With no outlying farms to protect, the three women decided to stay at the village. Not Diana's idea of comfort, and way too close to Griswold, but they'd be there if Heid attacked, and it would be easier for Diana to teach Asdis and her fellow witches. "We'll start tomorrow," she told them. "But not too early." It had been a long day—again.
Tyr and Jorunda finished helping each and every person get settled wherever they could find room while Diana, Freya, and Inga worked with Ordr and his fellow giants herding livestock to their proper places. Jon and his volunteers worked nonstop to make shelters for the small animals. By the time the last chickens were placed in a thrown together coop—just tree branches bound together at the top to form a squat teepee, Diana was ready to collapse. Farming, obviously, was more bother than she'd imagined.
"I'm starving," Freya complained. For once, the goddess of love and beauty looked properly frazzled. Her lush, golden hair—sodden with sweat—curled in wisps around her face. Mud smeared her right cheek.
Diana didn't even want to know what she looked like. When she could smell herself, it was a bad sign. "I need a shower."
"A what?" Inga wiped sweat from her brow.
Diana sighed. "I hardly ever use magic for frivolous purposes, but I stink. I'm hot and I'm tired." She chanted a phrase and dark clouds bumped overhead. A soft, warm rain fell, and Diana turned her face up to enjoy it.
"What's wrong with frivolous pleasures?" Freya sank to the ground and lay in the fragrant grasses, letting the gentle raindrops wash over her.
Inga joined the spirit of indulgence. She spread out her arms and twirled in a circle.
The men found them, frolicking happily, their clothes clinging to their torsos. Tyr looked at Diana's white tunic and smiled. "There’s a reason I love tunics."
Jorunda couldn't take his eyes off Inga. With her wet, black hair raked back from her face, the blue tattoo, swirling up toward her temple, was clearly visible. "It matches your eyes," he told her.
Freya huffed. "Look over there. Even Gizurr is drooling. He's besotted with Helga."
A warm spot blossomed in Diana's breast as she saw Gizurr staring at Helga's curveless body as though it were art.
"Men usually look at me that way," Freya complained.
"You're the one who sent us soul mates," Diana told her. "Live with it."
Freya laughed. The clouds parted, and the sun shone down on them. Everyone was refreshed and clean.
The gates parted again, and Olaf's wife led a group of women into the fields, carrying loaves of fresh-baked breads, mounds of smoked herring, and casks of ale. People sat in the grass and passed food from one to another. Diana couldn't remember when she enjoyed such a sense of community. With that realization came a fierce desire to protect these people. She didn't want one, single, solitary person in this meadow to be harmed.
Swift on that thought came another—what she wanted didn't always happen.
By the time they finished eating, drowsiness overcame Diana. She looked at Freya, and her friend looked limp from lack of energy too. Inga leaned against Jorunda's strong shoulder in a contented daze.
Instead of Inga mourning the loss of her marble home, Diana could tell the girl was overjoyed. More time with Jorunda. Diana grumbled, but tried to make the best of it. By the time Hlif led Tyr and the goddesses down a hallway to show Diana and Freya to a spare room in Griswold’s longhouse, Diana was so tired, she thought she could sleep on anything. Until she saw her bed.
"Thank you for your hospitality and everything you've done today." It was rote, good manners, and Hlif eyed her suspiciously.
"What's wrong?" the old woman asked.
"Diana has no use for our sleeping benches," Tyr said. "She'd probably rather curl up in the community garden on the soft ground."
The soil was thin in Norse lands. Diana wasn't sure it would be much better.
Hlif crossed her arms on her chest. Diana wouldn't want to be the servant who made her angry. "No goddess is sleeping on the ground in our village. What do you need?"
"You've already done enough. I'm fine." Diana meant it. Hlif had exceeded any expectations she had.
"Don't worry about Diana," Tyr said. "I'll make her a mattress." He gave a naughty grin. "Unless she'd rather share my bed."
"At Olaf, the blacksmith's shop? With his apprentice? I don't think so."
That reminded Diana. "Has he made the shields?"
"I haven't had a chance to ask him. Want to come with me? We can gather things for a proper bed while we're at it." Tyr crooked his elbow for her, and she slid her arm through his. If she was going to move any of her limbs, she needed support.
"Don't overtire her," Hlif scolded. "The girl's nearly exhausted."
Girl? Diana couldn’t remember the last time she’d been called that. But from Hlif, with her gray hair and deep wrinkles, it was acceptable.
Tyr gave a quick bow. "Yes, ma'am. We're in your debt." When Hlif raised a brow in disapproval, Tyr ignored it. He didn't hurry on their walk through the village. The air grew milder at the end of the day, and people were settling down to rest. When they reached Olaf's shop, the dwarf came out to greet them. He carried two shields. "One for Jorunda and one for Jon. Brandr and I have started two more."
