NINE REALMS CHALLENGE
Long before time was measured, deep in the depths of the cosmos stood a magnificent tree. This Cosmic World Tree was known as Yggdrasil.
Surrounded by billions of stars, and rumoured to have a hideous dragon called Nidhogg guarding its roots and a powerful eagle protecting the top, Yggdrasil contained nine separate realms within its leafy branches and deep roots.
Living in each realm were populations of every conceivable size, shape and power – from the largest Frost and Fire Giants, to the Norse gods; from humans to Trolls; Elves, Fairies and everything in between.
The residents of these realms could visit each other only by using the wondrous Rainbow Bridge, Bifröst. There were rumours of secret tunnels within the root system hidden nearest the trunk of Yggdrasil, though it has never been proven, and with Nidhogg protecting the roots, it was doubtful anyone would survive the attempt to use them should such a system even exist.
Despite each world’s connection through Yggdrasil, peace did not reign. War within the realms was common. The residents in the lower worlds viewed the upper worlds with envy and jealousy. Often they would invade in the hopes of claiming the upper realms for themselves.
So violent and destructive were these wars that Yggdrasil itself was suffering and in grave danger of being destroyed. But if Yggdrasil died, so would all the realms.
Finally, Odin, leader of the highest realm, Asgard, summoned the kings and rulers of the lower realms together to forge a lasting peace. But with jealousy and anger still prevalent, the peace they forged was as delicate as a spider’s web, and just as easily broken.
To ensure a continued, peaceful coexistence within Yggdrasil, and as a way of working out their frustrations and squabbles, the leaders of the realms came up with a solution.
Thus, the NINE REALMS CHALLENGE was born.
Every ten cosmic years and moving from world to world, the Challenge is held. Here the realms could compete against each other in a show of power and strength without the risk of starting another war.
During the Nine Realms Challenge, any animosity between the worlds is suspended and an armistice declared. The anger between the Frost Giants and people of Asgard is put aside, just as peace is declared between the Light and Dark Elves.
But with so many different and combative species competing in the Nine Realms Challenge, Odin knew that this peace would be unstable. So he and the other leaders agreed on the creation of a special group of ‘Enforcers of Peace’. These enforces were also known as the Dark Searchers. They do not compete, nor do they favour sides. During the Challenge, the Dark Searchers remain neutral and dole out harsh punishments to anyone endangering the delicate balance of peace.
When not working for the Nine Realms Challenge, the Dark Searchers are fiercely loyal to Odin and do his bidding. Though they serve only Odin, they do not live in Asgard. They have their own Keep, protected inside Utgard in the realm of Jotunheim– land of the Frost Giants and only leave their Keep when summoned.
The Nine Realms Challenge has kept the peace for thousands of years. But it is a fragile peace that can easily be shattered. When that happens the final, devastating war, known as Ragnarok, will begin, and not even the Cosmic World Tree, Yggdrasil, will survive it…
As dawn rose pink in the sky, the heavy footfalls of visitors arriving in Asgard shook the ground. High up on a hill, far from Bifröst, the Rainbow Bridge and entrance to Asgard, stood the home of Eir, the head Valkyrie and her daughters.
Servants of Odin, and also known as his Battle Maidens, the Valkyries work hard to bring the most valiant of the dying soldiers from the human world to Asgard.
But for one Valkyrie, there is no reaping of soldiers. Still on probation for leaving Asgard without permission, it is Freya’s punishment to work twice as hard as the others – spending her mornings working in the stables of the Reaping Mares, cleaning and caring for the winged horses, and afternoons in full battle training with the other Valkyries.
At the end of each day, Freya returns to her bed, exhausted, and craving much needed rest.
But on this day, she was awakened extra early by the sound of loud pounding on her bedroom door as the voice of her best friend and companion, called. ‘Gee, Maya, get up!’
Freya moaned sleepily and started to doze off again.
‘C’mon,’ Archie called through the door. ‘You’re missing it!’
