Jorunda led them to the double, wooden gates of the village and bade them wait while he went inside. Diana flopped, unceremoniously, onto the grass. It was one thing to have empty altars. It was another to be treated like an unwelcome bother. She sighed, watching Inga pace the dirt path that separated fields of barley from rye.
"I don't want Griswold to see me," she said. "These are his fields. I shouldn't be here."
"He's lucky he still has crops." Diana glanced at the oats growing on the far side of the wooden rails. "If Heid's energy had hit, they'd all be ashes."
When the gates opened, Inga took one glance at the graying man who strode toward them and ducked behind Diana.
"Griswold?" Diana asked, pushing herself to her feet.
"Is he coming to do battle?" Like Jorunda, who accompanied him, the aging chieftain carried a sword and shield. To impress her? Diana stifled a yawn. His clothing suggested wealth. He was as tall as Jorunda, but stockier and softer, his muscles no longer firm.
Tyr and Donar, in human form, followed close behind.
Drat! Why them? She was going to get another lecture, and she didn't have the temperament for it. Aggravation churned through her. She rarely took time to account for her actions. She did as she pleased, no questions asked. People…and gods…should stay out of her way.
Donar bellowed before he reached her. "We told you to go home!"
A sudden urge to burst his fiery-red hair into flames crossed her mind, but she quickly squelched it. Instead, she flicked her wrist and the ground swelled beneath him, causing him to lurch forward and almost trip. Tyr held out his handless arm to steady him. "Careful, friend, you've already angered her once."
Donar clamped his lips together, his face mutinous. "Witch!" He hissed it at her like a swear word.
"Apparently, you don't have any." She raised an eyebrow in warning, not in the mood. "I can't imagine why. You're so friendly to our kind, but I met this young girl in the forest. She told me of a seer in the village. The old woman predicted my coming."
Tyr turned on Inga. "Is this true?" Vikings obviously took their seers as seriously as Romans did.
Inga nodded. "Gudrun told me it was my destiny to be shunned, so that I could wait for her." She motioned to Diana.
Diana sighed. Rarely had she met mortals this wary of witches. If they battled a dark witch, why not welcome a white one? She grimaced. Not that she thought of herself as white. That would be pushing it. Doing the right thing wasn't always pretty.
Griswold waved a hand, dismissing Inga's claim, but his eyes roamed up and down the girl's figure. Diana stepped in front of her prodigy. Someone should offer him a drop cloth. Soon, he'd be drooling, the old pervert! The chieftain's gaze turned to her. Their eyes locked and held. If his gaze strayed to her body, he'd be a stag before he knew what hit him.
Tyr took one look at Diana's face and said, "Bring me this seer. Now." Griswold tore his attention from the women and concentrated on his warrior. "Go, Jorunda. Fetch us the old one."
Jorunda disappeared inside the gates and Tyr turned a scowl on the chieftain. A warning. They waited as patiently as they could until Jorunda returned at a slow pace, carefully supporting an old woman.
Gudrun was shorter than the others, but substantial, her body twisted and bent with arthritic joints. The warrior held her reverently. With her right hand, she leaned heavily on a wooden walking stick, making her way toward them in a determined fashion. When she caught sight of Diana, a grin cracked her wizened face.
"What say you, goddess? Can you save these haughty gods?"
"If you left this meadow, doctors could replace your worn knees and hips." Diana hated to see the old woman suffer. Clearly, she was in pain.
The seer threw back her head and cackled. "You Romans and your love of inventions. We stick to the old ways here."
Diana wasn't impressed. "Apparently."
The woman jabbed a gnarled finger her way. "We can't lose sight of what's important. We remain to guard this sacred place. In your world, people rush and forget. The bridge can't be crossed, or there'll be no mortals. Giants have no love of humans, except as snacks."
"So you've seen outside this meadow? You know what you're missing?"
The old woman shrugged. "Flushing toilets. Cars. The gods care for us here. Our needs are met."
Diana glared at Tyr. "This is the best you can do?"
The seer's laugh interrupted them. "I'm an old woman. What of your modern world? With all your doctors and procedures, how do lives end?"
Diana's thoughts turned to hospitals and nursing centers, tubes and needles. She struggled for an answer, found none.
The seer gave a sage nod. "The gods visit me here, in my dreams and in person. Can your old ones claim that?"
