Griswold paced the great hall, hands clenched behind his back. When Tyr and Diana entered, he snarled, "So, you let Heid get away again? I thought you had strong magic, witch."
The man was an ass. Diana threw up her hand and her magic slammed him against the far wall. When he gasped, she lifted him off the floor and glued him to the thick logs. "If you hadn't interfered, the outcome might be different."
The chieftain yelled, "Put me down! You're no goddess of ours. I don't have to kneel to you."
"And I don't have to lift a finger to help you! I'm not as user friendly as your Norse gods, so watch your step." She clicked her fingers, and Griswold slid to the ground.
He pointed and screamed, "Attack her! Drive her away from here!"
His warriors stared.
"Did you hear me? I gave you an order."
Jorunda dropped to a knee. "We obey, lord, but gods come before men. We cannot disrespect a goddess."
"She's not one of ours," Griswold snarled. "It's of no matter."
"Our gods befriend her," Jon said. "We cannot defy them."
"Get out of my sight!" Griswold paced toward them, his hand on the hilt of his knife. "Leave us."
The warriors hurried out of the room.
"Hlif!" Griswold bellowed.
The old maidservant hunched as she approached. "My lord?"
"Show our visitors out."
Hlif seemed to shrink. She glanced at the gods nervously. "I'm merely a servant…."
Griswold drew back his hand to slap her. From the servant's stance, Diana guessed it had happened many times, but Tyr intervened. He stepped between her and the chieftain. "Ignore my wishes again at your peril, Griswold. I've shown patience for the sake of your people, but my wrath is nothing you wish to endure. You've been warned."
For the first time, Griswold's eyes widened in fear. His complexion paled. "You wouldn't forsake me, sky god?"
"I'd do more. I'd punish or banish you. Do you understand me?"
"It won’t happen again." Griswold licked his lips and slid his eyes to Freya. Her expression clearly did nothing to ease his mind. "How may I be of service to you?" he asked.
Freya snorted. "By keeping your damned mouth shut."
Griswold swallowed nervously. "Jorunda reported that you meant to ask the dwarf to help us. If he agrees, I'd be happy to trade my shield for one of his making."
Tyr frowned. "Surely, you don't intend to battle Heid when she comes."
"Me?" Griswold looked surprised. "My days in battle are behind me, but a shield for defense would still be welcome."
"Your warriors get them first." Freya didn't mince words. "They'll be on the front lines."
Freya shook her head. "If and when Olaf finishes shields for the warriors, he'll make one for you."
"I'm the chieftain!" Griswold argued.
"An old chieftain," Freya pointed out. "You'll serve your village best by staying out of our way."
Griswold opened his lips to speak, then thought better of it. "As you say."
Freya gave a grim smile. "In that case, I'm ready to return home. I've endured your company enough for one day." She called for Inga. "Let's go, girl. It's time to leave."
Tyr walked to the door with them, but when he reached Diana, he surprised her by bending to press his lips to hers. Gentle pressure sizzled to passion, and he bruised her mouth with his hunger. When he stepped away from her, she stared up at him, breathless. He smiled. "“Thanks for saving us….again. Just remember. I owe you my gratitude, and I’m willing to repay it in any way you see fit."
She felt a blush climb her neck and cheeks. When she looked up, Griswold's warriors stood in the courtyard, grinning. Griswold, himself, clenched his fists. Not a happy man.
“So this was about gratitude?” she asked.
“No, mostly, I’ve been wanting to kiss you for a long time.”
"You're pushing your luck," she told Tyr, but her voice had no sting. It hardly had volume. Great Zeus, what a kiss! If toes could curl, she’d be a cripple.
He grinned. "Did it work?"
"I'm ignoring you." She turned to join Freya and Inga.
Freya did her best not to smirk. Inga stumbled, she was so surprised. Diana walked with as much dignity as she could muster until they reached the treeline, out of sight, then she stamped the dirt and seethed, "How dare he? How could he do that to me in front of everyone?"
"It was to let Griswold know how important you are to him," Freya said. "And to us."
"I don't care what Griswold thinks!"
"No one does, but we’re stuck with him. Tyr’s letting him know he’d better be nice to you." Inga's blind reverence to her chieftain was completely gone. Diana remembered how meekly she'd accepted Griswold's punishment for his sin when they'd first met. It wouldn't happen now. But was Tyr's kiss just a warning to the chieftain?
Diana slowed, considering that. No, the passion behind it was real. What surprised her more was the passion it ignited in her. "Griswold will never change. He's too selfish."
"A good dose of fear won't hurt him. It might put things in perspective. Only an idiot would ignore a warning from Tyr. That god's magnificent when he's angry." Freya sighed. "I've never had him—almost everyone else, but Tyr's not so easy to seduce. How much have I missed?"