Freya sat up, remembering what day it was. From outside came the sound of rumbling thunder as the ground beneath their home started to quake. She looked over to her sister’s bed. Maya was lying on her side and facing away from her, sleeping soundly.
‘Maya, wake up.’ Freya tossed a pillow at her sister. ‘The giants are here!’
Maya mumbled softly and rolled on to her stomach. She yawned, stretched and extended her white wings up into the air. Folding them neatly on her back again, she mumbled a few more incoherent words and drifted back to sleep.
‘Gee…’ Archie repeated. ‘Are you up?’
‘She is!’ Orus cawed loudly. Freya’s raven companion sat on a perch at the base of her bed and kept watch while she slept.
Maya’s own raven, Grul had his head tucked under his wing and was sleeping as soundly as Maya.
Freya took one final look at Maya and sighed.
‘I’m coming,’ she called and went to join Archie.
Moments later they stood on an open balcony high above the streets of Asgard.
‘Cool!’ Archie pointed to a long line of impossibly tall giants stomping through the narrow streets of the city. Each step caused the ground to rumble and buildings to shake. In the distance they heard the sound of breaking glass as windows shattered from the giant’s heavy footfalls.
‘I never thought they’d be so big. Are they the Frost or Fire Giants?’
‘They’re Frost Giants,’ Freya explained. ‘You can tell by the colour of their skin. Frost Giants are silvery grey like ice and their eyes are almost white to reflect the glare of snow from their realm. They have long, streaky black and white hair. Fire Giants have bright red skin, blazing yellow eyes and flaming red hair.’
They followed the long line of Frost Giants lumbering towards Valhalla, Odin’s Great Heavenly Hall, where the opening ceremonies to the Nine Realms Challenge were to be held. The giant’s shoulders and heads rose high above the roofs of the buildings in Asgard. Their expressions were at best unfriendly with some looking hostile and even threatening.
‘Frost Giants hate us,’ Freya said matter of factly. ‘Fire Giants aren’t much better.’
She shrugged. ‘I’m not sure. It goes way back to when there used to be a lot of wars – they nearly destroyed the realms.’ She paused and then pointed. ‘Look down there, the Trolls are here too!’
Squat, round creatures were strolling along the street. Dressed in rough hewn clothes, it was difficult to tell the women trolls from the men. Occasionally they would throw a stone or spit at the people of Asgard.
‘That’s gross,’ Archie said. ‘Do they always spit?’
‘They’re trolls, what do you expect?’
Archie spotted more new arrivals. ‘Whoa, what are they?’
Freya looked down at the lovely line of creatures streaming through the streets. They were of slight build and seemed to float more than walk. They had pale complexions that looked like moonlight and their soft spider web-like clothes billowed in the gentle breeze. ‘They’re the Light Elves.’
‘They’re so beautiful.’
‘They are,’ Freya agreed, but then turned serious. ‘Archie, you must be careful around them. They can be very dangerous, especially to humans. They love to keep them as pets. If one approaches you, do anything you can to get away as quickly as possible. Don’t talk to them or they may try to enchant you and take you away to Alfheim.’
‘Alfheim?’ Archie repeated.
Freya nodded. ‘That’s their realm. It’s higher than Midgard, but lower than Asgard.’
‘Does it matter where they are?’
‘To them it does,’ Freya said. ‘That’s why there were so many wars. The lower realms claimed the upper realms have the most beautiful and fruitful lands. So they attacked us and tried to drive us out so they could take it.’
‘But you’ve always won?’
Freya nodded. ‘There are more of us in Asgard than there are Frost Giants. The last war was long before I was born.’
They stood on the balcony watching more competitors arrive. Archie was completely mesmerized by the dragons, demons, Dark Elves, Light Elves and Dwarfs heading towards the battlefields at Valhalla.
