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The powerful waves crashed wildly against the rocks as Vora stared out to sea. They mirrored the state of her uneasy heart and unsettled mind. She wasn’t often this edgy. She’d been intent on her necessary tasks for a long while and seldom permitted herself to dwell on her emotions. Facing perilous situations or dangerous creatures was daunting, but often distracted her from dwelling on her personal concerns.
As a healer, caring for the ill and wounded or creating remedies filled her days when quests didn’t take her to other lands or faraway realms. If she toiled past the point of exhaustion it usually ensured she was weary enough to sleep. Yet sometimes fears and regrets prevented sleep despite how hard she pushed herself.
Today Vora’s thoughts would not be stilled; her mind reeled with memories of the past and concerns for the future. She could no longer put off the inevitable. Even if she wasn’t ready…the time of reckoning was nearly upon them.
Vora was eager to finally be reunited with her children…yet there was much uncertainty in that. She’d need to explain everything and she doubted she’d ever be truly prepared for that. She hadn’t seen her daughters for sixteen long, lonely years. When they’d first been separated, her heart ached unbearably for them. She’d consoled herself caring for her newborn son and her nephew, who’d been born prematurely and needed extra care. She’d managed to mostly convince herself she’d only done what was necessary.
She hadn’t seen her son Knute in nearly as long as her daughters, and her elder son, Reidr…longer still. In truth, she’d barely held Reidr in her arms. Before the sun set on the day of his birth, he’d been whisked away to safety. Having his twin sister, Torunn, to love and nurture had offered comfort, but Vora suffered being parted from him and eventually all her children.
The powerful goddess Solveig of Highgard kept her informed of some of the happenings in her children’s lives and occasionally Vora spoke with the spirits of her sister and her mother…and now Eydis. That still grieved her to know her youngest daughter had died. She hadn’t seen that tragedy in her runes’ predictions. When Eydis came to her as a spirit, Vora didn’t want to believe it. She prayed it was a terrible dream or maybe that she was an imitator, but Eydis had spoken truths only her daughter could have known of Highgard and their family.
Eydis was a delightful young woman, full of lighthearted mirth even as a spirit. Like Reidr, Vora had spent little time with Eydis. She hadn’t sent her away as she’d done with Reidr, but on the day of Eydis’s birth, Vora left her and her other daughters in the care of her grandmother and her sister, Magnahild.
Vora learned Eydis had many endearing characteristics. Although she’d lived scarcely past the brink of womanhood, she bore no resentfulness. Vora had certainly seen spirits who bitterly held on to past misfortune, but not her own dear child, Eydis.
Once again, Vora asked herself the impossible question. Would Eydis have lived if Vora had remained in Highgard? Would her twin brother, Knute, have died? Although Vora never believed Knute would contract the dreaded Red Death, like Reidr, his life had been in certain danger. Maybe she could have kept both of them protected within their fortress if they’d remained in Highgard. But what kind of life would that have been for either of her sons?
One year after they’d left their realm, Vora’s sister’s infant son, Manning, mysteriously became ill with the scarlet affliction here in Midgard. He was of the line of Solveig so allegedly immune to the horrid plague. Eydis had died from the Red Death as well, which made Vora uncertain of much.
Vora sighed, contemplating her options. She had many Highgardian powers, but the ability to travel through time wasn’t one of them. However, she knew someone with that power. Maybe if he returned her to the past, she could change Manning’s fate or Eydis’s tragic death. But how far back would she need to go?
If she saved Eydis, would another of her children die? If she found a way to ensure Manning hadn’t become ill, would another close to her suffer? She’d been faced with decisions no mother should ever have to make. To save a child, she’d left the others. To avoid one tragedy or another she’d still placed them in peril.
Vora had to live with her decisions. She’d face her three daughters and her younger son, all their questions, and possibly their wrath, disappointment or sorrow. She would finally reveal the difficult truths. She owed them that and so much more.
