Baldr’s body solidified. While she could admire his handsome face and very muscled body, he wasn’t Émilien. Her self-appointed assistant and pain in her ass crossed his arms with a dead-panned expression on his face, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t keep his brilliant blue eyes from sparkling. As usual, his long blond hair was pulled back just below each temple and wrapped in a bun on the back of his head. He wore two long braids, woven with gold and silver beads just over his ears and hung past his shoulders with the rest of his hair. He reminded her of a pirate.

For as long as she had known him, he hadn’t changed his appearance. In death, he was the replica of his living self, which, to her, was strange. But who was she to judge? Most souls were delighted to discover they could look however they wanted. If a woman struggled with her weight in life, she could be as skinny as she wanted in death, although that wasn’t on Hel’s list of concerns.

For her, the important ones were those who were missing limbs or had birth defects. Even the mental issues people were born with were changed, but not Baldr. It showed his true spirit and how beautiful a person he had been—for a Norse god. They were not known for their benevolence, but more for their fighting spirits.

“Do you never want to change anything about yourself?” she asked, curious what he would say.

He shrugged. “Why? I am who I am in life and death.”

“What about your wife?”

The only discernible reaction was the slight thinning of his lips. “What about her? She is living and I am dead. I have told her for millennia to move on and find a god or human she can love. I refuse to hold her back.”

Hel tilted her head and narrowed her eyes. For the first time, she heard the hint of bitterness in his tone. “Yet, she doesn’t. That is upsetting to you?”

“If you love someone, you want them to be happy. For the goddess of joy, my wife is not happy. This is evident in all worlds, don’t you think? War, strife, hatred—they are all more prevalent than the emotions that should be keeping all of us strong. We need love, joy, and happiness to feed our spirits. You of all people should know and understand this.”

This time, his blue eyes narrowed, seeing more than Hel would have liked. “Why are you asking, Hel? You seem particularly stressed...” His brows rose, comprehension flooding his gaze. “You saw Émilien again, didn’t you?”

“It doesn’t matter whether I did or did not.”

“It matters,” he said in a low voice. “Unfortunately, we have a more pressing problem you need to fix.”

Hel rolled her eyes, the unsettling sensation she’d had at Émilien's intensifying. “Of course, we do.” With a flourish of his cape as he turned around, Hel followed, matching his long stride with her own. Sometimes it was a good thing to be half giant. “You claim to be my assistant, so why is it always me fixing things?”

“It’s your kingdom,” he tossed the words over his shoulder then rounded the bend.

Following, she ignored the steep drop to her left as the pathway narrowed. Her gaze automatically rose to the majestic sight in front of her as she traced the faint outline of the snow-covered peaks. The ever-present swirling gray mist shrouded the mountain range so that only the highest summit was visible. For a land filled with ice and death, it held a mysterious luminescence that bathed everything in a purplish light. How this was possible without a source, she would never know, but still, the transparent lilac-tinged hues of black, white, and gray was an impressive sight.

Her recent trip to Midgard, however, reminded her just how chilly her kingdom was. If she felt it upon her return, she could only imagine how the cold’s intensity burned inside others, their bones so frigid they seemed to shatter with every hard shiver of the body. She couldn’t fault Émilien for hating Helheimr, but the fact that he let her go so easily was what fueled her resentment and anger. So much for love conquering all.

“It’s quite striking, isn’t it?” a little girl’s voice said.

Hel glanced down to see the shimmery form of a young child, maybe six or seven years old, standing beside her. The little girl’s green eyes sparkled with animation as she grinned. Long, brown, corkscrew curls framed her pretty face. The once-white lace gracing her small neck was torn in a couple of places, and the frilly ruffle encircling her chest, shoulders, and back was stained with dark brown splotches. The tie around her waist was a pale lilac and the three-tiered skirt sported several more areas of staining. Even disheveled, she was adorable.

“What a pretty dress you’re wearing,” Hel said with a slight upturn of the corners of her mouth.

The girl’s smile widened, showing straight white teeth. “Thank you. My mama made it for my birthday. I love it, but sometimes I wish I could wear pants. It’s easier to crawl over rocks and through the underbrush looking for Merle. I’m Sophie.”

Hel’s eyebrows rose. “And who is Merle?”

Sophie’s smile dimmed as she frowned, glaring at something over her shoulder before turning her gaze back to Hel. “My traitor dog. He’s decided he likes the wolves more than me.”

“What wolves? Living wolves?” Hel asked. Sophie nodded, her tight curls bouncing around her shoulders.

“That’s part of the problem I mentioned, my lady.”

Hel’s gaze met Baldr’s. “We need to work on your delivery then. I wasn’t aware theproblemwas so serious. What are living creatures doing here, and more importantly, why can’t I sense them?”

“Probably because of the scary ghost men,” Sophie answered.

Baldr nodded. “She’s right. The draugar are blocking the werewolves’ spirits. The only reason I know is because of the warning sent to you by Freyja.” He pulled a small stone from his pants pocket and held it out to Hel.

Staring at the smooth black orb, she gingerly plucked it from his hand and laid it on her other palm. Holding out her hand, she took a calming breath. “Kvaddi.”She spoke the ancient Norse word for summon in a sharp tone, like a queen.

The obsidian stone sparkled, and a shimmery halo of silver grew into a large flat circle in front of her. A brilliant flash of golden light, and Freyja’s beautiful face appeared. Hel’s eyebrows rose in surprise at her friend’s harried expression.

Before Hel could speak, however, Freyja pointed a raised finger toward her.

Tags: Heidi Vanlandingham Fantasy
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