Diana woke when the sun was barely starting its climb across the sky. At first, she blinked, confused. Shadows enveloped the room, making it feel like early evening instead of early morning. A chill hung in the air. A day shrouded in mists. Noir slept at her side and she jostled him awake. The house was quiet. She slid from beneath her blankets and, shivering, hurried into her clothes. Dressed, she reached for her runes, intending to do a reading before setting out for the village. As she tiptoed to the kitchen, she glanced at Freya's bed to find it empty. What the Hades?
When she stepped into the house's second room, she saw the goddess sitting at the wooden table. A fire burned in the brazier in the center of the room. Freya held her runes in her hand, eyes closed, and then tossed them. Diana smiled. Freya had the same idea.
Diana went to stand behind her. The bones began to sing, and an image painted itself on the marble wall. She and Tyr, flanked by half a dozen warriors, walked to the village together. Everyone seemed angry and frustrated. Obviously, Heid's deal didn't work, and the war was still eminent. The image faded.
Freya sighed. "I'm not surprised. Heid must have demanded too much."
"What did you ask?" The question could make all the difference for a reading.
"If it was safe for you and Tyr to meet with Heid."
Diana nodded. That was her biggest concern, too. "It looks as though everyone survives, but nothing's accomplished."
"Who knows? You might learn something. And this way, you'll get to meet our dark witch, see her up close."
Yes, that was worth something. Diana reached for a fresh fig.
Freya pushed herself to her feet and returned her ebony bones to their pouch. She put the long, leather strip that held it around her neck and nestled the pouch between her breasts. "Come on," she said. "I don't want to sit here. Let's walk to the village and make Tyr fix us breakfast."
"I'm game." Diana was restless too. "Noir?"
The cat glanced outside at the damp grass and gloomy sky. He turned back toward the bedroom.
"Shadows?" Freya called to her familiar.
The gray cat watched Noir, turned his back on his mistress, and headed for a fur blanket too.
Freya's eyes went wide. "See what your cat has done? He's taught mine bad manners."
"Cats are cats," Diana said. "They do as they please." She started toward the door.
Freya wrinkled her nose. "I wish I'd brought my shawl with me. It's a rotten day."
"Appropriate," Diana grumbled. "Heid probably cast it this way."
"Can she do that?"
"I can. I hope it stays. It will make things easier for me."
Water drops fell from pine boughs as they passed under them. The mists coated them in moisture. By the time they reached the meadow, their clothes and their hair were damp.
The giants and witches slept on the ground around a fire. Straw heaps formed beds under them, and furs completely covered them. They looked like huge mounds from a distance. Not even the wolves stirred, deep in their den. The goddesses walked past them, and no one noticed until the guards on the fence walk spotted them.
The gates opened.
"Where can we find Tyr?" Freya asked.
"In Olaf's smith shop." The guard pointed the way.
Diana couldn't hide her surprise. Why would a Norse god share a room with an apprentice instead of sleeping in Griswold's longhouse with the warriors? But then Tyr never did what she expected. She couldn't wait to hear his reasoning for this choice.
As they neared the blacksmith's longhouse, a dog came to sniff them. It bared its teeth until Diana held out a hand to it. All of nature recognized her, not as Mother Nature, the nurturer, but as Artemis—her Greek persona—goddess of survival. The dog put its tail between its legs and cowered.
"I'm not here to harm you." She scratched it behind its ears. "Take us to Tyr."
Tail waving, the dog led the way to the workshop attached to the dwarf's home.
When they stepped inside, Diana's heart caught. Tyr lay on a wooden bench, a fur tossed over him, in deep sleep. He looked so worry free, so calm and serene, she didn't want to wake him.
A bemused look passed over Freya's expression, too. "Do you think he had one second, somewhere, when he wasn't the sky god, when he could enjoy himself?"
Diana tried to think back to her own childhood. She remembered sitting on the lap of her father, Zeus. She told him her many wishes, and he granted them all. But even those wishes brought responsibilities. "Being immortal brings heavy burdens," she said.
