Chapter Sixteen

Tilje

“What?” His soulmate? Seriously? So cheesy. I mean, if there was a chance I’d sleep with him, what he just said ruined it. “What?” I ask again, in case he didn’t hear me the first time.

Ares drops his sword on a pile of hay, barely saving the blade from disgrace, and takes a step closer.

I step back, but the heel of my foot hits the wall. I’ve had a long day, and Ares’ cordoned neck muscles are on display and looking so lickable, and all I can do is lean against the planks and act cool.

He plants his large palms on the wall behind me. “You’re my soulmate,” he whispers, but the words echo inside my head, loud and clear. “Your soul was created to spend eternity bound to mine.”

I’m not trapped; I can duck beneath his arms and run. But I’ve done enough running.

I give him my most defiant stare, smirk and arched eyebrow included. Tightening my grip on Ratatoskr’s hilt grounds me and keeps me from fisting my hand in his hair. “You’d say anything to get me in your bed, huh? Guess I should be flattered.” My sarcastic tone ensures he knows that’s not the case.

“It’s not a line.” His voice is gruffer than usual, almost a growl. It travels straight from my ear to between my legs, and I’m instantly wet. Skítr. I hate the effect this man has on me.

Need to focus on what he’s saying, not how it makes me feel. I’m a Valkyrie. And I’m a goddess. And neither part of me is going to be emotionally attached to a male, be it a god or not.

“For my brothers and me to ascend, we need to bond with our soulmates.” Ares stares into my eyes. Feels like a challenge to… What? Ask him what bonding means? I won’t. Won’t show the slightest interest. I’ll let him say his piece, and then I’ll walk away.

“For years, I refused to find out anything about my soulmate, because I wouldn’t allow fate to tie me to a female. My brothers recently let it slip that she’s a Valkyrie.”

“A different Valkyrie,” I say with confidence, even as my stomach flips at the thought of him bedding one of my sisters. “There are dozens of us.”

His lips hover a hairbreadth from mine and don’t move when he says, “A Valkyrie named Tilgivelse.”

Yeah… only one of those. Me. My name means pardon. Until today, I believed it had to do with my purpose on the battlefield, but now I’m thinking maybe Odin saw me as his absolution.

“Did you hear me?” Ares’ lips brush mine.

When I open my mouth to say that of course I did, he slips his wicked, talented tongue in my mouth.

I’m sucking on it, as his voice fills my head. “The bond establishes a mental link between us. That’s why you can hear me talk. It’s how I can make you feel this.” Said wicked tongue is lapping at the apex of my thighs, making my knees buckle even as it withdraws to trace my bottom lip. His hands, solidly framing my head, are also on my hips, fingers digging in.

My core aches with the effort it takes to withdraw from his phantom touch. “What else does the bond do?” I think at him. I need to know, before I let him take this further.

He breaks the kiss and touches his forehead to mine. “What the word says—it binds us together. For eternity. And it restores me as the god of war.”

A god of war,” I correct automatically. Does it restore me too? Was that what Odin meant, when he said Ares had the power to make me whole?

But bind myself to a male for eternity? Never.

“Restore you in what manner?” Ares asks.

He pried in my thoughts?

I use my free hand to push him back, but he only budges half a step.

“I’m sorry. You were thinking very loudly. I didn’t try to listen in, honest.” He mustn’t apologize often, because he does it rather brusquely and with barely a hint of remorse. He winces. “Try to think of a barrier around your mind. A solid one. That’ll keep your thoughts private,” he says.

I think of gold walls, like the ones Odin uses for his private meetings.

Ares squints, and then nods. “Works. Now, why do you need restoring?”

I sheathe my sword, needing the time to decide how honest to be. My gut tells me to open up to this male with the green eyes that soften when he trains his gaze my way, but my mind chooses this moment to replay every warning Brynhildr has ever given me about men.

“Hey.” Ares cups my cheek and uses his thumb to tilt my chin up. “You can trust me.”

The sincerity in his voice warms me up inside. “Odin told me today I’m not a Valkyrie.” He opens his mouth, and I cut him off. “Not just a Valkyrie.”

A smile curves his generous mouth. “He told you who you used to be.”

“You knew?” Why didn’t he tell me? Betrayal sinks in my bones, slicing me like razors. He said I could trust him, but he hid something like that?

He frowns. Works his jaw. “No. No.”

“We’re done here.” I brush past him. Have to get away before the tears clogging my throat make it to my eyes. I don’t want him to see how his betrayal affects me.

He blocks my path again. “Listen to me. Please.” He obviously hasn’t done must pleading either, because it’s delivered as an order.

I only take orders from Odin.

Correction—took orders from Odin. I’m a goddess. I take orders from no one.

Anger shoves away the bitter blend of hurt and disappointment. How dare Ares use that tone on me? How dareOdin have used me as his errand girl all this time?

“I’m leaving.” I’ll find my horse and put some distance between myself and the men messing with my life. Maybe I’ll visit Freya’s field. My field. See if it’s still as I remember it. Because I do remember it. With every pull on the thread of a memory Odin gave me, I unravel more of the drape keeping me from accessing all I once experienced. This is what I should be doing—recalling who I truly am, not playing tug of war with a male who’ll inevitably hurt me.

The scent of grass fills my nostrils, and Ares’ muscular body turns translucent against the pale-blue sky.

“I swear I didn’t know,” I hear him say in my head, before he disappears from sight.

I’m in my field. Alone.

It’s exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. I transported myself here with the speed of thought. By myself. I am returning to my godly status.

I twirl my fingers. My mind may be playing tricks on me, but I swear they tingle with suppressed power. What does that mean about the bond?

“That it’s happening whether you like it or not.”