"You're horrible!" But Diana couldn't help it. She laughed, as Freya had intended her to. The tension that hung in the air disappeared. It was a relief to shed thoughts of Griswold. "I don't have much to go on. I am the maiden goddess, you know, but that kiss could singe a girl's hair."
"I knew it. Bet he's a demon in bed."
"I'm not listening to you!" Diana waved her remarks away. But thoughts of Tyr, holding her close, touching her, kissing her, made her breath quicken and her pulse throb. She stopped to pick a wild flower and breathed in its sweet scent. Was Tyr still thinking about her? They hadn't walked far, and she squinted between the trees, trying to see the village. Too many branches.
Freya looked at Inga. "What about you and Jorunda? You looked properly rumpled after you brought him back to health."
"Freya!" Inga blushed. "When this battle's over, we're to wed."
"It's about time. You're almost an old maid." Freya laughed at Inga's horrified gasp. She was gearing up for more fun when Diana sniffed the air.
"I smell fire."
Freya stopped to sniff too. She pointed. "It's coming from that direction."
"Audun's farm!" Inga started to run, glancing up at black smoke billowing in the distance. "We'll never reach it in time. It'll burn to the ground, just like Snorri's."
"But we might be able to save someone." Diana raced after her in a direction they rarely took. Pine needles slid under her feet. Branches slapped at their faces. They skidded to a stop when they saw a young child running on the path toward them.
"Kolli?" Inga called to the boy.
"Run!" His footsteps never slowed. He dodged past them toward the village. A tear gaped open on the arm of his tunic, exposing a deep gash and dried blood. Dirt streaked his face, and he fought back tears. "Giant hounds…."
"Your family?" Inga cried.
"Gone. Everything's gone." His voice caught for a moment, but his feet never slowed.
The women turned and ran after him. Diana was amazed a five or six-year-old could be so fast.
Diana cussed under her breath. How did the hellhounds scale the cliffs without falling? Why didn't the ground toss them back to Giantland? And why did no bird see them? She should have gathered more wolfbane. Hounds could cross the line of salt that protected each farm's property, but she should have been warned. She should have known they were coming.
When they reached the clearing, the boy kept glancing over his shoulder, as though expecting a pack of drooling hounds to pounce on him. The women stayed close behind. If anything broke out of the trees, they'd turn and deal with it.
A call went up from the guards on the catwalk. The gates opened, and Tyr and Jorunda raced toward the boy.
Diana looked overhead. Not one bird in sight. The runes in her pouch pulsed a warning. The energy buzzed through her jeans pocket. "Stop!" she yelled. "No one move! Keep your distance."
When the boy hurtled toward them, Tyr stepped in front of Jorunda and put up a warning hand. "Stay, little one."
The boy fell to his knees in the grass. Sobs shook his small frame. "Please. Help me."
"You're safe with us," Tyr said. "There's nothing to fear."
"My parents… My brothers and sisters…." Tears fell faster, streaking his dirty cheeks.
Jorunda moved to reach for him, but Tyr shook his head. "Not yet."
Diana walked toward them, Freya and Inga close by. She knelt beside the boy. "You have my sympathy, but I have to know what happened."
Griswold strode from the gates with Jon at his side. He looked at the boy and glared at Diana. "The boy's hurt. He's afraid. Have you no heart?"
Diana bit back her retort. Like Griswold had any compassion! Instead, she
repeated, "You said that hounds attacked your farm. Did you hear anything before they came? Did the cliffs crumble or the ground shake?"
"No." The single word was a terrified squeak.
"Your spell didn't work! Audun had no warning!" Griswold glanced toward the trees that surrounded the meadow. "The hounds could be running to the next farm to kill the family there. All of your salt and magic didn't save them."
"Come to me, child." Diana held out her arms for him.
The boy cringed away. "Don't let her take me!"
"Let him be!" Griswold yelled.
"She's a friend," Tyr said, kneeling beside Kolli.
"She's a witch. My mom said so."
"But a good witch." Tyr brushed golden hair back from the boy's face. "She helps us."
New tears fell. "She didn't help us."
Griswold grunted impatience. He scooped the boy into his arms and turned to Jorunda. "Here. Take him to the village. Let him wash and eat."
The instant the child was cradled in Jorunda's grasp, he shifted. His coils bound Jorunda's arms. His head flipped back, ready to strike. His fangs dripped poison.
Diana grabbed the viper's neck, just behind his head. With her other hand, she gripped the body, stretching it tight. "My knife."