Freya nodded. "Thankfully, for me, it also brings many pleasures." When Diana frowned, Freya shook her head. "You and Tyr take yourselves way too seriously."
But how could they not? Diana wondered.
Their whispers woke Tyr. He pushed himself onto an elbow and blinked. He saw them and sat up quickly. "Is everything all right?"
"We came to bully you into making us breakfast. We thought to find you at Griswold's longhouse," Freya said. "When we found you here, we were going to take mercy on you and let you sleep."
"No need." He threw back his fur and stood. He wore nothing but a linen tunic. Thankfully, it reached his thighs. His bare legs bunched with muscles, and Diana blushed when she realized that the tip of her tongue touched her upper lip.
Freya beamed. "It's your duty, you know, to take pity on this man and claim him."
"Her duty?" Tyr frowned. "I was hoping to be a happy temptation."
Freya told him about Inga's reading. "And if the heavens are declaring that Inga should end her maiden phase, it’s long past time that Diana had her way with you."
Tyr shrugged. "If she must, I'll consent to save our people and fulfill my duties as their god."
Diana arched an eyebrow. "Very funny. If you two are done amusing yourselves, we have things to do."
Tyr bent to tug on leather pants. As he did so, a chain slid into view. It circled his neck with the rune she'd given him. "I won't presume on Olaf's family for my meals. Let's go to Griswold's longhouse. The servants will bring us food."
On the walk there, Freya asked, "Why are you sleeping at Olaf's in his smith shop? You're a god. You're sleeping beside an apprentice."
"Better company than Griswold," Tyr growled.
Diana nodded. She'd bespell the chieftain if she had to spend much time with him.
When they knocked at the chieftain's door, Jon, not Jorunda, opened it to let them in. Dark circles cratered his eyes. His cheeks caved in. He was barely recovered from the pox.
Tyr frowned. "Where's Jorunda?"
The dark warrior glanced at the goddesses before saying, "He'll be here soon. He rose late this morning."
A smile split Freya's face. "Did Inga rise late this morning too?"
Jon struggled for an innocent reply, and Diana smiled. "The runes declared that Inga and Jorunda are destined for each other. This is happy news."
The warrior's shoulders relaxed. A loyal friend. He was doing his best to cover for Jorunda. "It would be best if Griswold heard nothing of this."
"Fine by me." Diana wanted as little to do with the chieftain as possible.
Jon's relief was evident. "Then come with me. I'll get a servant for your needs, and I'll fetch my friend."
"No need. He's busy at the moment." Tyr grinned. "He doesn't need to join us. We came to eat before we set off for the shrine."
"About that…" Jon caught himself and stopped abruptly. "It would be better if Griswold told you himself."
"Told me what?"
Jon pressed his lips together in a firm line. "I'll fetch the chieftain. He wants to see you before you leave."
A groan escaped Freya. "There goes my appetite."
Hlif hurried servants into the kitchen, bringing cold slabs of beef, breads, and pickled vegetables. "I'm sorry, my lords, but Griswold doesn't usually rise this early. We didn't expect you."
"You had no way of knowing," Tyr told her. "Cold meats are fine." He sliced a chunk of beef and bit off an end. Diana tore off a piece of bread. Freya played with her enchanted necklace, ignoring the food.
Steps sounded on the cold floor, and Griswold came to stand over them. A deer hide draped over his shoulders to keep him warm. A heavy sleeping gown scraped the floor. Other than that, he'd completely recovered from Heid's poison. "When were you going to tell me about the meeting with Heid?" he demanded.
Freya's brow arched. Diana glared. Tyr slowly looked Griswold up and down. "You obviously don't know your place, chieftain."
"This is my village, my people. Their safety is my charge. Six of my best warriors will go with you. If anything happens, they can help you. We rely on you for our protection."
"Donar's going to accompany me. He's more than enough to ensure my safety."
"My men will go too."
"And how will warriors protect me from witchcraft?" Tyr asked.