In the coming days she’d finally see her children again. The one blessing of Eydis’s death was they’d grown close. Vora had finally gotten to know her. Eydis told her more than Solveig ever had of her daughters. Vora supposed Solveig shielded her because she understood Vora couldn’t return to Highgard. Knowing the truth may have caused more heartache.
Vora slowly trudged up the rocky path to the cottage. She’d trained to become a capable warrior and much of the time she prided herself in her physical strength and stamina. But today, she felt weary and old, perhaps older than her thirty-seven sun’s journeys. She smiled at that terminology. Although she hadn’t been in Highgard in a long while, she still thought like a Highgardian.
She entered her cottage and glanced at the meager contents: the shelves lined with remedies and a few dishes, the hearth with the weighty kettle, the table and three chairs. Living alone, only one chair was required—the others only used if someone came to seek healing.
Vora stared at the bed in the corner and considered the sad truth; she’d spent most of her life sleeping alone. She and her husband, Audun, had been wed only a few moons when he became afflicted with the Red Death and was sent to the caves. Sometimes her young daughters had shared her bed back in Highgard. She’d adored having Torunn, Brenna and Asta’s small warm bodies surrounding her.
When she’d first come to Midgard she’d slept near the two infants, Knute and Manning, as well. After the boys were no longer with her, Vora remained alone. She hadn’t shared passion with a man since she’d left Highgard. She shook her head at those memories but felt her cheeks grow warm.
Sometimes on a particularly cold, lonely night she’d imagine what it would be to fall asleep in someone’s arms. Always she dismissed those notions, for thoughts of the one she longed to hold her caused turmoil in her soul.
Vora stared at the animal fur that covered the hatch leading to the cellar. She had nearly happened upon her daughter Asta in this cottage only days earlier. She should have been overjoyed to finally see one of her children again. Instead, she’d panicked and remained hidden in the cellar. When Asta left, Vora veiled the dwelling so it could no longer be seen even by Highgardian eyes. She felt like a coward avoiding her, but Asta was likely to be the daughter to hold the most resentment…and with good reason. Asta might remember what Vora, herself, had tried to forget.
Vora inhaled, attempting to rid herself of that haunting memory, to remain intent on what she must now accomplish. Yet her terrifying memories were linked to that as well. She’d recently met with Solveig. She’d said they could wait no longer for there’d been movement in the dark mountains in Highgard. More and more depleters were awakening. If they weren’t stopped, the monstrous undead creatures that fed on the blood of others would surely find a way to get to different realms. When the thirst became greater they’d need to feed.
Vora and many other like-minded people had been bracing for this dangerous confrontation for years. They’d enlisted numerous beings from various worlds. They had helped fight treacherous enemies to ensure they’d have allies in this battle against the insidious pale-faced depleters. Together they’d surely be capable of defeating them… They must defeat them.
Vora was distracted when the spirit of a young woman materialized before her eyes. She’d seen her several times through the years. Vora possessed the ability to see and speak with spirits, but this young spirit never spoke. She simply stared at her with large sad eyes.
Vora had attempted to converse with her to see how she might help her, but had never been successful. She didn’t know anything about the spirit-woman—when she’d lived, who she was or why she came to her. She did know the spirit was connected to another who still lived. Her appearance always alerted Vora to when she would see him.
Vora trembled as she glanced toward the door. Even before she heard the footsteps, her heart thudded faster. She wasn’t ready to see him…to face him, but evidently there was no longer a choice. She would need him and his many abilities. They all would.
She opened the door to meet him before he knocked. Though his brow was furrowed, possibly with his own uncertainty in seeing her again, his smile was affable and genuine.
“Vora, it has been some time. Yet, you look as young and beautiful as when last we saw each other. In truth, you look barely changed since the first day I met you. How can that be?”
“Andor, apparently your eyesight has dimmed with age more than your own unchanged appearance would suggest.”
