People gathered around them as they entered the settlement.
“Are you Vikings?” a young woman asked when she saw their garments.
“Norsemen,” Donar growled. He stood at least a foot taller than every mortal around them.
“Are you gods?” another asked. He looked at the bow and arrows at Diana’s shoulder, at Tyr’s sword, and Donar’s hammer.
A few women stared at Freya.
“I’ve never seen anyone so beautiful,” one said.
Yeah, yeah, she’d heard it before. She wasn’t in the mood. “One or more of your gods broke into my home to kidnap my husband. They locked him in a cave. I’d like a word with them.”
The mortals wrinkled their brows in confusion. A young man stepped forward, clearly their spokesman. “Our gods are kind. They wouldn’t lock someone in a cave.”
Freya leveled a gaze on him. What the hell did he know about his gods? Whatever they wanted him to. “What’s your name, mortal?”
He blanched. “Claus.”
She gave a tight, humorless smile. “Then explain to me why my husband was sitting in his favorite chair, drinking mead, when swirling shadows attacked him and dragged him from our house. They left black soot behind, just like the soot that covers your temple and statues.”
Claus didn’t know what to say. He looked at his companions, who were equally dumbfounded.
Tyr stepped forward. “These are our lands. Your gods aren’t welcome here. If you intend to follow them, you’ll have to find another place.”
The mortals turned to survey their small settlement, the stone cottages and tidy gardens. Claus shook his head. “But we gave up our jobs to come here. The gods brought us. We don’t know how to get back, and we have nothing to go back to.”
“No families?” Diana asked.
“No one who’s close to us or would help us,” Claus said.
Odur scowled. “They could settle in our meadow.”
Freya laid a hand on her husband’s shoulder. Always so kind. His sympathy would go out to these young people. But before Tyr could answer, dark shadows swirled overhead and two gods materialized near the temple. Freya whipped around to face them, short sword drawn, the mortals forgotten.
The gods stood as tall as most trees with trunks for legs and arms. As one, Tyr and the others grew to their full size, too, standing eye to eye with them. The mortals backed away.
The first god, the color of coal, studied them. “So, you found your friend. We meant him no harm, but we didn’t want you to know we were here yet.”
Freya bristled with temper. “You locked my husband in a cave!”
“We didn’t hurt him. We’d have released him in time.”
Freya’s grip tightened on her sword. “Unacceptable.”
The second god, the brown of earth with light eyes, shrugged gracefully. “Would you have welcomed us?”
“No.” Tyr’s answer was blunt. “You bought yourself time, but even less of a friendly welcome.”
The second god studied him. “You’re Tyr, sky god. We know of you. I’m Drax, earth god.” He motioned to his friend. “This is Lyrt, ruler of waters.”
Donar fidgeted with his hammer. He shifted his stance, ready if they attacked. Freya could feel Diana’s magic flow into her, at the ready, too.
Tyr’s voice stayed calm. “I repeat. These are our lands. We didn’t invite you. Leave.”
Drax looked confused. “And yet you allow other gods here, lots of them.”
“Modern gods,” Tyr said. “Mortals have forgotten us and moved on. The new gods keep their distance from humans. Their assistance is spiritual, not physical. They never visit here.”
“Why not walk among their believers?” Drax asked. “Nurture them?”
Freya raised her chin, nodding toward the lush valley the gods had created. “New gods don’t buy followers. They demand faith, growth.”
Drax smiled. “We don’t buy followers, either, but we reward those who choose us. Why shouldn’t we?”
Tyr narrowed his eyes. “And you demand nothing in return?”
“Only true belief.”
Tyr turned to glance at the mortals behind him, a dozen of them, all young, and each and every one of them attractive. “And if they lose their faith? What then?”
“They must leave.”
Tyr shook his head. “It all sounds so perfect, too perfect. Utopias fail, but I can see how you’ll attract more and more followers. Too many for you to remain here.”
“And if we refuse to go?” Drax drew himself up to his full height.
Tyr’s pale-gray eyes lightened to silver. Dark clouds gathered overhead. The mortals fled to their cottages. Freya drew her short sword. Diana raised her palms, but Tyr hesitated. Instead of reaching for his sword, he lifted his face and called, “Woden!”
The All-Father strode toward them as soon as his name left Tyr’s lips. Freya stared. Only Tyr could command Woden’s presence so quickly.
When Woden reached them, he studied each of them in turn. His eye widened in surprise when he saw Odur standing beside her. Diana looked equally surprised at the patch over the All-Father’s left eye, but then she glanced at Freya and shook her head. The Greek would never understand the sacrifices the Norse felt compelled to make to help their race. Woden’s gaze settled on Diana for a moment before he turned to Tyr. “You seek my opinion?”
The two old gods watched their interaction with curiosity.
Tyr nodded. “I passed my rule to you. This decision should be yours, whether we go to war or not.”
Tyr told Woden everything that had happened.
Woden turned a shrewd gaze on the gods who stood before the temple. “You entered our lands without introducing yourselves or asking permission, and you took from us without asking. How can we consider you friends or allies when you sneak behind our backs and kidnap one of our gods?”
Tyr’s brows dipped in a frown, but he said nothing. Freya swallowed words that threatened to spill out and followed Tyr’s lead. Donar wouldn’t look at them, but kept his gaze on something in the distance.
Drax’s smile returned. It annoyed Freya. She wanted to smack it off his face, but she dug her nails into the soft flesh of her palms instead.
“How can we make up for our oversights?” Drax asked. “We do not wish to make enemies of you.”