"Huntress, you know the matters of life and death. You see the weak fall and the old defeated or devoured. Life is what it is. Here, we accept that."
Diana knew mortals lived a fleeting life. But to stay and to be so faithful surely demanded some reward.
Tyr gently laid his left hand on her shoulder. His touch surprised her. Eyes wide, Diana looked up, startled. He smiled. "Our race prides itself on fighting worthy battles. We're happy with our choices, but your concern for Gudrun touches me. Thank you."
She could feel a flush heat her neck and cheeks. Holy Zeus! She was blushing like Inga. His praise was unexpected. There was more to this old god than she'd first thought.
He spared her from answering by turning to the seer. "Old mother, you foresaw the goddess coming here. You sent someone to wait for her. To what purpose?"
Gudrun bluntly answered. "Without her, you fail."
"We lose the battle?" He flinched and exchanged glances with Donar, who'd been watching and listening quietly. Another surprise for Diana. She didn't think Donar capable of controlling his temper. Tyr said, "We have Freya. She has magic. We've defeated Heid before. Why is this time different?"
"Freya's magic is powerful," Gudrun told them. "But it's not spell magic. Loki's giants mean to free him with Heid's help."
Tyr's white brows pulled into a frown. He didn't respond immediately, taking time to think matters through. "Is this Ragnarok?" he asked solemnly.
Gudrun shrugged hunched shoulders. "No one knows the time of our destruction, god, except the Norns. None of us escape their fate. Not you. Not me. You know, as well as I do, the signs that lead to your death. The third and last—the time of three winters—has yet to come."
"But this battle is more serious than most?" he persisted.
"Without her…" Gudrun repeated, "…you fail."
Tyr didn't question her. Donar frowned. "I'll strike the giants down. I'll blast them with thunder."
"Try." Gudrun shrugged, unimpressed.
"And defeat would bring about Ragnarok?" Tyr asked.
"Maybe. Maybe not. The giants might toss you into Loki's pit and tether you like you tied him. Acid will drip on your forehead day in and day out. Then they can do as they please with the world and mortals."
Diana shivered. That would be hell on earth. Could she and her fellow gods and goddesses stop them? If the Norse couldn't—who practiced their battle skills daily—she had her doubts.
Tyr heaved a sigh of frustration. "By Woden's…."
"Cursing won't change things, god." Gudrun chuckled.
Tyr motioned toward Diana, scowling. "What can we do with her? She can't stay with us in Asgaard."
What was the deal? Did she have B.O.? "There are no females there?" Diana had met Freya. Was she the only goddess who'd survived through the millenia?
"Of course there are!" Donar barked, interrupting for the first time. He swung his hammer with impatience.
"Most of us married and mated aeons ago," Tyr said. Diana ignored the tiny tremor of disappointment that rippled through her at his words. "Everything's settled. If you came…"
"A maiden goddess would cause problems." She'd bought that explanation before, but now? “Can’t the Norse take cold showers? A lot’s hanging in the balance.”
"The Norse fight hard and play hard. You'd bring chaos upon us."
Oh brother! “One, little zap of hot magic, and your Norse boys would learn to play nice.”
Before Tyr could respond, Gudrun interrupted. "She's not to stay with you," the old seer intoned. "She must stay in the forest. Inga's to learn from her and serve her."
"In that tiny hut?" Even Donar seemed stunned at such treatment.
"In the forest with Inga," Gudrun repeated. There was no arguing with her, it was clear.
Tyr turned his gaze to Diana. "Then it’s settled.”
Diana looked from one of them to the other. She was tired of their talking about her as though she had no vote in the matter. Greeks, like the Norse, valued their freedom. "Perhaps I have no desire to stay here at all. Maybe I'd rather leave this place and go home."
Gudrun chuckled. Donar sputtered, he was so angry, but Tyr's laugh shook the ground beneath them. "Just like a woman!" he said. "When we don't want her, she swears she'll stay. When we need her, she's determined to leave."
"It wasn't a gracious invitation." Diana glared.
"You Greeks and your manners! All talk and no glory." Tyr waved his good hand. "Go. And when we're defeated, you and yours have at it. And good luck."
He'd called her bluff, and she knew it. She pressed her lips together in frustration. "I don't live in huts. My things are on the way."
Inga pulled at her sleeve. "Will you have me, goddess? What's mine is yours. I'll serve you till death."