It was true. He hadn’t changed in the five years since she’d seen him last. He remained a strikingly handsome man. His intense dark blue eyes unsettled her. His formidable physical presence remained remarkable as he towered above her. His shoulders were broad, his arms muscular and his waist had not thickened like that of many males who neared their fourth decade. He wore light chain mail armor so she presumed he had recently battled or would soon.
“I don’t come alone,” Andor said.
Vora looked past Andor and on the path stood another she’d not seen in some time. The tall god smiled at her with fondness.
“Vora, you look well…considerably less encumbered than when last we met,” he said as he came to embrace her before the men stepped inside the cottage.
“I hope I look better than I did then, Thor, for I did I have a giant’s spear in my shoulder and a sword’s wound as well.”
“The poisoned spear was straight through your shoulder, Vora, and the sword’s slash was deep,” Andor stated. His sudden change in eye color revealed his distress at remembering. She changed the subject.
“You, too, look handsome and ageless, Thor.”
“I am ageless. You are not, and yet Andor is correct, you don’t seem to have aged.” Thor touched her hair in affection. “You do look like a Midgardian though. I admit I’m disappointed to see you have severed your Highgardian hair.”
Her own hand went to her light blonde hair now twisted and piled upon her head with only a few wisps down her neck.
“The length didn’t serve me well in battles,” Vora said. “But tell me, why are you here? I can only assume you bring bad tidings if you both come to me.”
Andor appeared deep in thought, therefore Thor replied.
“Alvaldr’s presence has been sensed in many worlds. He clearly grows desperate to summon any who bear his mark. He’ll surely make further attempts to contact your daughter. He may be set on contacting all your children for the blood of Solveigians is powerful and more easily detected,” Thor said.
“Further attempts? I did not sense it and wasn’t made aware of this, not by Solveig or even the spirit of my youngest daughter Eydis.”
Andor gazed at Vora with unspoken empathy, but evident pain of his own at these words. It was obvious Eydis’s death grieved him. He cleared his throat and replied.
“Twice he did attempt to get to Asta,” Andor said. “Once in Highgard and once here in Midgard. But don’t flay yourself, Vora. If you’d known and attempted to intervene it would only have made you a certain target as well. During the next whole moon in Midgard, three of the sister worlds—Asgard, Highgard and Midgard—will align and the remaining portals will open,” Andor said. “We’ll need to go to Highgard before that occurs to reseal the portals and begin the training necessary to stop the fiends before they escape to other realms.”
“Do you truly believe we’ll be ready to face Alvaldr and his depleters?” Vora asked. “Is it actually safe to return to Highgard?”
Andor shrugged noncommittally, which didn’t fill Vora with confidence. Andor was usually dauntlessly optimistic. She knew what had happened long ago with Alvaldr, the leader of the depleters, was a horrific memory for Andor, too.
“I suspect we’ll soon be as ready as we can be,” Thor replied. “We have accumulated gods, men and various creatures from all worlds. Although Asgard cannot afford to send many due to the premonitions of Ragnarok, I’ll be there as I’m able, along with those we can spare. When the portals are resealed, we’ll train and prepare. You must go to your daughters and their men to explain the situation and what’s expected of them.”
“Their men?” Vora stared from one to the other for explanation. “I didn’t sense this either. Clearly my powers of perception fail me or this was deliberately kept from me,” Vora said with accusation.
Eydis’s spirit suddenly appeared and she wore a sheepish grin.
“I didn’t tell you all, Mother. I thought it was best you learn it from my sisters.”
“Your sisters are paired with men then?” Vora asked.
“With the three Highgardians long ago sent to Midgard,” Thor replied.
“How is it you know of this, Thor, when I did not?”
“I only learned of this recently,” Thor said.
Her thoughts went back to her children. “My daughters are truly romantically paired?” Vora asked in disbelief.
Eydis nodded with a smile of approval.
