Exhaling a long, slow breath to calm her fears, she strained her ears as she tried to hear movement from inside. After what seemed like a lifetime, the door inched open. Her daughter’s beautiful face peeked out from behind, the skin under her eyes shadowed.
“May I help you?”
Hel swallowed and willed her voice to sound normal and not like a dog’s squeak toy. “Hello, Shalendra. I don’t know if you remember me, but we met when Freyja and two of her warriors, Lilyann and Charles, were here? My name is Hel.”
The door silently crept open. Shalendra’s white-knuckles gripped the door’s edge, her long, lilac-colored nails pristine. A perfect manicure was something Hel had never been able to achieve, so she kept her own nails short and unadorned. “I’m here to help, if you’ll let me. Freyja can’t come at the moment and asked me to stay here with you until she could get here.”
“Thank you.” Her daughter stepped back and opened the door wide enough for Hel to slip through.
She walked in a few steps, her gaze touching on every detail in the main hall. There were several rooms branching off in both directions, their doors closed, but the first doorway was open and filled with a soft yellow light flickering from the granite fireplace, the black marble surround exquisite, the white veins flowing through it like a large river with its many tributaries. The room’s interior was set up like a formal sitting room, but the furniture was more masculine and heavier, more than likely to hold Émilien’s added weight and larger size as a wolf.
Shalendra motioned with a slight wave of her hand for Hel to follow. “Let’s go into the front room,” she said over her shoulder then led her into the brightly lit room. Shalendra perched on the edge of a daintier chair with her fingers clasped together on top of her closed legs. Her beautiful aqua gaze remained lowered, as if staring at her hands.
“Can you tell me what’s happened? When was the last time you saw your...Émilien?”
“He left two days ago. A group of werewolves and strange men appeared in the yard, so he went to find out what they were doing here. He wouldn’t allow me to go with him and told me to stay here, so I watched them from the window. They talked for a few minutes, and the animosity between the two groups seemed to lessen. The next thing I knew, Émilien ran off, and they followed. That was the last time I saw him. I knew he was supposed to return to the Shadow Lands for his patrol, but he usually makes sure I’m fine and tells me when he will return.”
Hel sat down on the sofa next to her daughter’s chair and leaned back, hoping she didn’t look as tense and uncomfortable as she felt. Comforting wasn’t one of her strengths. “How long does he patrol in the Shadow Lands?”
“It depends. Most of the time, he is only gone a day, although there are times where it takes him a week. I know I shouldn’t have panicked and reached out to Freyja, but this time something is wrong. I know it. He would never stay away without telling me he loves me and then commanding me to stay inside the entire time he’s gone. He has done that since I was a child.” She gave Hel a tiny smile. “He refuses to believe I am now an adult and can take care of myself.”
“He is right to do so. There are many beings in the Nine Worlds who would commit just about any crime to achieve their goals. You are young, pretty, and, I imagine, magically powerful in your own right. Even if you believe you may be able to hold your own against your foe, take it from someone older and wiser—don’t try. Even the strongest can fall.”
“You sound as though it happened to you.” Shalendra’s aqua gaze speared Hel’s.
“It has, and I wouldn’t wish the outcome on my worst enemy. The pain of having those you love the most ripped away, never to be with them again, is excruciating.”
Shalendra leaned forward and placed her hand over Hel’s, which were clasped in her lap. “I truly am sorry then and shall heed your word, even though it rankles not having freedom.”
Hel stared at her daughter’s elegant hand, so similar to her own. What she wouldn’t give to be able to go back in time and fix her error. She had missed so many moments in her only daughter’s life. She didn’t want to miss any more. The corners of her mouth turned upward as she met Shalendra’s gaze. “Thank you. I’m supposed to be the one giving you support, though. I’m not doing a very good job, am I?”
Shalendra returned her smile, the humor sparkling in her gem-like gaze. “Everyone needs a pick-me-up occasionally. Besides, you did help me by making me think of something else.” She gave Hel’s hand a small squeeze then leaned back in her chair. “Now, tell me about Helheimr. I’ve heard stories about the land of the dead but have never met someone who’s been there. What’s it like?”
“Dreary, misty, and dreadfully chilly, if you must know.”
Shalendra chuckled. “Not the best endorsement for vacationers.”
“No one is allowed in my realm unless they have my permission, nor can they leave. Very few living, human or god, find themselves in any section of Helheimr.”
“Duly noted. Are there different places or layers like there are in the Greek Underworld? I’ve talked to Hades a few times. He enables asfaíra, basically a scrying sphere and not unlike Freyja’s God’s Glass, so I can see inside his realm. The peacefulness of the Elysian Fields is compelling, but I would never venture into Tartarus. Hades also mentioned that over the centuries, the gods and their offspring have created more evil than even Tartarus can contain, so he has had to create other prison areas within Tartarus that are filled with infinite evil.” She shivered. “Not a destination I wish to visit.”
Hel chuckled. “I wouldn’t recommend it, no. To answer your question, technically, my realm is Niflheimr, but Helheimr, the land of the dead, is divided into different sections. To enter, one must pass monstrous wolves, cross nearly impassable rivers, and try to find their way through valleys and darkness and then venture over mountains filled with all sorts of malevolent creatures. If, after all that, they find the path leading to Eljudnir, my castle, they must choose to remain in either Ævibjoð, the forever lands, or Vígvöllr, which is the battlefield.”
She shrugged. “That is the short version. There are many obstacles and creatures guarding the way that I won’t go into right now. You would never remember it all.”
“While the Ævibjoð sounds lovely, I will never visit the Vígvöllr. It sounds dreadful.”
Hel smiled. “It isn’t, at least, in my opinion. I can stand at the great window in my castle and watch all the realms. Vígvöllr is actually quite interesting. Those who choose to live there are doing what they love the most—fighting battles. It is a wonderful way to improve your combat skills. Some of the greatest warriors throughout the Nine Worlds live out their eternity in Vígvöllr. If you want to learn how to fight, watching them in battle and seeing their technique firsthand is the best education.”
“I can see that. My brother’s the fighter, not me. He has taught me self-defense, but I haven’t had the chance to test myself.” She twisted her pink lips to one side and frowned. “After listening to you, though, I’m kind of glad I haven’t. Don’t take this the wrong way, but your kingdom sounds scary.”
“If you were with me, nothing would dare come near you.”
“Yes, well...” her voice trailed off and her gaze moved to a spot behind Hel. “Someone is coming.”
Hel whirled around in her seat in time to see Freyja appear, looking calmer than she had earlier. Hel had always admired the goddess’s taste in dresses, even if she, herself, didn’t like wearing them. Freyja’s current gown was a rich burgundy with a delicate braided gold belt hanging low on her slender hips. At first glance, Hel was surprised to see Freyja’s nails painted black until the light caught her hand, turning her elegant nails a darker shade of burgundy.
Hel’s gaze moved upward, herhand rising to straighten her own black strands, which refused to lay in any other style than straight. Freyja’s silky red-blonde curls were piles on top of her head and held in place by gold pins, which matched the filigreed band across her forehead. The glorious fire opal at its center was surrounded by clear quartz stones, each one glistening in the firelight. The goddess was breathtaking and made Hel feel awkward and plain. It wasn’t a good feeling.