"Men!" The six warriors entered, Jon and Jorunda among them. Griswold motioned, and they lifted the talismans from around their necks.
Diana sniffed. "Well and good when you're inside the village and Heid is outside its walls. Not very effective if she's across a table from you."
Griswold's expression turned murderous, but he didn't argue with her. Instead, he said, "The warriors accompany you, or I'll go myself."
Diana blinked. Had the chieftain's fever fried his tiny brain? Then she understood. "You don't trust us, do you?"
Tyr's eyes narrowed.
Griswold shook his head, but looked flustered. "I simply want to make sure that my best interests are represented."
"Your best interests?" Tyr asked.
"As chieftain for our village," Griswold hurried to say.
Tyr rose, placed his fist on the wooden table, and leaned forward, bristling with temper. Before he could speak, Jorunda interrupted. "I'm glad we're going with you. It's an honor to be by your side."
"It could also mean your death. I can withstand Heid. So can Donar. You're mortals. You might not get so lucky."
Jorunda didn't back down. "Then I'll die with my hand on my sword, and I'll meet you in Valhalla."
"I have other plans for you at the moment." Tyr growled in frustration.
Jon placed his hand on the hilt of his sword too. "What more can we ask than to die serving you?"
Tyr shook his head. "If you die, who'll fight to protect the village?"
"They're going with you and Donar," Griswold said. "With such a show of force, Heid wouldn't dare start something."
"I'm not taking them. They're staying here."
"Then I'll send them after you depart."
Tyr's hand balled into a fist. He looked as though he'd gladly throttle the chieftain. He glared at Jorunda. "I have no choice but to let you go. It will add another burden for me, but Griswold will have it no other way."
Diana turned to study the chieftain. What was his purpose? He knew the gods abhorred him. Was he worried that they'd trade his power for the meadow's safety? If so, he understood them little. But why did that surprise her? The man was so self-consumed, how could he see honor in others?
Tyr jerked his head toward the door. "Let's set off now. I'd rather reach the temple early and wait for Heid's arrival. We can be watchful for others."
Jorunda fell into step behind him, not at his side, as usual. The warrior wasn't brave enough to vex him more. Jon and four others followed. Tyr turned to Freya and Diana. "Thank you for coming to see me off. You can return home now. I'll meet you there when this is finished." It was the ruse they'd decided on. Diana didn't want anyone to know she was going with him.
With a curt nod, Freya pushed herself to her feet. She refused to look at Griswold. She took her place behind the warriors. So did Diana. Inga hurried to join them. They all filed out of the gates and separated. Tyr started for the cliffs and the temple. The women started for the woods. The mists had deepened. Gray shrouded the meadow. When they passed the giants and witches' camp, Diana was relieved to see everyone still sleeping. The furs that covered them were wet with dew. She murmured her obscuring spell and slowly faded into the fog.
"Diana?" Inga turned in a circle. "Where did she go?"
"Shh. With Tyr." Freya narrowed her eyes and hissed, "I'm looking for you and can't see you."
Diana made one hand visible and gave them a quick wave goodbye.
"Take care," Freya said. "I don't like these new arrangements."
Neither did Diana. She half ran to retrace her steps and catch up with the men. Freya and Inga would be doubling back soon, too, to keep watch over the village. They’d made arrangements to hide in Olaf’s hut, out of Griswold’s sight. Diana was careful to circle the warriors before she reached Tyr's side. Then gently, she put her hand in his.
He gave a slight start, then a small smile curved his lips. He curled his fingers between hers. To the warriors, he was simply clenching his hand. For Diana, joy zinged through her nerves. The sky god was happy for her company.
They walked in silence. The path was wide, surrounded by grasses. Diana could barely make out trees in the far distance before the haze swallowed everything. They walked for a long time before the sun burned off most of the mist. The landscape became open and wild—a perfect spot for a meeting. Enemies could be seen miles away—unless, like her, they hid behind obscuring spells. The sun rose higher, and Tyr's scent wafted to her. She inhaled deeply. The musk of male addled her mind.
