Diana insisted upon making the giants and witches drink her powder mix. She even poured some into a bowl for the young wolves. Satisfied that she'd done all she could for the moment, she started to return home.
A vulture swooped from the sky and landed before Tyr. Diana eyed it with suspicion. "Mars' bird?"
"Not here," Ormr warned. "Vultures belong to Heid."
It held an envelope in its beak.
Tyr took the message and read it through. When he finished, he read it more slowly. Then he looked up, frowning. "Heid wishes to meet with us. She'll come, alone, to Griswold's longhouse, if I guarantee to honor a truce."
Freya grimaced. "She knows you can't lie. Once you make an oath, you can't break it. You're the sky god, ruler of wisdom and honesty. We all look to you for that."
Tyr gave a wry smile. "I'm sure Heid took that into consideration."
"You can't lie?" That thought stopped Diana a second. Was subterfuge the same as a lie? Her fellow Greek gods and goddesses were well known for bending and distorting the truth.
Tyr ignored the question. Clearly, he didn't want to deal with it. He glanced at the message again. "Can it hurt anything to meet with her?"
"You can never trust Heid," Asdis cautioned.
"But if there's a way to end this war…." He looked to the heavens, weighing the pros and cons of the request.
Freya fidgeted, uncomfortable. She went to stand beside Diana and touched a hand to the pouch of runes Diana made for her. "We've made it hard for Heid. We've surprised her as much as she has us. She intended to destroy the village with disease. Diana changed that. She knows you're the god of law and judgments. If she's afraid of defeat and would like to end this, you're the god to talk to, not me."
Diana glanced at her, frowning. “Do you usually arbitrate for witches?”
Before Freya could answer, Ormr said, "Don't do it. This is a trick. Heid doesn't give up. She hunted us down wherever we hid."
"But she's never had to worry about being destroyed before, has she?" Tyr stared at the message once more, trying to read more into it than simply ink on paper. "We killed her three times, and each time, she rose. But if Diana kills her with magic, she might stay dead."
"Heid's not a full god," Freya agreed, clearly warming to the idea. "Her powers aren't as strong as ours, and her magic can't match Diana's. She thought, with her coven, she might be able to defeat us, but she's lost three of her witches. If she fails, she might die--permanently. She might be ready to strike a deal."
Asdis disagreed. "If Heid's backed into a corner, she's more dangerous, not less. Don't trust her."
"No one does," Tyr said, "but do we really want to turn this down, a chance for peace?"
Diana chewed her bottom lip, nervous. There was no such thing as an honorable, dark witch. But there were plenty of smart ones. And maybe, in the long run, a truce would suit Heid more than a war. "If you're going to do this, I'd meet some place outside of the village," she said.
Tyr nodded. "There's a temple not far away—a longhouse with altars."
"So you are worshipped?"
"In the meadow. It would make a good meeting spot. Heid suggested tomorrow at noon."
"If I protect the building from dark magic, Heid can't enter it," Diana said.
"That's why I'm going alone." Tyr's tone was meant to brook no argument. He should have known better.
"No." Diana was surprised by the passion behind the one word.
So was Tyr. "I can protect myself against Heid. I've done it before."
"Things have changed. You said so yourself. We need you, and I don't want to bargain to get you back if Heid has some new trick." Freya watched their exchange, lost in her own thoughts, until Diana turned on her. "Tell him!" she said. "Make him understand."
"Diana's right." Freya raised her hand when Tyr began to protest. "This isn't the Heid we’ve known and sparred with. We're going with you."
"Not you." This time, Tyr's words sounded final. "You know how you get every time you're around her."
"It's Donar’s fault the war started!" Freya said.
"He wasn’t alone. No one in Asgaard liked her, but it wasn't my idea to burn Heid on the pyre, not even one of the three times."
"Then the Aesir should have sought your counsel, but Donar doesn’t listen to anyone. If the Aesir gods would have left her alone, I could have dealt with her."
"She was already too dark. You know that, but it wasn’t your fault she used the magic you taught her for evil.”
“What!” Diana turned to Freya. “You fussed at me because I didn’t tell you that I helped dragons, but you forgot to mention that you trained Heid?”
Freya had the grace to look sheepish. She licked her lips. “It’s not something I’m proud of.”
“Why not? You didn’t teach her black magic. She had to seek it out.”
Freya grimaced. “She chose witch magic over seidr. She completely turned against everything I taught her. But when she went bad, the Aesir should have called me instead of killing her three times.”
Tyr sighed. “We fought a long time over Heid before we called truce."
Diana shook her head. "Boy, I really didn’t see the big picture, did I? That's what started the war between the Aesir and Vanir?"
