Diana and Freya crowded around their wooden table. Inga hovered slightly behind. Diana didn't push her. The girl would learn, one baby step at a time. She tipped her pouch, emptying all twenty-four runes into her cupped palms. Inga gasped at the collection of dried bones.
“What’s that?” Inga asked.
“A piece from a bobcat's jaw.” It jostled against a shard of human pinkie—a remembrance of Hippolytus, one of Diana's favored few.
“A ragged piece of deer rib—Actaeon's—a reminder of my shame.”
Inga’s eyes widened in surprise. “What shame?”
“My temper. Death was probably too harsh a punishment.”
Diana shrugged away the answer.
Freya reached for a smooth slice of bone. “And this?”
“A slice from a boar’s tusk, the Calydonian beast I sent to ravage a countryside—the king did deserve that.” She pointed. A different symbol of the runic alphabet was carved on each one.
Freya frowned in bewilderment. "You have an odd collection. Twenty four bones from different things?"
"Each one's special," Diana said. The tip of a hell hound's tail nestled near a chunk off the Minotaur's hoof and part of a Cyclop's eye socket. Diana rubbed her thumbs lovingly over them, feeling their brittle surfaces and absorbing their energy. "Together, they’re powerful. Nothing can match them. Now, for our question.” She emptied her mind of everything around her and concentrated on what she wanted to ask. “How will we battle Heid and the giants?" She repeated the question in her mind before she tossed the bones.
They scattered across the wooden surface, forming jumbled patterns. Over half of them landed upside down, their carvings impossible to read. They had nothing to tell her. The bones that landed in the center of the table held the most relevance. She stooped to study a clump that formed a triangle—a hare's foot, a big toe from Otus, and a disk from the spine of his twin, Ephilates. Once she concentrated on the three runes, they sang to her. She tilted her head to listen to their music. As the melody filled the room, colors swirled in the air, and visions rose.
Colors bled into one another, murky and grim. Gray skies brooded across the ceiling. Muddy browns stretched into a vague line of spiked logs. A ribbon of color spanned the air between Diana and Freya, flames dancing across its surface—the rainbow bridge. Scarlet flowed between the village and bridge, forming a river of blood.
Inga pressed closer to Freya. She gripped the edge of the table until her knuckles turned white. Diana couldn't blame her. Diana dipped her fingers into the coppery red hues. When she lifted her hand to sniff it, Inga scrunched her eyes shut and turned her head.
"What does it mean?" Freya asked.
"The scent shifts from mortals to giants and back again," Diana said. "The outcome is unpredictable. The battle can go either way."
As she spoke, the image of log walls grew firmer, and Freya wrinkled her nose against the rancid smell of giant blood. Diana smiled. "See that? If we protect the mortals' village, we can protect the bridge. Heid must know that. She's probably already thrown her runes. The village is the key."
Inga shook her head, uncertain. She opened her mouth to speak, then closed it.
"You won't learn if you don't ask," Freya said, trying to encourage her.
"The village isn't near the rainbow bridge," Inga blurted. She tensed, as though expecting a rebuke. When none came, she asked, "How can it matter?"
"The runes don't give reasons, but their message is clear. The village must not fall." Diana turned her attention to a jumble of nearby bones. They'd knotted together in a strange pattern. She frowned, chewing her bottom lip, as she studied them. "All of our destinies are intermingled. Whoever doesn't work for the common good doesn't succeed."
"So no bickering," Freya said. "Our survival depends on teamwork."
Diana gave a wry smile. "Romans bicker, even when they defend one another. Differing opinions are good, as long as we agree to disagree. But once we reach a compromise, that's the course we must take."
Inga's hand trembled as she pointed to two bones lying close to the image of the bridge. They formed an angry cross. Energy pulsed from them. Another two bones lay close to the village, pulsing as well. "What does that mean? It looks bad."
Diana's face went serious. She listened, then listened again. "It's a warning. We have from tomorrow night's dark of the moon…" She pointed to the one set of bones, "…until the next one…" She pointed to the second cross, "…to defeat our enemies, or Heid and the giants will take the bridge."
"Twenty-eight days?" Freya tried to sound calm, but failed.
The news pleased Diana. When she hit a hurdle, she liked to clear it—the sooner, the better. She hummed along with the runes. "Heid's recruiting more and more allies to go against us. We have to fight them before they become too many."