It was a fair distance before she saw the wooden temple. It looked simple enough. The Norse didn't go in much for embellishments. Its one concession as a shrine were two double doors in its center and a thick, golden chain that hung from its gables. A grove of trees sat at one side of it. A massive tree with huge, overhanging branches grew close by, near a spring. A vulture sat on one of its branches, watching them. Heid's bird. Diana was glad she'd taken the precaution of an obscuring spell. As they approached the longhouse, Diana wrinkled her nose. A stench permeated the entire area. Then she noticed the corpses that hung from the trees' branches in the grove. Horses hung from one, dogs from another, and men from a third. There were nine trees in all, with nine different offerings.
"Disturbing," she whispered.
Tyr grunted and looked forward, so that the warriors wouldn't see his lips move. "Sacrifices. Once every nine years. Man's version of religion. They believe gods crave blood."
She couldn't be condescending. Hadn't Agamemnon, aware that he'd angered her, offered to kill his daughter so that the winds would change to take his army to Troy? Not that she had any need for a young girl's blood, but mortals seemed drawn to the idea.
Tyr stopped to study his surroundings. He took his time. If any of Heid's witches or hellhounds were using an obscuring spell, he meant to see them. Nothing moved. No grasses shimmered. He nodded, more sure of himself, and approached the temple.
"Let's go inside," he told the others. "Donar will join us. He'll keep watch over the grove and meadow." As he stepped through the doors, he whispered for Diana's ears only, "Would you feel Heid if she came before us?"
"Yes, she's not here."
Three priests came forward, but Tyr dismissed them. "It would be best if you leave for a while."
They looked at Tyr and the warriors who accompanied him. With quick nods, they departed.
True to his word, the moment the last warrior stepped inside the building, Donar appeared. He swung his hammer back and forth, impatient as usual. "Did you see anything on your walk?"
"No, I don't think she's come yet."
"I'll keep watch. When she arrives, I'll join you."
Diana was pleased. Donar glanced over her, unable to see her. She didn't expect the warriors to. They didn't think of someone blending so well, but Donar was a god. It would be harder to trick him in close quarters. She'd succeeded.
Tyr nodded that Donar was free to go. The warriors went to the far side of the temple and took their places, hands on swords. Tyr stood before the wooden carving of Woden, waiting. Diana looked around. Three piles of stones held three statues. Donar's likeness, holding a mace, sat on the highest pile in the center. Freyr, carved as a huge, erect penis sat on an altar to one side of him, and Woden, in armor, sat on the opposite end.
Diana frowned. The Norse had a real thing about fertility. All primitive cultures did. It was a matter of survival. She had to give Freya credit, though. As goddess of love and beauty, she was much more subtle than her brother. A huge penis? What did that say about the god? She looked for a good place to hide. She wanted to have her back against a wall, fully blended, before Heid arrived. She gave Tyr's hand a gentle squeeze, then pulled free of him. She went to a side wall and planted herself so that she was equal distance between the warriors and the god.
And then they waited. When the sun was directly above them, a sudden gust of wind whooshed through the room, and Heid appeared before them. She'd obviously followed magic here. It was so seamless, it made Diana believe she'd traveled to the temple earlier and left a token to guide her here and back.
"Mighty Tyr, I thank you for meeting me." The dark witch straightened herself to her full height. She stood nearly six feet with a slender figure. Blue-black hair fell in a shiny cascade to her waist. Dark eyes flashed in a lean, chiseled face. Heid exuded fierceness and power. She looked at the warriors at the far end of the room, and her lips curled in a smile of derision. "Ahh, a display of might. I'm flattered." When Donar entered the room, she frowned. "And brainless brawn. I'm afraid now." She didn't sound afraid. She clearly was more cautious of Tyr than the thunder god.
"No one need fear, since we're only here to talk. I gave you my word," Tyr stated. "What have you to say?"