Freya nodded. "Heid was my responsibility."
"You’ve joined us in Asgaard now," Tyr said, trying to reason with her. “We’re friends. She’s our responsibility.”
"She hates Asgaard for good reason."
“Freya, she’d hate us anyway. She’s wicked. She corrupted mortals, filled them with greed and resentment. She breeds her hellish hounds in the Ironwood Forest.”
“Where the gods banished her,” Freya persisted.
Tyr threw up his hand. "What would you have us do with her? She’s evil. I can't reverse what happened, but I can try to control her now, so that she can't harm anyone else."
With visible effort, Freya sought to calm herself. “I know. I don’t blame you. I’ve never blamed you.”
"You're not coming with me," Tyr repeated. "Mixing you and Heid together is like shaking a Molotov cocktail."
"I do have some self control," Freya fumed.
"Not when it comes to Heid.” Before she could argue, Tyr hurried on. “Besides, we need you at the village, in case this is a diversion, a trick to draw us out, so that Heid can attack while we're gone. The warriors will still be weak. She can use that.”
"My thoughts exactly," Diana said.
Tyr turned his gaze on her. "Good, because you're staying with her."
"Wrong. I'm going, too." Norse gods obviously were used to getting their way. It was time they learned better.
"Heid won't talk to us if you're there," Tyr stated.
"Then find a place for me to hide, because I'm going with you. I'm your best chance of surviving if she uses magic against you."
“I’ve dealt with her magic before.”
“And her coven’s?”
“It’s broken. You killed three of them.”
Diana tilted her chin, challenging him. “So you can face Heid and nine of her followers all by yourself?”
“No.” Tyr didn't like it, Diana could tell by his expression, but he wasn't petty enough to make a point just to make one. "All right, but you can't be seen."
"No problem." Diana muttered words and disappeared from view. When she spoke directly behind Freya, the goddess jumped. "Heid seems fond of obscuring spells, but she doesn't have any as good as mine."
“Don’t do that! It’s creepy.” Freya rubbed her arms.
Diana returned to her natural form.
"We can go with you too," Ormr offered. "In case Heid brings giants."
Tyr shook his head. "No, the village needs you. Peta will be on alert. Between Freya, you, and Asdis, it will be hard for any enemies to pass the clearing or the rowan. I'm putting Heimdall on alert at the rainbow bridge too. I'm not taking any chances."
Their plans made, Tyr left to return to the village, and Diana and Freya started back through the woods to their home. The walk got tiresome sometimes, but Diana liked the feeling of distance between their sanctuary and the troubles of the meadow.
Freya fussed on the way back. "It was Donar’s idea to kill Heid. Tyr should have muzzled him centuries ago."
Diana threw an arm around Freya’s shoulder. "Friend, you tried to do someone a good deed, and it backfired on you. Heid was too greedy to not to be tempted. Dark magic can be alluring."
Freya was silent a minute, digesting that. "You won’t know this, but she was once a handmaiden to Frigga, Odin’s wife. Frigga’s home is on a marsh, so all marshes and boggy grounds are sacred to her. That’s why Heid sacrificed those young girls in a bog, as an insult to her."
Diana stopped, appalled. “Did she despise Frigga so much?”
“Frigga is nothing but kindness, but as Odin’s wife, Heid would be jealous of her, of her power and prestige. Maybe….” She grimaced. "Who knows why she made the choices she did? We'll never know for sure, will we?"
"What kind of deal do you think Heid will offer Tyr tomorrow?"
Freya's answer was immediate. "A division of lands. Heid's greedy. She'll want part of Midgard and its treasures in exchange for peace."
"The meadow would stay safe, wouldn't it?"
"No god wants Heid anywhere close to the rainbow bridge."
They threw ideas around for the rest of their walk. When they reached the clearing, both stared in silence. The dragon, Peta, stretched under the roof of the open, east porch. Noir lay, stretched between his ears. Freya's cat curled between two scales on his back.
"I wish I had a camera," Diana mumbled.
"A what?" Freya smiled. "Isn't that sweet? I would never have thought cats would befriend a dragon."
Peta opened a large, yellow eye. He struggled to shake himself awake, but couldn't. Soon, he breathed evenly, in a deep slumber again.
"The poor creature probably hasn't had good sleep since Heid chained him in that cave to torment his wife and children," Freya said. "He must be exhausted."
The women walked past him into the house.
"Zeus, I'm beat. We've had our share of excitement today, too." Diana reached for a round loaf of bread. "After our meal, I'm calling it an early night."
"I'm not that tired." Freya raised a hand to stifle a yawn.