Freya nodded, her lush lips tugged down at the corners. She grew silent a minute, then said, "Maybe this is good. We're as ready for them as we can get. Why not get it over with?" She turned to Diana. "Is there more to tell us? Do the runes show more?"
Diana motioned toward a bone lying by itself outside the log walls. "Someone from the village will be betrayed and die before the battle starts."
"Not Jorunda!" The words spewed from Inga before she could stop them. "Please, not him."
Diana raised an eyebrow, studying the girl. "He was your betrothed, wasn't he?"
"Yes," Freya answered for her. "It was destined. I'd joined them together, but Griswold ruined everything."
"Is there a punishment for that?" Diana tried to think if Venus held mortals accountable for interfering in her plans. The answer was a definite yes. Her eyes went to the fragment of pinkie on the table—Hippolytus would have lived if not for Venus' interference. Diana had been angry with her fellow goddess for decades over that.
Freya shrugged. "Griswold's chieftan of the village. If I punished him, I'd punish many more. Instead, I sent a vision to Gudrun so that eventually, Inga would be blessed, as I'd intended."
"The vision was your doing?" Inga asked.
"I am a goddess," Freya said with a smile.
Diana brought them back to the matters at hand. "The runes don’t say who, but someone from the village will die."
"Because he was betrayed?" Inga shook her head. "I can't believe it. No mortal here would do that. We've all stayed to serve the gods."
"The runes don't lie, and they're never wrong." Diana knew that from experience.
"And the bones on the fringes?" Freya asked. "Are they important?"
Diana touched an owl bone carved with the symbol X, the letter G in the Norse alphabet. "This one means that a gift will help shift the battle."
"A gift from whom?" Inga asked.
Diana shrugged. "The runes impart what they will, no more, no less." She pointed to three more bones, loosely touching at the far edge of the table. "Three riders on horses will bring us news from afar, news that will help us."
The colors in the air began to fade. The music stopped.
"Is the reading over?" Freya asked.
"Yes." Diana began to gather the bones.
Inga's shoulders sagged. She looked from one goddess to the other.
"You seem disappointed." Diana had seen this reaction many times. Mortals always hungered for more.
Inga licked her lips. "I mean no disrespect…."
"None taken. You have questions. Ask them."
"I was hoping for something solid—a yes or no, I guess, a definite we'll win or we'll lose."
"Sorry. Won't happen. That's not the way runes work."
Freya let out a frustrated sigh. "I know this sounds selfish. I mean, the runes have told us that we can win the battle if we protect the mortals' village, work together, and defeat Heid and the giants in twenty-eight days." She realized what she'd just said and sighed. "That's a tall order. But what about us? Just because we win doesn't mean we'll survive. Can you throw the runes for each one of us?"
Diana stared. What was it with these Norse gods? "Are you telling me you can die before Ragnarok?"
"I don't know my fortune," Freya said. "Tyr and Donar know theirs. So does Woden. But even though I'm queen of the Valkyries…"
"Whoa! Hold it right there." Diana threw up a warning hand. "You're the one who collects dead warriors to take to Valhalla? Why hasn't anyone mentioned that before?"
"Only the chosen ones, the heroes who died in battle." Freya hunched her shoulders in a dismissive shrug. "I take mine home with me to Folkvang. Woden takes his half to Valhalla."
Diana gaped. "What does that make you…a warrior goddess and love goddess?"
Freya laughed. "Aren't you more than one thing? Goddess of the hunt, mistress of the moon, and mistress of witches?"
"Yes, and I can't die." At least, she didn't think she could.
"Well, we can. And I want to know if I'm going to."
"Aren't you better off not knowing?" Diana remembered that Tyr knew who'd kill him at Ragnarok and how he'd die. He knew the signs leading up to his final battle. Was that a good thing? If something awful was going to happen to her, did she want all of the details in advance?
"Ask the runes if I'm going to make it," Freya said. "If I'm not, I want to enjoy myself as much as possible before my last battle."
So that was it. Venus would have asked the same thing. Goddesses of love and beauty obsessed about life's pleasures.
"Me too," Inga said. "Do mine too. I want to know if I should be braver or try harder."
"I'll start with you," Diana told their apprentice. "And then I'll do Freya's. Hers might be more complicated." Diana reached inside the pouch and let her fingers slide from one bone to another. She could always recognize Hippolytus' pinkie—the huntsman who'd scorned Venus and worshipped only her. After drawing energy from the runes, she asked, "What is Inga's fate in this battle?" Then she cast the bones.
