Hades did not try to answer the question then, as Hel inclined her head to him and then turned to limp out of his throne room. Nor did he answer it the next time she visited him, and they drove his chariot through the various regions of his realm, talking of their mutual concern with the dead. He was surprised by Hel, again, when he learned that it was her personal concern to feed and clothe all of the dead, to gather those who would come into her hall for a nightly banquet, and in general to be much more personally involved with the shades than he had ever been.
“My people are fewer in number,” she said, with that strange smile that exposed all her teeth for a moment. “The inhabitants of the north are fewer than those of the southern lands, and those who die in battle are taken by Odin or Freya to dwell in their halls, in Asgard.”
“We have places of higher honor here as well, but all in my domain, except for the Isles of the Blessed, and few indeed merit to go there.”
“And you have places of lower honor, too, do you not?” She accepted his hand and stepped down from the chariot, stopping to watch as servants came to unharness his horses and lead them away. “What you call Tartaros?”
“Yes. The prison of the earlier gods who did not wish Zeus to take the throne of heaven.” It was growing easier to match his stride to her unabashed limp. “Not that we created it; the pit of Tartaros existed before the Titans or our father Kronos.”
“Kronos himself was a Titan, was he not?”
“He was. He and his brothers turned against their father Ouranos and killed him.”
“As your brother Zeus subsequently turned against him.” The goddess lowered herself into a chair in the small audience chamber where he had led her.
“Indeed. May I summon food or drink for you, lady?”
“Just water, guardian of Tartaros.” There was, of course, a pitcher of fresh water on a nearby table–two pitchers, in fact, one on a tray with cups for drinking, the other by a basin and a stack of towels, for washing. Persephone was rather fastidious about the dust of the underworld.
Hel drained off the cup Hades poured her and turned it in her hands. It was plain, unfigured, but perfectly smooth, satisfying to the hand. “I am a Titaness, you know.”
Hades sat down with his own cup of water. “I did not know that, no.”
“In our language, it is Jotun, Jotnar. The word is closer to your word ‘gigantes’ in meaning, but it amounts to the same thing. My father Loki and his people were gods in the north before the Aesir or the Vanir came along. The Allfather of the Aesir put me into Hel as your brother put some of the Titans into Tartaros. He thought he would be safer if I were locked up. He did not realize until too late that he had not locked me in; rather, he had locked himself out.” She smiled again, widely; Hades would not have admitted it, but even he found her half-flesh, half-bone smile–disturbing.
“Are you locked in, lord Hades? Or is your brother Zeus locked out?”