“By the gods, how can it be that they’re old enough to already have such thoughts toward men?”
Eydis’s smile was mischievous. “They’ve certainly had more than thoughts toward their men, Mother.”
“They’re still so young!” Vora fretted.
“You were younger than Torunn, Brenna and Asta when you gave birth to Torunn and…” Andor said.
Vora threw him a cautionary glance and then looked at Eydis.
“It’s been some time since you saw them, Vora,” Andor said.
“It’s been sixteen sun’s journeys,” Vora whispered.
“Sixteen years changes much,” Andor said.
Vora’s eyes met his and briefly held, but she looked away.
“This is Thor and Andor,” Vora said to Eydis as she gestured to the two men respectively.
Eydis smiled again. “I have heard much of Thor. You were mentioned often in stories we heard when I was a child.”
“Never in a positive light, I’m told,” Thor replied.
“You don’t look murderous or abominable,” Eydis said as she floated around and stared him up and down.
“You’ve seen a lot of murderous, abominable gods then, have you?” Thor jested with her.
“No, but I am Eydis the Perceptive. I don’t sense you are murderous and you don’t look abominable, but most appealing.”
“You should see him the morning after a night of drinking when he’s overdone the ale.” Andor smirked at Thor and then at the young spirit woman.
Thor grinned back good-naturedly. “It’s been an age since we’ve drunk ale together and made merry, my friend. I’d suggest it’s been far too long since either you or Vora have taken time to enjoy any jollity or pleasure,” Thor stated as he looked from Andor to Vora.
“With the possibility of all eleven worlds being overrun with pale-faced beings who wish to drain the blood, lives and souls of perhaps all living creatures, do you believe we should take time to think about pleasure?” Vora replied.
“Perhaps if you did you wouldn’t wear such a stern, unyielding expression on your lovely face,” Thor said.
“The Asgardian god of thunder thinks you are stern, Mother.” Eydis giggled at that.
“Why would you make your children fearful of all Asgardian gods?” Thor asked.
“You are Odin’s son,” Vora said. “In Highgard, none of the gods of Asgard were painted in a positive light. I didn’t tell such grim, violent tales as many others for I didn’t wish my daughters to be afraid and unable to find peaceful sleep.
“However, it’s true, there was no fondness for Odin amongst the descendants of Solveig and her followers who came with her to Highgard. The tale of Solveig being imprisoned for centuries by her brother Odin, and her life threatened when she escaped, were often used as a warning.”
Thor and Andor exchanged a look Vora couldn’t discern when she mentioned that happening, but they didn’t explain, therefore Vora continued.
“How could Solveig not hold much animosity toward Odin and his kin that continued for generations?”
“Yet my aunt Solveig doesn’t bear resentment toward me. We’ve been on good terms for centuries,” Thor said.
“We’ll surely need Thor and the assistance of other Asgardians in dealing with these depleters,” Andor said.
“I haven’t heard of you before,” Eydis said as she stared at Andor with obvious curiosity.
“I didn’t suppose you would have,” Andor replied as he looked from Vora to Eydis and Vora turned away, yet again.
“You’re not Asgardian then?” Eydis asked.
“No, I’m from Modir, the oldest realm. Apparently many millennia earlier all worlds were one, long before inhabitation. But a catastrophic event forcibly split the worlds sending them in different directions. I’m one of the few left of my kind. Modirians were once the defenders of the realms.”
“I didn’t know of your world,” Eydis said.
“Most do not,” Andor said as he smiled warmly at Eydis’s spirit.
“Alvaldr attempted to get to Asta, but she is safe?” Vora asked. She’d been deep in thought, only catching snippets of the conversation.
Both Thor and Andor nodded.
“It’s always been Asta,” Vora whispered.
“Your protection spells held for a long while, Vora,” Andor tried to console her.
“I attempted to watch over your realm when I could,” Thor said, “since Andor could not.”
