Death and Beauty
By Samantha MacLeod
Genre: Fantasy Romance
Graphic Designer: Teresa Conner
Baldr the Beautiful is dead.
Desperate to get back to his privileged role as Óðinn’s favorite son, Baldr strikes a bargain with Hel, the terrifying half living and half skeletal queen of the realm of the dead. He offers her the only thing he’s got: knowledge from the living world. Hel gives him three days. If he can teach her something new, she will return him to the realms of the living.
But the icy Hel seems completely impervious to Baldr’s charms. What’s worse, she already knows everything. By the end of the third day, Baldr realizes he’s only got one chance left to impress her.
Returning to his former life looks like it’s going to depend on Baldr the Beautiful seducing the most formidable woman in the Nine Realms.
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The branch trembled, making the delicate green leaves and white flower clusters dance. A single petal shook free to sail across the bright blue sky. It was so beautiful, caught in the golden light of late afternoon. I couldn’t understand why someone was crying.
The flower petal tumbled through the sky, heedless of the voices below. I liked it. I liked it all, the bright sky, the white flowers, the audacious little green leaves. I tried to turn and follow the petal through the sky, but my neck wasn’t quite working. It didn’t matter anyway. Soon the brave little petal would be swallowed by the blackness creeping into my vision, turning the sky into a little, shrinking circle, growing farther and farther away, until it was entirely gone—
Darkness. Darkness and voices, a soft rush of motion. Then something harsh and acrid, like battlefield smoke, stung my nostrils, and my head spun. I tried to open my eyes.
“What happened?” I moaned.
Someone clucked above me. “Don’t move just yet, my boy.”
The voice sounded old and only mildly sympathetic. I ignored it, pushing myself up to sitting. My head throbbed and my stomach surged, making me gag. Soft hands grabbed my arm, dragging me back to the bed. Her grip felt weak, but I didn’t have the strength to resist.
“Where am I?” I whispered, once my stomach stopped roiling.
“You’re dead, dearie.”
I shook my head, making the room spin. “No. That’s not possible.”
She clucked again. My eyes were adjusting to the gloom, and I could just make out a hunched figure tending to a fire. “Oh, that’s what they all say.”
“No, you don’t understand. I’m—”
“Baldr the Beautiful,” she said. “Óðinn’s favorite son. Yes, yes, we know all about you here.”
“But I can’t die. My mother is Frigg. She traveled the Nine Realms, and everything she found—”
“Promised not to harm you. I know. I heard all about it.”
The old woman turned and gave me a sympathetic, tired smile. She looked like a nice woman, but of course you never can tell. “But your mother couldn’t possibly have gotten a promise from every single thing.”
She hobbled a bit closer to the bed, her arms outstretched with a rough wooden bowl in her hands. “Drink this, dearie. It’ll help.”
I tried to push myself up to sitting. Again, my head and stomach revolted, throbbing and churning. The old woman chuckled sympathetically.
“It takes some getting used to, being dead,” she said. “Tell you what, Baldr the Beautiful. Why don’t we talk about the last thing you remember, hmmm?”
It was late afternoon on the third day, the final day, and I was feeling damn near desperate. We’d walked along the river after our morning of sailing, and then, after lunch, I asked to go for another walk in the orchard. This was where Hel had seemed the least comfortable; for some reason, this orchard threw her slightly off her game. It was my last, desperate chance. Perhaps I could stumble on something out here.
“Are these all apples?” I asked. I’d given up trying to offer her some knowledge. Instead I was asking a thousand questions in this hopes she’d slip up.
Hel shook her head. Her back was stiff, and she’d turned her living face away from me. I wished I could ask her why the orchard made her uncomfortable, but I didn’t imagine that question would go over particularly well.
The trees around us were flowering, filling the air with their delicious perfume. Soft, white petals drifted in the space between us, falling like snow.
She shook her head again, although I wasn’t sure if she was telling me I was wrong or if she was just trying to brush off the stray petals caught in her hair. She was wearing it loose today, and it tumbled down over her shoulders, softening the severe lines of her aggressively unflattering dress.
“Would you even tell me if I guessed?” I asked, with a smile. I picked a blossom from a tree and brought it to my nose. It had a light, sweet fragrance. I examined it. Five soft, white petals unfurled casually from a pollen-laden yellow core.
“Apricots?” I glanced at her.
She looked away so fast her hair whipped across her shoulders. At the same time her dress snagged on a log hidden in the thick grass, and she stumbled.
I moved without thinking, catching her arm in mine. It was only after I closed my hand around the twin bones of her skeletal forearm that I realized it didn’t feel right.
She was warm and soft against my palm. Like skin.
Hel met my eyes and a deep red flush burned across her neck and living cheek. Then she yanked her arm out of my grasp and stumbled backward, her face again a cold, impassive mask.
Perhaps she wasn’t totally immune to my charms after all.
“Pardon me,” I said, holding my hands up in front of me. “I just didn’t want you to break your nose.”
Her lips twitched with the barest hint of a smile, and an absolutely insane idea bubbled through my consciousness.
“Oh, there is something I can teach you,” I whispered.
Born and raised in Colorado, Samantha MacLeod has lived in every time zone in the US, and London. She has a bachelor’s degree from Colby College and an M.A. from the University of Chicago; yes, the U. of C. really is where fun comes to die.
Samantha lives with her husband and two small children in the woods of southern Maine. When she’s not shoveling snow or writing steamy sex scenes, Samantha can be found teaching college composition and philosophy to undergraduates who have no idea she leads a double life as an erotica author.
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