Freya's blue eyes sparkled. She held the pouch Diana had given her with reverence, but her lips quirked at the corners. "Now that that other business is taken care of, perhaps we'll get an answer."
"What other business?" Jorunda asked.
"The goddess and Tyr are now one," Freya said, pride in her voice.
Noir raised his head to look at Diana.
"Do you mind?" Diana glared. She liked these people, enjoyed their company, but had no intentions of sharing everything with them, and she certainly didn't have to explain herself to her familiar.
Freya laughed. "I'm just jealous. And it's fun to watch you squirm."
"Do the reading," Diana told her.
"Oh, all right." Freya sobered her mood and concentrated. "Can we win this battle?" She tossed the runes onto the square, wooden table by her bed.
They were alone in the room the goddesses shared. Dim light filtered through the window—an overcast day. Gray clouds brooded low to the earth. The air smelled of the promise of rain. The music of the bones sang in Diana's ears, but she said nothing. Freya had thrown the bones. Freya should interpret them.
Freya studied the way they fell. She pointed to three bones touching in a loose triangle. "Those are the three riders from afar who'll bring us news that can shift the battle."
Diana nodded and waited.
Freya frowned over a tangled bundle of bones. "All of our destinies are intermingled." She moved on to a line of bones tilted up and down together. "If we protect the village, we save the bridge." She stopped at the lone bone lying in an empty space. "Someone will be betrayed and killed, but look." She poked a finger at a cluster of bones that were different from last time. "We've already received the gift that will shift the battle."
"Diana," Tyr said. "She's our gift."
Diana shook her head. "Something else."
Freya's voice fizzed with excitement as she looked at the last pattern on the table. "Heid's army is crumbling. She pushed too soon, and she lost her advantage. If she doesn't strike, we'll keep growing stronger. We'll win."
"If," Tyr said. "Heid knows that. She won't waste much more time."
"In a way, it's a relief," Inga said. "The sooner, the better."
Jorunda nodded agreement. "We're as ready as we're going to get."
Freya gathered her bones and returned them to her pouch. They were getting ready to leave, to go for breakfast, when Inga looked up and saw Griswold standing in the doorway.
Noir and Shadow arched their backs and hissed in unison.
Griswold ignored them. "I came for Jorunda. I have need of him. I didn't realize you were busy." Temper flared in his gray eyes. "I take it I'm not to be privy to your readings?"
"This is Diana's gift to me." Freya's tone was as cold as Griswold's was hot. "We were told you wanted nothing to do with her or her magic."
Griswold looked at the cord around Inga's neck. "And you, girl? Are you a reader?" When she said nothing, Griswold walked toward her and yanked the pouch from beneath her dress. "No one saw fit to tell me that the village has a new seer?"
"I'm only training," Inga whimpered.
"Then practice for me now. Throw your bones."
Inga looked at Diana. At her slight nod, she reached inside the pouch and cupped the rowan runes in her hands. "What would you have me ask?"
"What should the village do to survive this war?"
Inga tossed the bones. They fell in a circle with others scattered inside. She frowned at Diana. "Does that mean what I think it does?"
Griswold growled, "Spit it out, girl. What do they say?"
"They warn us to stay inside the fence. If we leave…" She pointed to several runes lying at random outside the circle, "…we'll get caught in the crossfire and die."
"Fair warning." Griswold gave an angry sniff. He crushed Inga's arm in a firm grip. "Come with me. I have more to ask."
The cats sprang between Griswold and the open door.
"My chieftain, that's no way to treat the village seer." Jorunda kept his voice even, but it was laced with anger.
"Seers are protected by the gods, something to bear in mind," Tyr added.
Griswold freed Inga and took a step away. “Will you come with me, girl?”
“No.” Diana didn’t soften her refusal. “We need her now. She’ll perform readings for you after we’ve defeated Heid.”
“You sound awfully sure of yourself.” Griswold’s implied meaning was clear. He doubted their chances for victory.
“I’m sure we need Inga’s talents to achieve success.” Diana didn’t tell him that if Inga didn’t survive, Jorunda wouldn’t either. And if Jorunda fell—according to Gudrun—so would the village.
Griswold turned on his heel and motioned for Jorunda to precede him from the room. The cats silently parted for the warrior.
A tremble shook Inga's body. Freya put an arm around her waist to comfort her. "Come, child. Let's get something to eat. The runes held more promise than before. We should be happy."
The wooden table was empty when they arrived in the great hall. The warriors had come and gone.
Freya sighed when she reached for the porridge Hlif offered. Diana pulled a chunk of bread from a round loaf.