“You’ve been to our realm?” Eydis asked Thor. “Solveig’s veil was supposed to protect Highgard from Asgardians.”
“I was there occasionally; Andor created a portal for me. I wouldn’t like to give him a swollen head at my praise, but Andor possesses many powerful abilities. He can journey to all worlds, realms and times by creating a portal at mystical locations where the veil is thin.”
Andor didn’t reply. His humility in the many abilities he possessed had astounded Vora from the first time they met.
“Are you a god then?” Eydis asked.
“No, I’m only a man,” Andor said.
Thor stared at Andor and shook his head. Vora saw the expression on Thor’s face. There was some accusation when he looked at her.
“You’re not going to tell young Eydis you were once a mighty god?” Thor asked. “Amongst the most powerful gods in all the worlds…in every realm? You aren’t going to share the tale of giving up your agelessness, relinquishing your immortality and a myriad of other powers for the love of a woman…because you wanted to grow old with a woman who wouldn’t even agree to be with you?”
“There’s no time for idle talk or unnecessary tales,” Andor said.
Eydis glanced from Thor to Andor, but finally asked another question.
“Why did you need to place protection spells on Asta, Mother?”
Vora looked at Eydis, but the words stuck in her throat.
“Your mother was vigilant in protecting all her children,” Andor said. “She sacrificed much to keep those she loved safe.”
“Not immortality,” she whispered and he gazed at her but didn’t speak.
“Your eyes change color!” Eydis said with interest. “Mine and my twin brother Knute’s eyes do as well. I used to ask my sister Torunn why. She said she didn’t know the reason, but I must be special.”
“You’re extraordinarily special, Eydis,” Vora said.
“You’re truly special, just like your mother. You look much like she did at your age.”
“You’ve known my mother for some time and you know my siblings as well? I never saw you or any man in all the time I lived.”
“I’ve known your mother for many years, but haven’t been to Highgard for some time. It’s doubtful even your older sisters would remember me.”
Vora felt her heart grow heavier as she listened to the exchange between Eydis and Andor. She had many regrets concerning her children. Her thoughts went to her daughter Asta…and now Eydis, too, burdened her thoughts.
“You mustn’t dwell on what happened in the past, Vora. We must look ahead so our worlds and our children have a future,” Andor said. He clearly heard her thoughts.
Vora turned sharply.
“So all children in every world will have a hopeful future,” Andor rephrased.
Vora inhaled and closed her eyes, attempting to calm herself.
“My sisters believe you’re upon a ship with the Viking explorer Leif Erikson. The renowned adventurer’s fleet now sails the nearby coast here in Greenland and my siblings await your arrival, Mother, although Knute surely knows you aren’t upon a ship,” Eydis said.
“I suppose I’d best go meet my daughters and my son.”
“How old were your daughters when last you saw them?” Thor asked.
“Torunn was five, my twin daughters, Asta and Brenna nearly three. Eydis, only a newborn then.”
Eydis affectionately embraced her and her daughter’s warm, loving presence—even as a spirit—comforted Vora much.
“And your sons?” Thor asked.
“Sons?” Eydis asked with obvious confusion. “Destin isn’t your son. Although fathered by Audun, Destin is Runa the sorceress’s son,” Eydis said.
“That’s true,” Vora replied.
“Does it distress you, Mother, to know your husband fathered another woman’s child?”
Vora glanced at Andor again then looked back to Eydis. “Though promised to one another, we weren’t married then, for I was young myself and Audun was under Runa’s spell.”
“Then why does Thor speak of sons? I’m aware of Knute, my twin brother, whom I knew nothing about until only recently. I don’t understand why I wouldn’t have sensed him or had visions of him. But there’s another son?”
Vora whispered, “Yes, another son…another secret.”
“He’s well, Vora. I assure you; Reidr is well,” Andor said. He stepped nearer and she knew he resisted embracing her.