“We make agreements and stay bound to them.” Woden waved a hand over the valley. “We set boundaries and don’t cross them.”
For the first time, Lyrt spoke. “What boundaries? We’ve been trapped beneath the earth all these centuries. We have no place of our own.”
Woden took a moment to consider. “We’ll start with this valley. Later, once you’ve proven your intentions are noble, we’ll negotiate further.”
More clouds gathered overhead and wind whipped through the valley, flattening gardens and tossing peat from roofs, but still Tyr remained silent.
Woden grinned. “Tyr has rules we all abide by, including me. Tyr, see if the old gods wish to remain here, because if they break these decrees, they must leave.”
Tyr’s voice sounded like gravel. “Norse won’t interfere in mortal affairs, but we do protect them. Humans have free will. We will not tolerate immortals to harm them.”
Drax and Lyrt locked gazes for a moment, then nodded.
“It’s a start,” Woden said. “And if we agree, we can exist in peace.”
“We thank you,” Drax said.
“Then things are settled between us.” Woden turned to his friends. “This has been a momentous occasion. Freya, let’s return to your mansion and drink mead.”
He had to be kidding! She glared at him, but Odur gripped her hand. “Come, all of you. Let’s enjoy each others’ company.”
Diana studied Tyr’s expression. She reached for his arm, put a hand to her pouch, and they disappeared. The rest of them began to walk away, fading from view as they went. In a short time, they all settled in Freya’s hall.
Hnoss and Gresemi ran to Odur and threw themselves on him. He hugged them close, kissing the tops of their heads. Their Valkyrie caretaker saw the gods who’d assembled and leaned against the doorway, silently watching.
Donar turned on Woden immediately. “What are you thinking? We can never count on those gods as allies. Soon, they’ll attack us.”
Woden raised his eyebrows at Diana. “What do you think, Greek? Do you have an opinion?”
Being called “Greek” annoyed Diana, Freya knew, but she shrugged it off. “What’s the saying? Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer? You didn’t want them to leave the Norse lands and grow stronger somewhere else.”
He beamed at her. “Clever girl! No old gods exist who wish to serve mortals. They were born of chaos and eruptions. It’s what they know. So why the ruse to walk with humans, to create a paradise for them?”
Tyr leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “The longer we wait, the stronger they’ll grow. The mortals are already carving a third tree. When it’s finished and placed before the temple, there’ll be a third god. We might be wiser to battle them now.”
Woden nodded. “If they’d stay to battle. They’d dissolve to smoke and travel elsewhere. There are plenty of humans they can find who’ll follow them. Any person who’s angry, confused, or downtrodden will listen to their call.”
Donar shrugged. “So let some other gods deal with them. Why us?”
Woden took a sip of his mead. He turned to Diana again. “How many other gods have you met on your travels as goddess of the hunt?”
Freya stared. She was beginning to understand. Turning to Diana, she said, “There aren’t any that still work together like we do, are there?”
“The gods still dwell on Mount Olympus.”
“But these gods tried to attack you, didn’t they? And failed?” Freya asked.
Diana nodded. “That’s what I don’t understand. The world is full of places where only one or two gods live. Not many I’ve met care about mortals at all. The humans left them, and they left the mortals. Why not settle in one of those places? No one would bother them.”
Tyr pushed to his feet and began to pace. “Because the first god came here to build an army and defeat us. That’s why he snatched Odur. He wanted enough time for the mortals to carve more gods.”
“But why?” Freya reached for her husband’s hand. She needed to touch him. “Why not hide, out of sight, to build an army, then come here?”
Woden steepled his fingers and tapped them to his chin. “Because, just as before, the old gods are over-confident. They thought they could take Olympus and failed. This time, they meant to build an army in our own lands without our noticing.”
“All the more reason to stop them now,” Tyr said.
Again, Woden shook his head. “They won’t stay and fight. Let them feel strong enough to stand up against us, and then we’ll defeat them.”
“Either that, or we’ll all end up in the bowels of the earth while they take our worlds. They can’t kill us. They know our predictions, but they can lock us away.” Donar stalked to the back room and filled a drinking horn with ale.
Freya sighed. “I still don’t understand why they feel they have to defeat us. Why not avoid us?”
Woden stood, too, and began to walk away. Soon, he’d fade from view. “Because they know we’ll try to defend humans. With us gone, who’ll stop them?”
Frustrated, Tyr ran a hand through his blonde hair. He started to the back room to drink ale with Donar. Diana went to find wine. Freya motioned for the Valkyrie to join them. They all sat around a wooden work table to drink. Her girls hovered in the background, uncertainly.
Donar turned his foul mood on Tyr. “Why did you have to call Woden? Why not just draw your sword and stab that smug bastard in the eye?”
“It wouldn’t have been that easy, and you know it. We’d start a war, and we probably wouldn’t have won it. Woden’s right. The gods would have left. Woden enjoys politics more than I do. He loves games. It was his call.”
Freya finished her mead and switched to ale. “This is what I want to know.” She focused on Diana. “When they attacked Mount Olympus, how many of them were there?”
Diana answered without hesitation. “Eight. I think that’s their full number. If they could have called for more, they would have.”
Tyr grimaced. “So we have to wait until the mortals carve eight trees into gods. Then they’ll attack us.”
Diana nodded. Donar laid his hammer on the table and went for more ale.
Holy Hel! Freya hated waiting. It was hard enough waiting for happy surprises, but twiddling her thumbs while one ugly god after another came to life might prove more than she could bear. And once they were finished? Oh, joy! She hoped they survived the battle that would come.