‘There’s a lot more to come,’ Freya said. ‘They’ll be competing here for twelve days. I wish we could go see them,’ she sighed. ‘I was just a child the last time the Nine Realms Challenge was held – back then it was in Utgard. This would have been the first time I could actually compete.’
Freya’s older sister Skaga had appeared on the balcony. She was taller than Freya with blazing white wings and pale grey eyes. Her expression was disapproving. ‘You would’ve been allowed to complete this time if you hadn’t run away and caused all that trouble in Midgard. You’re both lucky Odin didn’t do more to you. I can think of worse fates than just cleaning out the stables.’
‘I know,’ Freya said. ‘But I only went to Earth to help. How could I know that Odin would send the Dark Searchers after us?’
‘You broke the rules, Freya, what did you expect?’ Skaga said. ‘Now you and your dead human are paying for it.’
‘Archie,’ Archie glared at her.
‘My name is Archie,’ he said. ‘Use it! Don’t call me dead human.’
Freya’s family still hadn’t accepted Archie’s presence in the house. But since Freya had reaped him and given him her real name, they didn’t have any choice. Whether they liked it or not, Freya and Archie were bound together.
Skaga inhaled about to retort, but Freya interrupted, ‘Look at everyone down there. I really hate to miss it.’
She turned to Archie. ‘Maybe we can sneak away from the stables to watch some of the opening ceremonies. If we’re careful, Odin will never know.’
‘Oh no you don’t!’ Orus cawed from her shoulder. ‘Freya, don’t even think about it. That’s the sort of thing the Dark Searchers will be looking for. We are banned from the games and they know it!’
‘Listen to Orus, Freya,’ Skaga warned. ‘If the Dark Searchers catch you, they’ll hand you over to Odin. I’m sure he’ll cut off your wings this time. Just do your work at the stables. There will always be more Challenges.’
Archie nodded. ‘If I never see another Dark Searcher again, I’ll be happy. Come on, let’s get to work and let everyone else get on with the Challenge.’
Freya’s eyes lingered on the Light Elves as they drifted through the streets. She wanted so much to see the Challenge. Sighing, she finally let Archie draw her away from the balcony.
Walking through the streets of Asgard was almost as exciting as watching from the balcony. Streams of visitors clogged their way. They had to stand far back on the pavement while a tall line of Fire Giants strode past.
‘I smell smoke,’ Archie commented, looking around.
‘It’s them,’ Freya explained, pointing at the giants. ‘Can you see their clothes smoldering? In their own realm, their clothes burn. When they come to Asgard, they have to wear special garments that don’t set fire to everything. If we’re lucky, a Fire Giant will get angry – then you can watch their clothes burst into flame!’
‘Freya,’ Orus warned. ‘Must you always look for trouble?’
‘I’m not looking for trouble,’ Freya said innocently. ‘I’m just explaining to Archie, that’s all.’ But there was a twinkle in her eye that let them know she’d have been quite happy to watch the Fire Giants start to burn.
Behind the Fire Giants was a gang of creatures wearing dark green cloaks. Their faces were obscured by black masks and they were silent as they drifted past.
‘Those are Dark Elves,’ Freya whispered. ‘Outside of their realm, they keep their faces hidden. I’ve heard they are hideous. But I don’t know for certain.’
‘Dark Elves are even uglier than Trolls,’ Orus commented.
The nearest Dark Elf heard the comment and stepped closer. It pointed a gloved finger at the raven, hissing. The elf remained still, as though waiting for a challenge. When Orus said nothing, the creature hissed once more before walking away.
‘Watch out for them as well,’ Orus warned Archie. ‘Light Elves keep humans as pets. Dark Elves eat them with berry jam.’
‘I’m not sure I want to meet any of them,’ Archie said. ‘They’re really interesting to look at, but I think I’ll stick with you two.’
‘Coward,’ Freya teased, punching him in the arm.