“Reidr is another brother, then? Spirits aren’t often prone to unpleasant emotions, yet it’s unsettling to learn all the secrets kept from us,” Eydis said.
“Reidr is Torunn’s twin brother,” Vora finally admitted.
“You carried three sets of twins?” Eydis asked. “Are there more children we don’t know of?”
Vora shook her head. “I bore six beautiful, perfect children.”
“Where is my older brother then? Was he sent to Midgard like Destin and the other three Highgardian boys?”
“Not Midgard, but he was raised by others as were all my children,” Vora said.
“You were needed in endless capacities, Vora…as a healer and a warrior…a negotiator for peace in the realms, an instrumental leader in determining a final scheme for dealing with the depleters,” Andor said, proudly singing her praises.
“I should have been a mother first,” Vora said.
“You were,” Andor argued. “You worked tirelessly, placed yourself in clear danger countless times to find a way to save your children…to save all children. You helped ensure we’ll have allies when we finally face the depleters. How could that be seen as anything but a selfless, caring mother?”
“I doubt my daughters or sons will see it that way. Knute was too young to have memories of me when I left him in Asgur’s care. My older daughters surely barely remember me and both Reidr and Eydis were only newborns when we were parted. I suspect they’ll all feel I abandoned them and are sure to be resentful.”
“I didn’t resent you, Mother, even before I knew the truth. Knute is wise and compassionate; he’d never fault you,” Eydis said. “Brenna’s kind empath heart will understand. Torunn may need time, but as a protector herself, she’ll come around.
“However, I must warn you, Mother, it’s doubtful Asta will be congenial. She holds on to resentment more than my other siblings. I’m hopeful now she’s happily paired with Hagen, he might make her see reason.”
Vora smiled at that. “Hagen is a brave young man with integrity and a heart as big as they come. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing him for some time. It’s surely good he’s matched with Asta. I only hope she doesn’t hold it against him when she learns he and I have been associated for years.”
“But Hagen didn’t know Asta was your daughter until recently. He didn’t even know you had children so I hope she’ll be reasonable with him,” Eydis replied.
“Ultimately I kept my children a secret to protect them, but perhaps I didn’t want others to judge me for leaving them. When I saw Hagen recently, he spoke of knowing Asta. I asked him to keep my identity concealed. That alone may come as a blow to Asta. Hagen did fail to mention he had romantic feelings toward Asta or she for him. He’s Highgardian; perhaps we’re all simply prone to secretiveness.”
“That is clearly not only a Highgardian trait,” Andor said.
“I’ll accompany you when you speak with my siblings, Mother. I hope to calm Asta, for even she can’t be angry with me for long now I’m a spirit.”
“Should I join you?” Andor asked. “Would you welcome my support when you speak with your children?”
“No,” she said without pause. “It’s best if you remain with Thor. Perhaps you’ll learn more of Alvaldr and the happenings in Highgard.”
He appeared slightly disappointed, but not surprised.
“When will you retrieve Reidr?” Vora asked.
“Soon. He’s with the dark ones, the Highgardian protectors. They keep him safe and the light-beings apparently school him more on Midgard.”
“I haven’t heard everywhere he’s journeyed, but from what I remember of them, I suspect Reidr could actually school them in Midgard,” Vora said as she rolled her eyes.
“Asta often makes that exact same gesture. I didn’t know she’d inherited it from you, Mother,” Eydis said with an amused smile.
“I suppose she did,” Vora said and Andor smirked at that.
Thor started toward the door but Andor remained and stared at Vora.
“Do the two of you need time alone?” Thor asked.
Andor nodded even though Vora shook her head.
“You must tell me more of your father, Odin,” Eydis said as she floated toward Thor. She took his arm and looked at the door. Without touching it, the door opened and Eydis smiled, clearly proud of her growing ability to move items in the physical world. “I’d also like to learn about this legendary hammer.” Eydis grinned at Thor’s infamous weapon as they closed the door behind them.
End of Excerpt