"Right. Let's see if you stay awake long enough to finish supper."
They were slicing bread and cheeses, grilling lamb, and pouring wine when Noir yowled a warning. Diana ran from the house to find her cat glaring at someone cowering behind a tree. Freya's cat stalked opposite Noir to challenge their visitor. Peta rose and stretched his neck, ears flat, ready to shoot fire.
A breeze blew. Fabric fluttered, peeping around the tree trunk. Cheap fabric with a sloppy hem. "Show yourself!" Diana called, "or face the consequences."
Helga took a hesitant step forward. She glanced warily at the cats. "I'll leave. I shouldn't have come, but I'm desperate."
Diana felt her stomach clench. Great Zeus! Griswold hadn't taken this girl, had he? And if he had, would Helga care? "Tell me. What's wrong?"
"I feel foolish. I should go." Helga lowered her gaze. "You have important matters to deal with. It's just that…"
"What?" Diana felt her patience frazzle. "Just spit it out!"
The girl stared, taken aback. "I'd never spit at a god."
Freya's chuckle annoyed Diana. "The Roman's language is different than ours," she told Helga. "She wants you to state your problem."
"Griswold threw me out of the longhouse. I've worked there since I could walk. I'm never lazy. Hlif was going to give me Vigdis' position in the kitchen." She sniffed and looked away from them for a second. "He's assigned me to cleaning stalls in the stables. He claims that I took advantage of him by sleeping with him when he was crazed. If I were only a little prettier… You can make love spells, can't you? One of you?" Helga looked from Freya to Diana. "Or make me less repulsive?"
“By the wrath of the gods….” A list of curses flew from Diana’s lips.
Freya's brows soared upward. "I know a little Greek, and that was nothing that should come from a goddess' lips."
"So sue me."
Freya sighed. "Who are you mad at—Helga or Griswold?"
"Griswold should be gutted and stuffed. The stables!" Diana clenched her hands and took a long, drawn-out breath, trying to calm herself.
Freya nodded. "Then we agree." She turned to Helga. "Come, girl. We were about to eat. Join us."
Helga looked at the two cats blocking her way and the dragon ready to charge her.
Freya waved a hand. "We have a guest. Let's make her welcome."
The smoke gray cat sauntered forward to weave around Helga's ankles. Noir turned his back on her and returned to Peta. He leapt on the dragon's snout and clawed his way to the top of his head. The dragon, with his thick skin, was impervious to Noir’s nails. Then they both lay down, ignoring the others.
"Come, child. Break bread with us, and we'll discuss your problem."
Freya took Helga's hand and led her inside the house. Diana preferred to eat outdoors, but the girl was too frightened of the beasts.
When Diana brought wooden plates to the table, Helga smiled at her. "I heard you'd changed Inga's hut, that she's no longer shunned. I'm happy for her."
It was genuine, Diana could tell. She liked the girl even more. They made small talk while they ate. It wasn't until the plates were rinsed and put away that Freya grew serious. "You don't want a love spell," she said. "It's small joy to entrap a man who doesn't want you."
Diana nodded agreement. "Better to find someone who loves you for who you are."
"Look at me." Helga spread her hands. "Skin and bones, and ugly to boot. No one wants me."
"You don't know that," Freya said. "You've had no chance to meet anyone but the chieftain and his warriors."
"The stables might be your freedom," Diana told her. "You'll meet people of your own class, people who leave Griswold's longhouse when their work is finished."
Helga's mouth turned down. "You don't understand. I'm too plain for anyone, even them."
"We'll see." Freya put her hands on Helga's shoulders. She chanted words, and the girl's skin glowed. When Freya finished, the glow faded, but Helga looked different, more appealing. "You need to value yourself more, believe in yourself. I've bespelled you to meet your soul mate, someone who’ll want you for your inner beauty," she said. "If nothing happens in a week, return to me, and we'll do more."
Helga blinked. "A soul mate?"
"Someone who'll see what a lovely person you are."
The girl smiled. "Is that possible?"
"Give it a week. We'll find out."
When Helga left, Diana turned to Freya. "You know she'll be even more disappointed if no one wants her now."
"Someone will. Wait and see."
"How can you know?"
Freya sighed and grinned. "I am the goddess of love and beauty, you know," mimicking Diana's line.
Diana smiled too. Helga had been a nice interlude, something charming to look forward to in the future, unlike tomorrow. Tomorrow worried her. "I need sleep," she said.
Freya nodded. "I'll walk with you to the village in the morning. The warriors might need me. Besides, I'd go crazy staying here, waiting and worrying. If something happens, I want to be there."
Diana would feel the same. Wondering and watching weren't her strong points either.