“Uh oh,” Hulda says in my head. “There go his warm fuzzies. Pity.”
“You know—the warm, tingly feelings about you, that had him finally thinking of something other than rutting?” She neighs for emphasis.
“Have you been spying on me?” Ares’ question cracks like a whip, startling me out of my mental conversation with my horse.
Skítr. “No! I mean, sort of? I don’t follow you around or anything, but Odin will have me report on your locations, every once in a while.” Their entanglements too, but he doesn’t need to know that. “Hulda can lock in on immortal signatures, so we just… check in from time to time. Nothing more invasive that that.”
Ares hums, and the sound oozes doubt.
I want to make him believe me. Only because it wouldn’t do for people to think Valkyries are liars, not because what he thinks of me is important. “We knew the Titans were awake, and Loki was tracking them when he found out you were around. He keeps tabs on their moves, but I swear I wasn’t asked to do the same with you.” That last sentence may have sounded like a plea.
“Right.” How can a single word carry so much disbelief?
“Not disbelief. He’s wondering if Loki saw Epimetheus punching him in the face.” Hulda sounds amused. “Apparently, it cracked his cheekbone.”
“Pity.” He has such gorgeous cheekbones.
“What was that?” Ares asks.
Did I say that out loud? I bite my lip. Maybe I should tell him Hulda can hear his thoughts. “I was having a separate discussion,” I say instead, because I’m a coward and a disgrace to my people. “I communicate with Hulda the way you do with your brothers.”
“Huh. Must be cool. I never had a pet, let alone one I could communicate with.” The mix of wonder and sadness in his voice thrums a chord in my chest. Where did this… this need to ease his pain come from? I don’t even know if there is any pain to ease. Not like he was the only kid to grow up without pets.
Hulda whinnies her protest and tosses her head from side to side. “He called me your freaking pet. I’m throwing him off.”
“Behave.” I rub her neck in soothing circles. To Ares I say, “Hulda is my companion, not my pet. We work together and are responsible for each other.”
He lets out a sound I can’t decipher. “Never had that, either. My brothers and I… We’re a family, but there’s a distance. I can’t… We had different childhoods, and sometimes it’s like I’m looking in at them from the outside.”
“Okay, now I wanna cuddle him,” Hulda horse-mumbles.
I brush my thumb across Ares’ knuckles. It feels overly familiar, like I’ve crossed a line, but it’s just a touch. I exchange hundreds of these with a number of people on a daily basis. “I’m sorry.”
With a twist of his wrist, his large palm is curled around mine, squeezing just enough to remind me I can’t pull free. My breath hitches, as he says, “Don’t feel sorry for me, little Valkyrie. I’m blessed. I’m an Olympian, who’ll soon regain his full power. Nobody will pity me then.”
Though his tone is harsh and brooks no argument, I’m not sure he’s talking to me. Sounds more like a pep talk for his own benefit. And it confirms what Loki suspected—not all brothers have their powers yet. At least Ares doesn’t, which I should have realized when he needed Hermes to transport us into his apartment.
“And then what?” I ask.
“What will you do with all that power?” I steal a glance over my shoulder.
He faces straight ahead, but his gaze is unfocused. His eyes are like pieces of jade. “I don’t know.”
Like I don’t know what makes me press on. “Death? Mayhem?” The end of the world?
“Why would I want that?” Ares sounds shocked. His thighs press into mine, muscles hard and unyielding. His body envelopes mine, and for a split second, I’m convinced this is where I belong.
A full-body shiver shakes me out of this odd headspace. “Because you’re a war god,” I say.
“I’m the god of war.”
I harrumph. “I know at least four gods who’d strongly oppose that statement. But anyway, wouldn’t your birthright mean you condone war, if nothing else?”
“Because I’m a maniac who loves causing people pain?” If the fire in his voice is any indication, the only reason I don’t see smoke coming out of his ears is that he’s behind me, not in front of me. He said he hasn’t ascended yet, but the air around us is thick with his power, suffocating me. “The original Ares didn’t cause war every chance he got,” he says. “Why would I?”
No answer is safe, so I go with a shrug.
Ever so helpful, Hulda interjects, “He just thought fuck, but it wasn’t in a sexual context.”
Good. Ares shouldn’t be thinking anything in a sexual context. Not when we’re on a mission to stop the possible end of the world, and definitely not when he’s with me. And why does the acrid taste of disappointment coat my tongue?
“You said Loki keeps tabs on the Titans, but you also called him unreliable.” Ares’ change of subject is so sudden, it causes me whiplash. “Loki…” He hums, like he’s trying the name on for size. “Isn’t he supposed to be on the other side? Those who want to end the world?”
Common misconception—and a purposeful one, if you ask Loki, who loves playing the misunderstood martyr. “He is a trickster and often an annoyance, but he’s not evil. Mostly. The version of Ragnarok Odin has seen is different to the one in your mythology books.” In the writings I’ve found, the giants and Æsir essentially annihilate all existence while they end each other. In truth, the giants are long gone. “In his visions, it’s the lack of balance that brings about the end.”
“The balance thing sounds familiar. The Titans had to bond with their soulmates, to keep from spinning out of control and destroying creation,” Ares muses.
Hulda snorts, as he adds, “I probably shouldn’t have said that.”
I laugh. “Loki overheard two of them discussing how their sexual prowess saved the universe, so you didn’t reveal anything new.”
“Leave it to a Titan to tout his own horn.” He lets out a long breath that tickles the back of my neck. “Is it dawn already?”
His question makes no sense. I told him time has no meaning when we travel from Midgard to Asgard. I follow his gaze to the golden light spreading across the horizon. “That’s Valhalla’s glow.”
“So… not dawn?”
“He doesn’t really get what’s outside his reality,” Hulda says. “In his bubble, the sun has to rise and fall regularly, for things to make sense. No imagination, this one. Must be why he was delegated to war duty.”
I make sure to think my answer at her this time. “Oh shut up. He’s fine.” More than fine. His hold on me loosens, but he leans forward, and it’s like he’s hugging me, more than holding on for dear life.
I allow myself to pretend his awed whisper is about me, and not about the immense golden hall splitting the darkness in the distance.
“Snap out of it,” Hulda barks in my head. “If Odin realizes you have the hots for this one, you’ll be taken off Midgard duty.”
“Odin isn’t here.” That shouldn’t be my answer; I should be protesting the having the hots part. And not swooning at the gorgeous-yet-annoying god-to-be I barely know. Swooning isn’t for Valkyries. It’s for the love-crazed girls in the romance novels I may or may not keep hidden underneath my bed. Which also aren’t for Valkyries.
You fall for a guy, you die. The memory of Brynhildr’s warning and her stony expression when she delivered it suck the air from my lungs and makes me sit up straight, away from the warmth of Ares’ body. Valkyries remain immortal as long as they don’t surrender themselves to a man. Or a god, for that matter. We are created with a single purpose—do Odin’s will. He’s the only male to ever get a say on our lives, and forgetting that equals death.
So I keep my gaze on Valhalla and my hands to myself, and until the great gates come into view, the only sound is that of Hulda’s flapping wings, taking us closer to home.