‘I’m not a coward, I’m just not crazy. Let’s see if I got this right.’ He started to count on his fingers. ‘The giants will either step on me or set me on fire if I’m not careful. Light Elves want to abduct me, Dark Elves want to eat me, and Trolls just want to spit at me and hit me with rocks. This world takes a bit of getting used to.’
‘Don’t forget the faeries,’ Orus added.
‘Faeries? In Asgard?’
‘Light Faeries from Alfheim. They’ll steal anything shiny that you’re wearing, so be extra careful around them. Look over there…’
The road had cleared and they were finally able to cross. Up ahead, they spied a swarm of glowing Light Faeries using their little daggers to pry several jewels out of a sign over a jeweler’s shop.
‘See what I mean?’ Orus cawed. ‘They’ll keep at it until they get all the jewels.’
Archie stood very still, enchanted by the tiny figures doing all they could to free rubies from the sign. ‘They almost look like dragon flies, only better. Look at their tiny hands!’
‘They’re thieves, that’s what they are.’ Freya jogged over to where the faeries were swarming on the sign. Her wings flashed open and she launched in to the air. ‘Get away from there!’
The Light Faeries cried out with voices that sounded like tiny bells as they scattered. But the moment Freya landed on the ground, they went right back to work on the sign. She jumped at them again, and once again they scattered only to return when she was back on the ground. Their soft laughter rang out and the tiny faeries stuck out their tongues and blew raspberries at her.
Freya shook her head and walked away calling to Archie to follow her. Further down the street, they slipped between two grand buildings to take a short cut to the Reaping Mare’s stables.
From behind them came the sounds of cheering as the crowds swelled to greet the new arrivals to Asgard. ‘We should be there,’ Freya complained, kicking a pebble away. ‘Not shoveling out dirty stalls.’
‘At least we don’t have to train during the Challenge,’ Archie said. ‘I might actually go a day without a fresh bruise or cut.’
‘I thought you liked battle training?’ Freya asked.
‘I do. But the warriors at Valhalla have loads more experience than me. Crixus, tries to take it easy, but he used to be a Gladiator.’
‘Crixus is your instructor?’ Freya asked, awe struck. ‘He’s the best warrior at Valhalla! How did you get him?’
Archie shrugged. ‘He saw me training and then offered to teach me. He believes in learning through pain and defeat.’ He paused. ‘But I rock at sword fighting. Soon I might even beat you!’
Freya smiled. When she first met Archie, he was being bullied and beaten at school by a vicious gang. Now every afternoon he was being taught by the very best of humanity’s warriors reaped from Earth’s battlefields. Learning hand to hand combat and fighting with many sorts of weapons. He had been accepted by the warriors of Valhalla.
‘You think you can beat me?’ Freya teased, shoving him. ‘Ha! I dare you to try!’
They reached the stable and opened the doors. Immediately the mares nickered to greet them. Freya went straight to her mare.
‘Good morning, Sylt.’ Freya stroked the mare’s smooth muzzle.
Archie pulled an apple from his pocket. ‘Did you miss us?’
While Sylt munched the apple, Archie looked at the stalls. ‘Maybe if we finish quickly, we can watch the other competitors arriving from the balcony. We can’t get in trouble if we’re watching from home.’
‘Great idea,’ Freya agreed as she reached for a pitch fork and they began to clean the stalls.
It wasn’t long before Archie paused from shoveling soiled straw out of a Reaping Mare’s stall and leaned heavily on the shovel handle. His brows were knitted together in a deep frown. ‘Gee, I still don’t get how this works. Are you sure I’m dead? I mean, Skaga always calls me ‘dead human’, but I just don’t feel dead.’
Freya was forking fresh straw into a cleaned stall and looked over at her best friend, puzzled by the randomness of his question. ‘I’m sure.’
‘But if I’m a ghost, why can I lift up this shovel. Or carry a sword and train with the warriors at Valhalla? And eat. I’ve never been so hungry. All I do is eat! You say the Light Elves would keep me for a pet if they caught me. But would they keep a dead person? And how could the Dark Elves eat me if I’m already dead?’
