Diana put the runes away and went to pour herself wine. She took a sip, then said, "Oh hell." She grabbed the ceramic jar and headed to one of the side porches with its marble columns. Tyr reached for two drinking horns and filled them with beer. He handed one to Jorunda and followed her. He was settling himself on a marble bench across from Diana when Freya and Inga joined them, mead at the ready.
No one spoke. Diana gazed at the small clearing and noticed that wild flowers bloomed in the short grasses. Who'd have thought? With the rocky soil and shade from the trees, she didn't expect to see so much beauty—pure white and bright red blooms mixed with golds and purples. She finished her glass and poured herself another when movement slunk past a nearby spruce tree. Tyr tensed, tightening his grip on his shield. Diana pressed her feet firmly to the ground, pulling energy from the earth.
Noir padded into the clearing. His unblinking glare told Diana how happy he was to see her. He stalked forward and stopped a short distance from her feet. He sat and raised a paw. He began to lick it, ignoring her.
Freya stared in shock. "Your cat has quite the attitude!"
"This animal belongs to you?" Tyr watched Noir, appalled.
"Belong would be too strong a word. He's my familiar, a witch's cat."
"Are your cats this ill-mannered?" Tyr looked to Freya.
"I'm goddess of love and beauty. They're enchanted to serve me. No, mine are lovely companions, a joy to spend time with."
"Well, aren't you special?" Diana's voice dripped sarcasm. "Noir and I are perfectly suited. Aren't we, feline?"
Noir raised his other paw, engrossed in cleaning himself.
A scowl of disapproval etched Tyr's forehead. Noir raised his eyes and met Tyr's disdain with a look of his own. Then he arched his back and hissed at him before going to Diana to thread himself around her ankles.
Jorunda's jaw dropped in surprise, but Tyr laughed. "I like this beast!"
Diana stooped to pet his sleek, black fur. "So do I. Our temperaments match."
"I can see that."
Diana's head snapped up, her hazel eyes blazing, but when she saw the amusement on Tyr's face, she knew she was being teased. She grimaced. "I should send him home. He'd be safer."
"You should both leave." Tyr leaned forward to make his point. He was so tall, he almost touched her.
"Why are you Vikings always trying to get rid of me?"
He took her hand in his. "It's one thing to risk your life for us. It's another to endure giants. It's asking too much. Go home."
"Are you giving up?" Diana wiggled her hand free. "Are you going to Asgaard to hide so that you're not chained to your tree and tortured? Are you going to cower and let the giants do as they please with mortals?"
"We're their gods. It's our job to protect them."
"You're not their gods. The only humans who even remember you live in this meadow. Strike a deal. Give Heid and the giants whatever modern lands they want. Keep you and your meadow safe."
He stared at her. "Would you do that?"
He grinned. "Didn't think so. Neither will we."
"Then let's quit quarreling and decide how to win this." Diana glared at her wrists and ankles. "I don't much care for chains. I like running through the woods or Central Park."
"Central Park?" He frowned.
"You wouldn’t like it. They have public bathrooms and electricity."
"Someday I'll have to visit there."
"It's too soft for you. Didn't I hear that you Vikings grab your weapons and fight all day in Valhalla? Then you eat and drink and screw any beautiful women who happen to be hanging around."
He shook his head. "You make us sound like barbarians, but we're preparing for the final battle."
"What for? You already know you'll lose."
"We don't give in without a fight. It's not our nature." He leaned closer, face to face. She could smell his strength, his masculinity. "But what about you?" he demanded. "This isn't your fight. Why are you staying?"
"I don't have anything better to do, and it will annoy Noir. He took his time getting here. He deserves it."
Tyr's laughter echoed off the trees. "You're as stubborn as we are, Roman. Admit it."
"No one's more stubborn than a Norseman."
He shook his head and took another gulp of beer. Then he grew still, deadly serious. "I admire your courage, but I can't let you do this. I'm asking you to leave."
"If I leave, you fail. Gudrun said so."
"We might fail anyway."
She pushed herself to her feet, angrier than she expected, jamming her hands on her hips. "You just don't get it, do you? This isn't some battle between you and your old enemies. If they defeat you, they'll grow stronger, and they'll go on a rampage. Do you really think that any gods would have a chance of stopping them then? If you fall, we all fall—mortals and gods and goddesses together. The runes didn't say the giants would capture me here. They said they'd capture me if you lose this battle. I'll become their prisoner in this world or my own if you don't stop them." She jabbed a finger at him, eyes blazing. "Is that what you want?"
"No." He put his head in his hands, unhappy with both of his choices. He looked so wretched, Diana's fingers itched, tempted to reach out to comfort him, but that was too intimate. What would his mate think? What would he think? She plopped down on her bench again, pushing her hands under her legs to pin them in place.
Everyone waited. Finally, he looked up, his massive shoulders stooped in resignation. "So, tell me what you saw. Jorunda and I need to know what we're up against."
Diana nodded to Freya. A knot tightened her throat. She couldn't talk. She let the goddess explain the runes' messages. She sat back and sipped wine, letting her mind wander. What was wrong with her? Why did she care what this god thought? Why did she care if he suffered? She needed to concentrate on big issues. They needed to win. She had no intentions of becoming a prisoner of war, especially to some ugly ass giants. When Freya finished telling Tyr and Jorunda what the runes showed them, Diana focused on the conversation once more.
"What do you make of these prophesies?" Tyr asked her.
"We can win. We have to protect the village at all costs, and we have less than a month to defeat Heid." Diana looked across the clearing to the forest that separated their marble home from Griswold's holdings. "Heid will have thrown her runes too. It only makes sense that she would, but she strikes me as sloppy. She'll know the major events—that if the village falls, she wins, and that if she can stall for any length of time, we're doomed. So she'll focus on the same things we will, but I’m hoping she didn’t look at the outer runes and know about the gift we'll receive or the three riders on horses. They might seem insignificant, but the runes say they’ll make a difference."
"Our main job now is to protect the village," Tyr said. "We need Donar to protect the bridge. He's fought and killed many giants, and Heimdall will sound the horn if enemies approach, but I'll stay with Jorunda. If something happens, we should be able to hold off enemies until we get help."
Jorunda looked surprised. "You'd live among mortals?"
"Do you have a better idea?"
Jorunda lowered his gaze, embarrassed. "I meant no disrespect."
"Warrior, if your chieftain showed half the bravery and integrity you do, I'd do cartwheels across the meadow."
Diana's goblet of wine stopped midway to her lips. "I'd like to see that."
"It will never happen. Griswold's an idiot," Tyr said.
Inga and Jorunda's jaws dropped in unison. Tyr and Diana looked at each other and laughed. Freya's expression turned thoughtful.
"What?" Diana asked, misreading her concern.
A tiny smile played on the goddess' lips. "It's nice to have some joy after the runes. I've never seen bones like yours or such readings."
"True," Tyr said, thoughtful again. "Maybe Heid can't see as much as you do. Your magic is more powerful."
Diana hoped so, but she knew the witch had seen enough. They'd better prepare.