Twenty fell, face down. Four bones touched to tell Inga's story. It was short and simple. "If Jorunda lives, so do you."
"And if he dies?"
"So will you."
Inga glowed with pleasure. "As it should be."
Diana shook her head. Romance made people stupid.
"And mine?" Freya prodded.
Diana repeated the process of gathering bones, touching them, and casting them. This time, twenty fell, face up—a complex and complicated reading. Colors bounced around the room, reflecting off the marble floor and walls, painting the marble ceiling with brilliant hues. No battle with Heid littered the table. Instead, the ceiling changed from a myriad of colors to a sickly red. The walls dripped burgundy, and the table became a battleground. The rainbow bridge sat at the far edge, forgotten. Giants and monsters raged in a land of huge longhouses. Warriors fought and fell. Diana immediately looked for Tyr. He battled a monstrous dog with four eyes. Its chest was drenched in blood, but Tyr was untouched as yet.
"Garm," Freya said. "He guards the entrance to Neflheim." At Diana's frown, she explained, "The land of the dead, ruled over by Loki's daughter, Hel."
"Like our Cerberus and Hades?"
"Yes. No one can pass Garm to the underworld except Woden…usually."
Diana gave a quick nod. The battle between Garm and Tyr intensified.
Freya sobbed when a Norse god, nearby, fell to a fire giant.
"What is it?"
"My brother, Freyr. He knows his destiny, of course, just as Tyr and Donar do, but to see it…." Freya's voice broke.
The fire giant immediately set Asgaard ablaze. Donar, fighting close to Tyr, slayed a giant serpent, then took nine steps and fell to his knees.
"The poison," Freya explained.
Tyr and Garm struggled on until Tyr killed the huge dog. As the dog fell, though, so did he, dying from the wounds he'd received. Diana took a ragged breath. She wanted to reach out, to catch Tyr and save him. She bit her bottom lip—a bad habit. What was wrong with her? She'd just met the god. She didn't form attachments quickly. Usually, she didn't form them at all.
As she watched, the earth burned. Mountains crumbled, and everything fell into the sea. She stared. Tyr's prophesy was right. Asgaard and earth would be destroyed. But slowly, a new earth formed, and the few gods and goddesses who'd survived meant to rebuild it. With a smile of relief, Diana saw Freya join the others.
"You survive," she told the goddess.
"And you?" Freya asked.
"Me? I won't be here that long. Once you win the battle with Heid…."
"If we win," Freya pointed out. "If we lose? I feel responsible. I helped drag you into this. Will you be all right?"
"So you say."
Diana had never doubted it before, but then, she'd never witnessed Ragnarok either. She gathered the runes again and put them in the pouch. "I don't want to know."
"I do," Freya persisted.
"So do I," came a deep voice from behind them.
Diana turned to see Tyr standing in the doorway. Jorunda came to join him, his face pale. Clearly, they'd witnessed the runes' version of Ragnarok too.
"This is my future, my decision," Diana repeated. "I don't want to know."
"It's our responsibility as much as yours," Tyr argued. "Throw the bones."
She'd usually argue, but she was outnumbered this time. Not that that bothered her, but she knew Tyr would only go to Gudrun in the village and have the old seer cast her bones. He'd probably return to tell her their outcome too. She'd rather see it herself.
She reached into her pouch, gathered her thoughts, and tossed the runes onto the table. Tyr could read them as well as she.
"If we win this struggle, you're safe," he growled. Clearly, the reading disturbed him. It didn't make her any too happy either.
"And if we don't?" Inga asked, anxious. "What happens to Diana then?"
"Our fates are interwoven. If I fail, I'm chained to the roots of the World Tree," Tyr said, "to take Loki's place."
Jorunda shuddered. "Loki?"
Even Diana had heard of him—the giant whom the Aenir had befriended, the friend who'd betrayed them.
Jorunda's face paled. "With the serpent dripping poison on you night and day?"
Tyr gave a curt nod, his expression grim.
"And Diana?" Freya glanced at Diana's strained expression. "What of her?"
Tyr answered, his voice flat. "Her fate is worse than mine. She'll be dragged off as a prisoner of the giants."
Freya gasped. "To be their plaything? I'd rather die."
"So would I, but sometimes being immortal can bite you in the ass." Diana kept her tone flippant, but the runes couldn’t have sent her a worse warning. She hadn't remained a maiden goddess all these centuries to be raped by giants.