Freya stopped working to carefully consider her answer. It was obvious he had been thinking about this for some time.
‘Here in Asgard, things work differently to the Human World. You’re dead, but you’re not a ghost. You have an Asgard body that people can see and touch. It’s just like the dead warriors at Valhalla – they were killed in Midgard battlefields and brought here. In the Human World they would have no substance, but here they exist, spending their days fighting and nights drinking and singing in Valhalla. If you returned to the Human World it would be different.’
‘So I’d be a ghost there?’
Orus flew off a stall door and landed on Archie’s shoulder. ‘Yes,’ he answered. ‘And there, I couldn’t do this to you.’ He nipped Archie’s ear and cawed in laughter.
‘Hey! That hurt.’
‘See,’ Freya said. ‘Here you can feel things because you have a real body. On Earth you wouldn’t have felt that.’
Archie rubbed his earlobe and grimaced at the raven. ‘You didn’t have to bite me to prove it. You could have just told me.’
‘Where’s the fun in that! Besides, now that you’re dead, you can understand me, and that alone was worth dying for!’
Archie chuckled for a moment, but then became serious. ‘But I don’t remember…’
Freya wondered about the sudden change in her friend. He’d been so happy watching the competitors arriving, and had laughed at her for trying to shoo away the faeries. But now, something was troubling him.
‘Archie, what’s wrong? What don’t you remember?’
‘Dying,’ he answered. ‘I can’t remember how it happened.’
‘What can you remember?’ Freya asked.
Archie frowned. ‘Not a lot. You and Maya were hurt and in danger and I needed to get back to you. But that’s it.’
‘You really don’t remember?’ Orus cawed. ‘You don’t remember taking Freya’s sword to fight off the Dark Searcher?’
‘I did what?’ Archie cried.
Freya nodded and stepped closer to her friend. ‘You fought the Dark Searcher for me. You nearly cut off his hand when he held me by my broken wing. I was so grateful to you.’
Archie’s frown deepened. ‘How did I die?’
Freya knew she had to approach this carefully. ‘I was badly hurt but the Dark Searcher wouldn’t stop. You tried to get me to run with you, but I couldn’t. Then you took my sword and attacked him –’
‘It was really dumb, but very brave,’ Orus cut it. ‘But he was bigger and much stronger than you.’
A sudden memory flashed across Archie’s face. ‘Wait – I remember something…’ He looked down and rubbed his stomach where the Searcher’s sword had cut into him. ‘He stabbed me here!’
‘That’s right. What else do you remember?’
Archie looked up at her in wonder. ‘I don’t remember the pain, but I remember you. He was going to kill you, so I had to stop him. But then he stabbed me.’ Archie’s eyes grew wide. ‘Gee, you were crying. You were crying for me.’
‘No I wasn’t,’ Freya huffed. ‘I just had something in my eyes.’
‘Liar!’ Orus teased. ‘You’re not such a tough Valkyrie after all, are you? You knew Archie was going to die and you didn’t want to lose him. Then the floods arrived.’
‘I didn’t want to leave you either.’ Archie continued. ‘But then you gave me your name and your mark,’ He held up his right hand indicating the symbol that had appeared on the back of his hand the moment she’d told him her true name and reaped him. ‘You saved me, Gee, and I’m so glad you did.’
Freya looked at the ornate gold and black symbol blazoned on the back of Archie’s hand. Every Valkyrie had a unique pattern which appeared on the hands of those they gave their true name to. In Asgard, it was a great honour to be marked by a Valkyrie and was the envy of those who didn’t bear such a mark. With it, Archie was safe from anyone who might trouble him, knowing he had a Valkyrie’s protection.
‘Most of the warriors I train with are jealous that I’ve got your mark. Crixus says I’m really lucky. But I just think it’s cool!’
‘You do?’ Freya asked. ‘It doesn’t bother you that it means you belong to me?’