Tyr studied the craftsmanship of the shields, perfectly balanced. "You've outdone yourself, Olaf. These are fit for gods."
"It's an honor to serve you." Olaf nodded toward his shed. "Brandr feels the same way."
Tyr lifted both shields onto his back, then disappeared into the work shed to gather furs from the bench he slept on. When he returned, Diana laughed at him. He'd draped the furs over the shields. "You look like a pack mule," she told him.
"It leaves my hand free." He reached for Diana's and held it on their walk back to Griswold's. They found the chieftain in the great hall while his warriors reported to him. He held a horn of ale and drank while he listened. When Tyr entered with Diana, his eyes narrowed, but he said nothing.
Which bothered the chieftain more? Diana wondered. That she was staying in his house or that he couldn't have one of Olaf's shields?
Ty dropped the furs to the floor and slung the shields forward. "Olaf and Brandr worked long hours to make these. Both are infused with dwarf magic." Tyr handed one to Jorunda and one to Jon. Two younger men, tall and strapping, came forward at Jorunda's nod to claim the shields the warriors no longer needed.
"Metal is precious," Jon explained to Diana. "These men use wooden shields covered with leather. Now, they'll have ours. We all benefit from Olaf's gift."
"I say we test them." Griswold's voice boomed loudly. "We can go outdoors and have the witch shoot energy at you."
Tyr frowned. "It's late. Diana's worked all day. The tests can wait till morning."
"If the witch tires that easily…." Griswold shrugged.
Diana knew he was goading her, but she didn't care. "I'd like to know how strong they are too."
Tyr scowled at the chieftain, but Diana turned toward the door. "Let's try them out."
Everyone followed them into the courtyard. Jorunda held his shield in front of him nervously. "You won't give me your full blast, will you?"
"No, but Heid will."
"Start small," Inga called. "We've seen your powers."
Diana pulled energy from the earth, felt it shoot through her heels and body and out her palm. It hit Jorunda's shield with a narrow blast. The warrior staggered backwards, but the energy bounced upward and disappeared.
"That was a small blast?" Jon asked, watching Jorunda roll his shoulders to loosen them.
"You could have hurt him," Inga complained.
"I can summon much more. You know that." Diana stretched, relaxing her muscles. "The shields won't help you defeat Heid, but they should help you survive her."
The clump of younger warriors shifted nervously.
Tyr strove to reassure them. "When the battle starts, Diana and Freya, along with Asdis' witches, will do their best to fight Heid and what's left of her coven. Hellhounds can't pass the village fence. Wolfbane will keep them out. And no evil magic can pass the rowans. Anyone inside these gates should be safe."
"But what if another shape-shifter lives here?" Inga asked. She worried constantly about the prediction of someone’s being betrayed. There'd been too many attempts on Jorunda's life.
"He'd have been revealed when we passed out wafers," Diana explained.
"The important thing is, the village is protected." Tyr returned to the point he was trying to make. "Donar and I, along with Ordr and his friends, will deal with any giants. I'm sure Heid will have surprises for us, though."
Jon stepped forward. "How can we help you the most?"
"Don't risk your lives on battles you have no hope of winning. Guard the village from everything you can."
Frustration seeped into Jorunda's voice. "Are you telling us to hide behind the wooden fence?"
"But with our shields…."
"Heid can blast you unconscious," Diana said.
Diana was ready for his question. "In case one of Heid's witches catches you by surprise outside the village. We don't know how or when Heid will attack. You need to be ready for anything."
Griswold turned to his men. "The village needs you. Every Norse man is required by law to carry a weapon, but how many people know how to use theirs? Einarr's was a pitchfork, for Woden's sake."
Jon bowed his head. "Our duty is to our village."
Griswold eyed the shield Jon carried and grunted. "You're the ones who are protected. You're the ones who must protect us."
Tyr didn't disagree. "We have a plan. We'll stick to it. Our chances are better than they were before."
Griswold scowled at Diana, then turned back to his longhouse. "The sun's sinking. My men need their rest." But the chieftain didn't head to his bedchambers. He met with the warriors around his long, wooden table, drinking and talking.
"He didn't care about my rest," Diana grumbled, as she followed them inside.
Tyr chuckled as he carried his furs to the goddess' chamber. Quietly, so as not to disturb Freya, he pushed two benches together and placed the furs on top. He bent his head and gently kissed Diana. "Ignore Griswold. He's jealous. He wants a shield. Get some rest. Tomorrow, we'll try the runes again. This time, we might get an answer."
“Why? Nothing’s changed.”
Tyr shook his head. “Everything’s different. You and I are truly united. Nothing can stand against us.”