I spin around, to find Hulda sitting on her ass in a very un-horselike manner, hind legs crossed and front ones framing them. Her wings are tucked away.

“You may deny it, but that will only harden your heart and eat at your soul,” she says. “Or so I’ve heard.”

Her voice is pitched lower than I’m used to. And there’s something wrong with her nose. I pad to her and look closer. Her lip is split. How? She was safely tucked away in the stables till I somehow brought her here.

“What happened to you?” I ask.

“I’m in love.” She sucks in a breath, and as it whistles out, her frame shudders and shifts. Twists and shrinks. Folds in on itself. Until she’s no longer Hulda, but a man, sitting with his elbows on his knees and his head ducked.

I don’t need to see his face, to know who he is. The long, dark hair, wide shoulders, and restless foot say it’s Loki, sitting mere linje from me, even before he raises his head and blows a strand of hair out of his eyes.

“I’m in love, and she hates my guts.” He jumps upward, twirls with a flourish, and laughs. “It’s going to be so much fun.”

His lip is still split. What in Hel’s name hurt a god?

More importantly— “Where’s Hulda? Why are you here?”

He gives an exasperated sigh. “Thought you understood.”

“Understood what?” My ire is rising with every breath I take. I’ve dealt with enough mysteries for a day. “Can you give me a straight answer, for once? What did you do with my horse?”

I’m your horse. I am Hulda. Always have been.” His grin says he’s very satisfied with himself.

I barely register my feet moving, before I lunge at him and tackle him to the ground. “You asshole.” I loved Hulda. Opened up to her more than to anyone else. We were connected. And our bond was always a lie.

So bonds can mean nothing.

The pang twisting in my gut is about more than my horse.

Loki rolls and hops onto his feet with his usual dancer’s grace. “Hey. It was for a good cause. Odin wouldn’t let me out of Valhalla unless I agreed to fly you to Midgard whenever you wanted me to.”

A good cause translated to it was good for me, in Loki-speak. I sit up and ignore his proffered hand. “You could have told me.” Like he could have told me Odin was the one who let him out of Valhalla, instead of letting me believe it was his own power getting him through the time barrier.

He shakes his head. “I wasn’t allowed to.” His hair is as dark as Ares’, though they don’t hold the same loose curl.

Not the time to think about him.

“Like you weren’t allowed to tell me I’m Freya?” I hiss. I get up and crack my neck. My hair is pulled back so tight, my forehead stings. I want to let it loose and run in this field. I want to make love with Ares. I want not to have wasted a lifetime without my memories.

I want the world to stop and let me catch my breath.

Loki approaches me gingerly, like I might attack him again. Who can blame him? Even I don’t know what my next move will be. “I wanted to tell you,” he said. “You were always decent to me. Kind. Never blamed me for Baldr.”

He isn’t talking about Tilje-me. As Freya, I was one of very few gods who didn’t hold Baldr’s prophesied death against Loki when Baldr disappeared, even though there was no evidence Loki had done anything to him.

And where’s Baldr now, since he didn’t die?

Not important. Baldr isn’t my concern. I should stop thinking about Baldr. Stop thinking about Baldr.

I summon my most menacing glower and aim it at Loki. “You knew who I was from the beginning, didn’t you?” Why I do keep being surprised people I trusted deceived me?

He nods. “I did.”

“Does everyone know? Do you all gather round and make fun of the goddess-turned-Odin’s-lackey?”

Loki’s eyes widen in what seems like sincere surprise, but he’s known as a trickster god for a reason. “The others have no clue, and I was sworn—”

“To secrecy.” I roll my eyes.

“I was. Odin said, if I told you any of this, I’d never see the outside world again.” He splays his hands. “Staying in Valhalla would kill me. Doing what he wanted gave me the opportunity to figure out how to bring you back. How to save us all from this prison.”

Save us?” I scoff. “Odin will do that when he can see the future. He just needs Ares to—” I shut my mouth mid-sentence when Loki shakes his head again. “That was a lie too?” I ask.

“Odin knows what’s to come. The time warp never hindered him. And you should give Ares a chance to plead his case.”

Despite saving me in the past, Loki isn’t known for his altruism. There has to be more he’s holding back. “What’s in it for you?” I ask.

I expect him to protest. Instead, he laughs. “Everything. The world. If you bond with Ares, if you ascend fully, Odin will release Valhalla from the time bubble.”

I gape at him. Working my jaw until my thoughts form a proper sentence. “Why is regaining my powers so important that Odin would hold everyone in stasis until I do?”

Loki looks around, like he’s worried someone may be listening in. Someone is, if he’s not lying about Odin’s sight. “You and Ares were supposed to bond in your first lives,” he says. “Your souls were always meant to be together. Zeus told Odin that Ares would take you to Olympus and cause Ragnarok. Odin’s visions about the two of you were blocked, so he trusted Zeus, and kept you and Ares from ever meeting.”

Another why I may never get an answer to. Zeus certainly isn’t around, to explain. Not that he would. He was a cocky, self-absorbed, petty god. A god I turned down. Did he mess with my destiny out of spite?

And is that a destiny I care to fulfill in this lifetime?

I cross my arms and stare Loki down, though he’s much taller than me. “I can’t make a decision on my future based on what should have happened centuries ago to a woman I barely remember.” Besides, I’m apparently regaining my powers anyway. Then again, that’s because the bond is taking, regardless of my wishes.

“Then make a decision based on how Ares makes you feel.” Loki snaps his fingers, and the scenery around us melts back into the stables.

Where Ares is waiting for me.

I think of the field, trying frantically to get myself back there. To have some time alone. To let rational thought reign.

Ares cups a hand at the nape of my neck and kisses me.

Rational thought is seriously overrated.

< Chapter 15 | Chapter 17 >

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