"I only ask for what, in all rights, should already be mine. I ask for a division of lands. My share of Midgard."
"We own no lands," Tyr said. "We protect them and the mortals who dwell there."
Heid smirked. "Semantics. A lawyer's weapon of choice."
"I'm merely stating the obvious. The Aesir and Vanir still perform our duties."
"Then you're foolish. Why bother with something of no value to you?"
"It's our purpose. From the time Woden and his brothers created the first man and woman, it's what we were bound to do."
"Why? Mortals add nothing to your existence. They show no respect, no fear. They bow to whatever god suits them at the moment. And you still care? Spare yourself the bother. Be rid of them. Cut them loose."
"So that you can torment them?"
She barked a mirthless laugh. "It's no better than they deserve. They'll at least bring me joy. Do they you?"
"They're our responsibility, not our pleasure."
She threw her hands in the air. "Listen to you! You're a god! You could force mortals to bow before you, to serve you. Instead, you serve them?"
Tyr raised a brow. "This argument will get us nowhere. Do you have something else to discuss?"
"How much are these mortals worth to you? How much will you suffer for them?"
"We've already suffered a great deal. You know that."
"But are you willing to risk war for them? There's no need. Give me Sverige, and I'll leave all other mortals alone."
"It's only fair!" Heid raised an arm to shake her fist at him. "You owe me that! I'd still be your friend, living among you, if the Aesir hadn't tried to kill me three times!"
"You turned to black magic." Tyr leveled a searching look at her. “Freya shared her talents with you, and you perverted them.”
Heid threw back her head and laughed. “Because I wanted gold? Or because I was only a minor goddess, daughter of the giant Hrimnir, so I was never good enough for you?”
Tyr blinked. “I judge goodness by a person’s actions, not their birthright.”
“But no one’s as good as you are, are they, sky god? Some of us have loftier ambitions than to serve.”
"You could have gone to the Vanir, told them what happened, and they would have taken you in. But you knew they wouldn't tolerate you and your greed either. It was your choice to scheme and plot to get what you wanted. The darkness was already within you."
Heid gave a deep sigh. "Who have you been talking to, old god? You've finally figured me out. Then you must know there can be no friendship between us. Only a truce. We can divide shares of mortals, or wage war. What's it to be?"
Heid's laugh grew harsher. "So be it." She pulled herself to her full height, raised her arms above her head, and burst into flames. The wooden floor began to smolder. A blaze crackled to the wooden walls—old, dry timbers—and they caught fire. "Flames don't harm me. I'll rejuvenate. You and Donar will survive, but your friends won't." She threw fire at the doors, trapping the warriors inside.
Diana stepped forward, moved her hands in a circle, and caught the flames in a whirlwind. The winds swirled smaller and smaller, until they were extinguished.
Heid screamed in frustration. The warriors tensed as the high-pitched cry spiraled out of control. "Show yourself, coward! Let me see your face!"
Diana strode toward the center of the room, dropping her obscuring spell on the way. Heid glared at her, lips pulled back in a feral snarl.
"You!" Heid spat. "What gives you any right to come to our lands, to interfere in our business?"
"The runes called me. Gudrun sent for me."
"Gudrun's dead! Go back where you belong."
Heid shot out an arm, and Diana matched her. But instead of throwing energy at Diana, Heid hurled it at Tyr. Tyr threw up his shield, and the white, hot force bounced sideways toward Donar. Donar hit it with his hammer, and it sped toward Jorunda.
"No!" Diana tossed a protective bubble in front of the warrior. The energy bounced off that and raced toward Woden's statue. The statue proved indestructible, and the energy pinged toward Jon. While Diana raised a hand to capture it, Heid disappeared. Diana swore as she held the ball of white sparks in her hand. She waited for them to die, before brushing them away. They skittered to the floor and went out.
Donar looked at Diana in surprise. "You cuss more than my mother-in-law."
"Shut it!" She chewed on her bottom lip in frustration. "Damn it, damn it, damn it! She got away!"