Archie shrugged. ‘Nope. I’d be with you anyway, with or without the mark. Besides, it means that you belong to me, too. So we’re even.’
‘Yes we are,’ Freya agreed softly.
The turn in the conversation was making her uncomfortable and she fumbled to change the subject. ‘We’d better get these stalls finished if we hope to see anyone else arriving.’
Freya lifted a fork full of clean straw and heard Archie chuckle. Before she could wonder why, she was struck in the back with a shovel full of smelly, soiled straw.
Spinning round, Freya saw Archie laughing as he bent down and picked up handfuls of straw and threw them at her.
‘Straw fight!’ Orus cawed as he swooped off his perch, caught straw in his claws, soared higher and dropped it on Freya’s head.
Instantly game for the fight, Freya threw down her fork and hurled handfuls of straw at Archie.
The barn erupted into a full on war as neatly stacked bales of straw were torn open and used as ammunition. Archie ran across the barn and tried to avoid Freya’s projectiles while gathering up more to throw at her.
Freya opened her black wings and launched in the air. She reached Archie in two wing beats and knocked him into a large pile of clean straw.
‘Using wings is cheating!’ Archie laughed as he rubbed handfuls of straw into Freya’s dyed red hair and into the feathers of her wings.
Lost in fits of hysterics, they were soon covered in the dry golden shafts of straw. Freya pinned Archie down and hovered above him. ‘Do you surrender?’
Freya pulled a large stack of straw down on to him and rubbed it into his face. ‘Now do you surrender?’
‘No!’ Archie cried, spitting out straw. ‘It’s you who’s going to surrender.’ With a quick wrestling manoeuvre, Archie spun Freya around and was soon pinning her down in the straw. ‘Do you give-up?’
Freya cried, ‘Who taught you that?’
‘Crixus,’ Archie answered. ‘He said if I am going to stay with you, I’d better learn how to fight properly so I can protect you.’
‘Crixus said that?’ Freya asked. ‘How does he even know me?’
Archie shrugged. ‘Don’t know, he just does. Now, do you give-up?’
‘Archie, I’m lying on my wings,’ Freya protested.
‘Then you’d better tell me quickly!’
‘Let me up!’
‘Not until you say ‘uncle’ and give-up!’
Freya was laughing too hard to use her Valkyrie strength against him. Instead she lay in the straw looking up into his beaming face and saw that it was true. Archie had no regrets that she had reaped him and brought him into her life here in Asgard.
A familiar voice rose from behind them. ‘Is this what you two call cleaning the stables?’
Freya rose and flew at the leader of the Angels of Death.
Azrael received her in his open arms and wrapped his white wings around her tightly until she could no longer be seen in his angelic embrace.
‘I’m glad to see that Odin’s been keeping you busy.’ He released her and chuckled softly as he picked straw from her tousled hair.
Archie walked forward and bowed his head. ‘Hello, Sir.’
Azrael smiled. ‘And how’s my favourite human doing?’
‘What are you doing in Asgard?’ Freya asked.
‘I’m here for the Challenge. I’ve been speaking with Odin and we both feel it’s time for my realm to join in the competition. We’re the Tenth Realm.’
‘The Tenth Realm?’ Freya asked.
Azrael nodded. ‘Heofon. My angels will be arriving shortly.’
‘I really wish we could watch, but we can’t,’ Freya explained sadly. ‘Odin has forbidden us to compete in any Challenge or visit Valhalla during the events. We’re even banned from watching.’
‘Yes, about that,’ Azrael said. ‘I’ve been speaking with Odin and asked if your punishment might be suspended, just for the Challenge.’
‘You did?’ Archie asked.
The tall Angel of Death nodded and plucked another piece of straw from Freya’s hair. ‘I did. And Odin has agreed. So if you two would like to get cleaned up, we can head over to the opening ceremonies. You will be competing with your sisters and the other Valkyries. But you’d better hurry if you want to join them in the opening parade.’