Tyr pulled the hunting blade from her belt and, in one slice, hacked through scales and bone. The snake's fangs opened and closed. The tail writhed. And dying, the snake shifted. Diana gripped the boy's body in one fist, his head in the other. She flung the carcass away from her. The boy stared at her, and his lips moved. "She said you couldn't kill me when I shifted." He sounded surprised, betrayed. Then his eyes glazed, unblinking.
"Shit!" Diana shivered. Quickly, she dropped the head next to the small corpse.
Griswold stared, his mouth open.
Inga ran to Jorunda. The warrior's pallor worried her. "Diana?"
Diana touched her hand to Jorunda's arm and pumped a steady flow of low energy into him. Soon, his color returned.
"Did it harm you?" Diana asked. She'd seen serpents whose skin poisoned people with only a touch.
"No, I'm fine." The warrior grimaced, embarrassed. "I saw the wolf shape-shift, so I know it can happen, but to see a small boy become a snake…and then to kill him…."
Freya pointed to the boy on the grass. By now, the giants and witches, and even the wolves had gathered to see what had happened. "Does anyone recognize him? He no longer looks like Kolli. That was a disguise too. Does he have a family? Does he live in the meadow?"
No one spoke.
Finally Jon said, "A baby went missing years ago, carried off by wolves."
"Heid's hellhounds." Freya's expression darkened like a gathering storm. "How low can the witch sink to send a child to die for her?"
"He believed her," Diana said. "She told him he couldn't die when he used his magic."
"What did he become?" Tyr asked. 'What kind of reptile?"
"Its poison acts fast?"
"Too fast to administer an antidote."
Tyr turned, eyes narrowed, to study her. "How did you know the boy wasn't Kolli?"
"I didn't, but my magic never fails. Hounds can climb the cliffs, but we'd have heard them. And my birds would have sounded a warning. The runes pulsed. Something wasn't right."
Jon exhaled a deep breath. He looked almost as rattled as Jorunda. "Thank you, goddess, for all of your spells and chants."
She waved his words away. She sank onto the grass and closed her eyes. The boy's death bothered her as much as it had the warriors. It was a cruel, senseless waste. She took a deep breath and looked at Freya. "You're a seidr. You can shift. Are there any ways to tell if a person's in his true form?"
"Not that I know of," Freya admitted. "But if there is, Peta will know. The seidr learned their magic from the dragons."
"Dragons?" Griswold stared. "You know a dragon?"
"I'm a goddess," Freya said. "I know more than you can imagine."
Diana hurried to her feet, suddenly remembering. "The farm! The fire!"
Tyr glanced at the sky. Smoke hovered over the treetops in the distance. The sun was getting low. "Jorunda and I will walk with you to Audun's. It's getting late. We'll stay with you and return to the village in the morning."
"Who'll protect us during the night?" Griswold asked, alarmed.
"You show no faith in gods or magic. Rely on your warriors." At Jon's worried frown, Tyr added, "I'll let Donar know I'm not with you. He'll send someone."
Griswold pointed to the giants and witches. "You there! Stay alert. You owe us your allegiance."
Ormr grunted and turned back to his camp. His friends followed, the wolves nipping at their heels.
As Tyr crossed the meadow, he laced his arm around Diana's waist. "You saved us once again. No wonder Gudrun had such faith in you."
The seer's name saddened her. Diana leaned closer. "The shifter made me think. Even with a warning, we wouldn't make it to most farms in time to save them. You need to bring the families into the village. It will only be for a few weeks, and it will probably save their lives."
Tyr nodded. "Done. I'll go with the warriors to fetch them tomorrow."
Their footsteps dragged as they walked to Audun's farm. Whatever happened there was finished. Diana dreaded what they'd find. They went a fair distance before they saw the remains of a huge bonfire in a leafy glen. Large, dead branches had been piled higher than her head and set on fire.
Tyr glanced skyward at the smoke that lingered, caught in the highest boughs. "We might get lucky. All the boy needed was a plausible story so that we'd trust him, accept him."
"Audun and his family might be safe." Inga pulled at Jorunda to walk faster. "If the boy set this fire, the farm could be untouched."
They all hurried now. Hope lent their feet speed. When they reached Audun's longhouse, moonlight beamed on a turf roof and wooden walls. A cat sat on the front stoop and narrowed its eyes at them.
"Blessings, friend," Freya called to it.
The cat curled back into a ball, standing guard.
"Thank Woden." Tyr hugged Diana to him. His relief flowed into her.
A dog came around the side of the house. Before it could bark, Freya said, "No need to wake them. Let's go."
They turned and started back to their marble home. Tyr didn't release his hold on her, and Diana smiled, nuzzled to his side. She enjoyed Tyr's closeness. Even though she relied on herself and needed no protection, there was something to be said for comfort. And friendship. She rarely bothered with those, thought they'd prove a hindrance. Maybe she was missing something.