Jon lowered his head, upset. "It's our fault. If we hadn't been here, you could have fought her instead of trying to protect us."
"Rubbish." Diana struggled to control her temper. It had gotten her into trouble more than once. "You were told to come. You had no choice." Her words had an edge to them, but she was regaining some composure.
Tyr sighed, and Diana realized that he was every bit as frustrated as she was. He handled it much better, though. He rolled his shoulders, trying to ease some of the tension out of them.
She turned to him. "You've done that before. How did your shield protect you? It's metal. Can no magic pass it?"
"The dwarves in Asgaard made it for me. They have magic of their own, like Olaf's."
"Strong magic." That made Diana think. "Could Olaf make such shields for the warriors?"
"He'd be working with mortal metals," Tyr said, "but his shields would be better than any they have now."
"Do we dare ask him?" Diana asked.
"It's too much to ask as a favor." Tyr frowned, thinking. "But if we reward him properly…."
"What would you offer him?" Donar asked.
"He could come to Asgaard to live with the dwarves who serve us."
Jorunda nodded, clearly pleased. Even after death, he wouldn't lose his friend.
"Come," Tyr said. "We'll return to the village and seek out Olaf. There's no reason to remain here."
Donar walked with them to the path before returning to Asgaard. Tyr went to the priests to explain about the dark, burn marks in the temple. When he returned to Diana and the warriors, he shook his head. "Who can guess the ways of mortals? The priests feel honored that the gods fought within their temple and there are burn marks to prove it."
The charred boards would be treated as sacred, Diana thought. The priests had no idea how lucky they were. If she hadn't put out the flames, their temple would be nothing but ashes. But if burned wood strengthened their faith, why not? She had more faith in Olaf's shields. And if the dwarf agreed to help them, she meant to find some way to show her appreciation.
No one talked on the way back to the village. Diana replayed the battle with Heid over and over again in her mind. The others were probably doing the same. When they reached the gates and went inside, Tyr told Jorunda, "We'll meet with you later. For now, Diana and I will go to Olaf."
They took the path through the longhouses that led to the dwarf's shop. Two of his children hoed the small vegetable garden in front of it. The aroma of fresh bread wafted from the house. In the distance, Diana saw another of his children weeding the community garden for the village. They found Olaf and Brandr working over a hot fire, pounding metal while it was soft enough to form.
Olaf looked up when he saw them and motioned for Brandr to go on without him. He came to see Tyr and Diana. With a smile, Olaf said, "My friends, how may I serve you?"
Freya and Inga hurried from the hut to greet them, flour still clinging to Inga’s hands.
“Heid?” Freya asked.
“Escaped. I’ll tell you everything later.” Tyr turned to Olaf. "We have a great favor to ask of you." He explained about their battle with Heid and how his shield had deflected Heid's magic. "Such shields could protect our warriors, too, but they must be made with dwarf magic. It's a lot to ask, and I have a reward for such faithful service." Tyr told Olaf about the dwarves in Asgaard and the weapons shop there. "You could take your place with them."
Olaf glanced toward his longhouse. "I thank you, god, but I'm happy here. I have my wife and children. I have friends. I love this village. I have no desire to leave. I'll make your shields, though. I'll do anything I can to protect my loved ones and my home.”
“There must be some way to repay your kindness,” Tyr insisted.
“I can't fight like the warriors do, and I'm too short to stand guard, but I can work metal. And if that's of some help, it will give me great pride."
"I'm humbled," Tyr said. "And I thank you."
They discussed the details of what was needed, and Tyr promised to deliver whatever metals Olaf felt necessary.
“In my land, before I had to flee, I worked with metals forged deep within the earth,” Olaf told him. “Those, combined with dwarf smithing, would deflect witches’ magic.”
“Then I’ll have Hermod fetch them,” Tyr assured him.
That settled, Tyr motioned for the others to follow him. “We’ll join Jorunda and the others in Griswold's longhouse. Heid left our meeting, angry. We’d better be prepared.”