Diana grimaced. Geez! How could she be so petty when so much was at stake? It was her temper. Sometimes it got the better of her. She looked at the young woman. So eager, so sincere. Tossing a withering glance Tyr's way, she told Inga, "I'd be honored to have you."
Tyr watched, his expression thoughtful. "You have a fondness for mortals, don't you?"
He made it sound like a weakness. What did she care what he thought? "Usually, I keep my distance, but when I'm forced to deal with them, I find them fascinating."
"As do I."
She stared. He'd surprised her…again.
Gudrun watched them. She wore a knowing look that made Diana suspicious. "My bones are weary," the old seer told the warrior. "I must return to my bed, but these women will be treated with kindness. You and Tyr must visit them once a week with food and drink. You must keep them informed."
"It takes two of us to see to their needs?" Tyr's voice brimmed with suspicion too.
"They're assisting both gods and man." Gudrun shifted her weight onto her walking stick.
"Not Jorunda," Griswold complained. "I'll send someone else. Jorunda is my best warrior, my personal guard."
Donar blinked at him, clearly stunned. "You argue with the seer?"
"I need Jorunda." The chieftan stretched out his hands in a helpless gesture.
Tyr's voice seemed all the more ominous because of its softness. "Would you have him serve you, or us?"
Griswold heard the warning as clearly as Diana. "You, of course, my gods."
"Then so be it." Tyr turned on his heel to stalk away, his posture ramrod straight, Donar by his side.
Jorunda offered his arm to Gudrun. "Come, old mother."
She patted him affectionately. "You're a good boy."
Griswold, not bothering to hide his annoyance, joined them as they returned to the village.
Diana stood for a moment, trying to sort her thoughts. She never doubted the runes, and she didn't doubt seers. If the old woman said the Norse would fail without her, they'd fail. What then? If the giants were anything like Titans, there'd be a horrible battle—one she and her fellow gods and goddesses might not win. She bit her bottom lip. Damn it! The battle was bigger than she'd realized. Gudrun predicted a sure defeat if Diana didn't stay, but she'd never guaranteed victory if Diana helped. Oracles were like that. Tricky at best.
Finally, her thoughts going in circles, she followed Inga through the forest to return to their hut. Diana's mind wandered. She tripped on a rock and had to catch herself. "Griswold's an idiot," she grumbled. She kicked at a pine cone, bouncing it across the thin soil. A rabbit darted from under a fallen log. It startled Inga. From her expression, Diana's statement unsettled the girl almost as much.
"He's our chieftan," Inga replied.
"Not all leaders deserve their power and rank." Diana glimpsed a small stand of rowan trees hidden among the pines. Sacred trees—full of magic and mystery. She'd return to visit them sometime. "From what I've seen, I'd guess Griswold had a strong arm once, but always a small mind."
Inga's breath came in a quick gasp. "That's what Gudrun said."
"A wise woman."
They walked in silence for a while, each busy with her own thoughts. A hawk circled high above them. A herd of deer moved out of their way. Diana let the rugged beauty restore her.
They were halfway home, at a fork in the path, when the air went cool. Shivers ran up and down Diana's arms. She rubbed them, trying to warm herself. Glancing upward, she caught glimpses of a blue, cloudless sky through the trees' canopy. Mists of magic drifted between branches. "Do you feel that?" she asked.
Inga wrapped her arms around herself. "Is a storm coming?"
"No, there's black magic in the air." Diana covered her nose to block the stench of blood that suddenly permeated the area. "Do people live close by?"
"There's a longhouse, farmers, a mile from here." Inga pointed toward the west.
"We need to get to them. Now!" Diana's pace quickened. Inga hurried to take the lead, and both women ran along the narrow, dirt path. Pine trees flew by them for what seemed an eternity—green needles, sharp pricks. Vultures circled in the distance. "Faster! It might not be too late…" Diana fought to catch her breath. "…for all of them."
"All of them?" Inga's footsteps pounded on the thin dirt. Her breath came in gusts. She pressed a hand to her side.
Diana slowed, sniffing. The scent of blood grew more intense. "Someone else died. I smell it." When black magic mingled with blood, it meant sacrifice. Heid intended to grow stronger. The sooner, the better. Diana gave a quick nod. Inga sprinted onward, Diana close on her heels.