The parade wound its way through the crowded streets of Asgard. Freya was thrilled to be riding her Reaping Mare, Sylt, beside Maya. Seated tall and proud on her own Reaping Mare, her sister’s pale face glowed with excitement at being part of the opening ceremonies. As the most beautiful of all the Valkyries, Maya held everyone’s attention. But Freya wasn’t jealous. She adored her older sister and was honoured to ride beside her.
They were following their mother, Eir, who was leading the Valkyries upon her tall Reaping Mare and waving the Valkyrie banner proudly up ahead.
But the noise, colours and crowds ebbed away as Freya felt a sudden chill running down her spine that caused her to look back. More participants had joined the parade directly behind the Valkyries.
Freya’s blood ran cold. As her eyes went over the dark cloaked and armoured creatures, she noticed one in particular staring directly at her.
Knowing he now had her attention, the Dark Searcher opened his black wings and raised his right arm. He made a cutting gesture across his wrist with his left hand. Then he pointed at her and shook his head slowly. The message was crystal clear. This was the Dark Searcher that Odin had sent to find her in Chicago. The same one Archie had cut with her sword. He had not forgotten nor forgiven what they had done to him.
‘Maya, look,’ Freya said tightly to her sister. ‘Dark Searchers are here.’
Maya refused to turn back. She shivered. ‘Mother warned me they were coming. They’re the ‘Enforcers of Peace’. It’s their job to keep everyone from fighting and to deal with any trouble makers. She warned us not to antagonize them.’
‘Us antagonize them?’ Freya cried. ‘The one that killed Archie just threatened me. He’s going to try something, I just know it.’
‘He’s definitely going to do something,’ Orus cawed.
‘He can’t. Odin has declared an armistice which includes the Dark Searchers. Just ignore him. I’m sure that we won’t see them again after today.’
‘Ignore him? Are you kidding?’ Orus complained. ‘Have you forgotten Chicago so soon?’
‘No, I haven’t. But this is Asgard, that Searcher can’t do anything to you.’
‘Did you tell him that?’ Orus finished.
‘Don’t be such a scaredy-bird,’ Grul, Maya’s raven, cawed. ‘Maya and I aren’t frightened of a few Dark Searchers.’
‘You’re not smart enough to be scared,’ Orus insulted.
‘Orus, that’s enough.’ Freya stroked her raven and stole a glance back to the Searcher. The tilt of his visored head suggested he was still staring directly at her. Freya shuddered and turned to face the front, determined not to look at him again.
When the parade ended, the competitors moved into their training areas. Archie joined them as the Valkyries gathered in the large, brightly coloured tent that flew the flag of the Valkyries.
‘Now remember,’ her mother addressed all of them – but her pale, disapproving eyes landed on Freya. ‘Each and every one of you represents the honour of the Valkyries. We must not bring any more shame down upon us.’
‘I think she means us,’ Archie whispered to Freya.
‘I know she does,’ Freya agreed.
‘Shhhh…’ Maya warned. ‘You don’t want mother to get any angrier.’
‘I hardly think that’s possible,’ Orus added.
‘All the realms have drawn lots,’ their mother continued. ‘The Valkyries are participating in a total of eleven Challenges. We will be in three races – two on the ground and one in the air, a total of four different battles. There will also be a challenge of strength, of swimming, and one of tracking and hunting. Finally we’ll all participate in the tug-of-war against the Angels of Death. I will assign each of you the Challenge you are to compete in. Come forward as I call your name.’
‘I hope I get the swimming Challenge. I rule at that,’ Maya whispered to Freya as her mother began calling up the Valkyries one by one. ‘I’m sure mother will pick you to race. You’ll definitely win – you’re the fastest out of all of us.’
‘Especially flying,’ Archie added.
Freya blushed under the compliment. ‘I’m just happy to be here!’
