smell the smells of fire and smoke.
The forest opened up on a vast valley with a river running along one edge but the other side was full of trenches and armies, armies of men without count. Down he walked.
He came upon the river, but upon looking closer he saw that it was full of arrows and the bottom of it was lined with swords and armor and shields of all types. The sharpness of the blades on the bottom and arrows through that water would have made the river impassable if it were not for the bridge. Thinking of what waited on the other side; Arwald feared not having a sword but also feared even more drawing his sword and being mistaken for an enemy. So he took his sword and knife and threw them into the river as he crossed the bridge. He felt it would be easier to pass unarmed through those fields than to pass with his sword.
The valley was wet, muddy, the soil stained darkly and torn up by countless feet. The men he saw were rough and had sunken, dull eyes. They wore armor and mail and some of their armor and uniforms were old, ancient even. Some of these people belonged to people whose nations had long since fallen. Romans, Greeks, Celts, and men of his own land but who served kings long since dead flying banners and standards that had not seen sun for generations. Some of these peoples he could only vaguely make out their lands having passed into myth and legend, others, he could not recognize at all for they were so foreign to him. Countless many they stretched in either direction seemingly endlessly.
As he wound his way along the path he saw two camps move into formation to fight each other before him in the trail. He stood back and saw as they moved to battle and cut each other down to the man until the mud had been reddened and wetted with their blood. Waiting until the last had fallen, King Arwald wound his way through the corpses of men who had fought once more in ancient war long since passed but here still raging.
Once passed, he could not help but look back and he was struck with the most terrible sight, those men who had hacked each other to pieces only moments before were picking themselves up from the mud and returning to their camps having gained no land nor lost any.
Whenever he came upon a group of soldiers in a camp, they would challenge him in their tongue until he showed his hands empty and they left off their advances and let him pass unharmed. He passed this way through unknown camps until all at once he came upon enemies that he himself had fought, soldiers of men who he had laid low; they challenged him “Stop there, and say do you declare yourself as friend or foe to us here!”. Arwald stared into their sunken eyes, worn by all too many battles unending and saw that they were glassy and dull; there was no recognition there in those eyes. They did not know him for anyone else.
He called out, “I am a friend, and the war is over!” and showed his empty hands carrying no sword and no ill will. But to this the men merely shook their heads and returned to their camp; his words had no meaning to them because for them the war would never be over until they had struck down their enemies. For them, the camp of enemies lay just afield, within sight even, and until they had won they would never lay down arms.
King Arwald returned to the path and followed it out of the muck and mire of soldiers and battles, out of the smoke of fires that would give no warmth, until once again the air was fresh and the grass was growing green. Here he walked until his boots were dry and the stained mud of the fields of battle cracked and flaked off of them. Then he came to a great wall.
As he approached he remembered the people who he had passed along the road, how very many people were content with their finery and robes although they stood in the open without even a hall to shelter them and how many men fought battles they would never win. He thought upon the suffering of the world that remained and persisted. He stood at one of the gates at the wall and called out to it that he would like to enter. He called again, and once more, and again seven times he called until there came an answer at the gate “Lay down your arms if you should enter these walls.”.
Arwald answered “I have laid down my arms long hence, thrown them in a rushing river; I do not think I could have come unharmed through the fields of soldiers had I had them with me. But also I do not think I could have traveled as safe without them through the forest had I not had them then.”
The gates opened for him and on the other side a friendly face with bright eyes beckoned him into the walled city, “Is that not just the way of it though.” He said as he welcomed him in. As King Arwald walked through the gates a feeling sprung forth from within him as he gasped inward a breath that filled him and invigorated him. It was as though he had never once lived before, but in that moment he had suddenly come alive and awake.
“You are muddy and your clothes are torn, your boots are worn and surely you are weary.” The man said and delivered Arwald to a bath where he washed himself and his clothes were replaced by a simple tunic and other clothes of no flashy color or super fine weave. And yet when King Arwald donned them, cleaned and fresh he felt as if he were clothed in the finest finery.
Then he was taken, as was the custom, to the great hall to meet the host of this land. Before his eyes he saw the goddess before him, who once was gray was here before him beautiful and radiant.
“I am Hel, and this is my realm. You once asked me a question, would you have need to ask it of me again?” Said the Goddess Hel.
“Why is it that such suffering and death exists in this world?” asked King Arwald.
“It exists. It exists because it is in life that you grow and learn, and then you come here, you all come here. Did you meet any along the way?”
“There were the people of the purple robes…”
“Did they not offer you much finery? Gold and gems and robes the likes of which you could never have beheld elsewhere? Why then did you not stay?”
“I did not come here for robes, or songs, or gold; I came here for answers.”
“Did you not meet any others?”
“Many soldiers, so many I could not count them all…”
“And they who, having been slain by the sword, declare the manner of their death by a continual rehearsal, and enact the deeds of their past life in a living spectacle. They will fight their wars endlessly. But did you not meet your own enemies there among them, why did you not join in the fight against them there?”
“Those men were not my enemies; those men have no enemies and no allies for they are all dead. If I had joined them in battle then surely I would have fought for all time.”
“And so you come here and ask me of suffering and death. Here there is no suffering and no death, you are more alive here than you have ever been. But while in life there are those around you who seek honors and riches or who fight endlessly, here there is neither of those. Once through these gates there is no need for swords for in this place death cannot exist. Once through these gates there is no need for riches for the plenty of the land is for all and no need for honors because the truest honor is having passed through the gates.”
“But I still do not understand.”
“You are familiar with farming then I take it?” he nodded, “Through life we grow and mature until we are cut down. Then you thresh and winnow the grain. You are threshed and winnowed through being confronted by desire of greed and through coming to face your enemies. If you can turn aside from pride and greed and lay down arms and pass enemies without quarrel then you come here, where all who have come before you are now.”
“But why do we suffer and die?”
“You are as grain. Does the wheat not suffer being reaped? Does it not die back in its season? Is it suffering truly, or is it part of the growth? You suffer because you cannot see past the end of your nose, how can one be said to suffer who will attain life eternal here as a reward for a life of growth?”