They watched their mother call more and more Valkyries up to the front but still none of their names were announced.
‘I thought Azrael said we were going to get to participate,’ Freya whispered to Archie.
‘Not everyone’s been called yet. It will be your turn soon.’
They continued to wait and watched the last of the other Valkyries walk to the front.
Everyone had been called apart from Freya and Maya. But Eir turned to address them all as if she was finished. ‘Sisterhood of the Valkyries, this is our moment to shine. We are strong and we are powerful, let’s show the other realms just what we can do! Will you give me your best?’
The Valkyries opened their wings and raised their hands to cheer. All except Freya and Maya. Both girls stood at the back, crushed, knowing they had been excluded from the games.
‘It’s all right,’ Archie said brightly. ‘I know how strong you both are. You don’t need to prove it to anyone.’
Freya was grateful to him for trying, but this cut deep. She had been desperate to participate in the Challenge but it had all been taken away.
‘I don’t care,’ Maya said. But her eyes spoke differently. They were down cast and her lips held a pout. She couldn’t hide that she was deeply hurt by being cut from the Challenge.
Eir climbed down from her dais and stepped up to them. ‘Freya and Maya, because of your punishment you are forbidden from officially taking part in the Challenge. However, your punishment will be lifted for one event only. The Tug–of–War against the Angels of Death. You are only allowed to participate because Azrael has lobbied for it. You are very lucky to have such an influential friend.’
‘What about Archie?’ Freya asked.
‘What about him?’ her mother said sharply. ‘If Archie wishes to compete, he may join the warriors at Valhalla as they represent Midgard – he’s been training with them, let him stand with them.’
‘Crixus won’t let me compete,’ Archie said. ‘He says I’m not ready yet.’
‘He’s right,’ Eir agreed. ‘You have only started to train. You need more time.’
‘But he’s with me,’ Freya insisted. ‘He should compete with us.’
Her mother’s eyes blazed. ‘Your pet human is not a Valkyrie. He may not compete with us.’
‘Archie is not my pet!’ Freya cried. ‘He’s my friend. If he can’t compete, I won’t.’
‘Gee, it’s OK,’ Archie insisted. ‘I don’t want to compete anyway. Your mother is right. I’ve only just started to train. I’m not ready to go against Frost Giants or Dwarfs or whatever.’
‘It’s OK,’ Archie repeated. ‘I’ve caused enough trouble for you already. I really would prefer to watch. Next time I’ll be ready, but not now.’
Eir’s eyes bored into Archie. ‘Tell me, child, how old are you?’
‘I’m fifteen,’ Archie said.
‘Fifteen,’ Freya’s mother repeated. ‘Before you died, did my daughter warn you that once she reaped you, you will forever remain that age? That even though she continues to age and grow, you will be stuck as you are. You will watch her mature and perhaps have children of her own, and still, you will remain a child.’
‘Archie will always be my friend, no matter what!’ Freya defended.
Archie faced Freya’s mother. ‘Crixus and I have already talked about that,’ he said respectfully. ‘And just like I told him, I’m grateful to Gee for bringing me here with her. Whatever happens in the future will happen. But for now, we are friends.’
‘We are all friends,’ Maya added. ‘And we will remain so, for all time.’
Eir’s eyes softened as she looked at them. ‘You all feel the same?’
‘Yes,’ Freya agreed. Archie and Maya nodded.
‘Time alone will tell,’ the tall, elegant Valkyrie said. ‘For now, Archie if you will not compete with the Valhalla warriors, you may remain with Freya and help her prepare for her challenge.’ Just as she was leaving, she paused and turned back. ‘Also, I am sorry, but you are restricted to watching only one event per day. So choose wisely.’
‘One!’ Freya protested. ‘That’s not fair!’
Her mother charged back and pointed a shaking finger in Freya’s face. ‘Running away to Chicago without permission was wrong. You must be punished. This is the price you will pay! Be grateful I don’t ban you from watching all Challenges!’