"I'll have men put out barrels to catch rain." Tyr glanced at the dark skies. "If Heid's attack is soon, we might not have time to dig a well."
Griswold's boots sounded on the floor as he approached them. He frowned as Diana fed Noir a scrap of food, but didn't comment on it. "If a well can help, let's dig one." He sat at the head of the table, glowering at them. "I was under the impression we had more time to prepare. That's changed. I want everything readied."
Tyr's brows rose in surprise. "A wise decision. How can we help?"
"If it's true Diana can feel water beneath the ground, let's start there." He tapped his foot impatiently as they finished their breakfast. The instant they pushed themselves out of their chairs, he said, "Come. My men are ready."
He led them into the courtyard where Jon waited with a half dozen, young warriors. They held pickaxes and shovels. They all turned to Diana.
She ignored their curious glances and began to pace back and forth across the ground. Breezes began to gust. The highest tree branches whipped back and forth. She stopped once near the stables, knelt and placed her hand on the earth. Then she shook her head. "There's water, but it runs under a deep ledge of rock. You won't reach it." She did that several times. Each time the stream ran too deep. Finally, she neared the community gardens. This time, she placed both hands on the dirt and listened earnestly. She called forth earth energy and it flowed into her quickly. Then she called forth water energy, and it, too, was quick. "Here," she said. "The water runs close enough to the surface, and the rock is thin."
The warriors set to work. It began to drizzle.
"Thank Woden," Jon said. "The skies are cooling us off."
People gathered to watch. Griswold's dogs ran back and forth between him and the longhouse. The men dug a good while before they hit rock. They used their axes to break through the thin layer—and found water.
"Make the hole wider." Griswold leaned forward to watch their work just as someone stepped from the longhouse and called for him. When he turned to see who was there, he tripped over a sleeping dog. A young warrior was mid-swing with his pickax when, stumbling, Griswold bumped him. The warrior, in turn, lost his balance. His pickax dug deep into Jon, who was working beside him. Blood gushed from Jon’s shoulder, the wound deep.
“Who called?” Griswold demanded. When no one answered, the chieftain turned to Diana and snapped, "Do something before Jon bleeds to death!"
She put a hand over the deep wound and began to chant. The blood slowed. More words followed. The flow stopped. "I'm not a true healer. It won't last. I work with nature, not against it," she warned. "You need to sew it. Stuff it with padding."
"Infection?" Tyr asked.
"That, I can make a potion for." Diana motioned for Freya to follow her to the house. Jon's face turned pale as ash, and his body began to quiver. He'd lost a lot of blood. His legs would give out soon. "He's going to fall. Carry him into the house with us."
Tyr caught him before he hit the dirt. He hurried after the women. Griswold trailed behind them. "Will he be all right?" the chieftain asked. "The battle is almost on us. He and Jorunda are our best warriors."
"He'll live, but I'm no miracle worker. He'll need time to heal."
Hlif met them at the kitchen door, took one look at Jon, and went to fetch boiling water. Diana searched through plants and powders to add for the potion. Freya went to find clean fabric. The liquid was still too hot when Diana dabbed it into the wound. Jon flinched, gritting his teeth.
The warrior braced himself. "You'll have to burn the skin to stop the bleeding, won't you?"
"I can do better than that." Diana jammed a finger inside the bloody hole and let hot energy flow into the ragged flesh. Perspiration beaded Jon's forehead, and he clenched his jaw against the pain. When Diana pulled away, the heat seared the wound without branding it.
"This won't hurt quite as much," Freya told him. She sterilized a bone needle and threaded it. She began to stitch the skin shut. When that was finished, they bandaged it.
Jon licked his lips, fighting to stay conscious. "Will I be able to use my arm soon?"
Tyr shook his head. "No, but you can be there for your men."
Worry creased Jon's forehead. "It's my left side. I can still hold a sword."
"You'll be too weak," Diana told him.
"Then someone should use his shield," Griswold said. "It should protect someone from magic."
"Who do you choose?" Tyr asked.
Jon answered. "Rannveig. He shows much promise. He'll use it well."
Griswold pressed his lips together, irritated. "Why not Sigrid?"
"He'll be protected by Jorunda's shield. They fight side by side."
Tyr nodded. "Rannveig then." He looked around, frowning. "Where is Jorunda? I haven't seen him since this morning."
"I sent him out hunting with his men," Griswold said. "They won't return until they've killed enough meat to stock our larders."
"What?" Tyr ran his hand through his white, blond hair, frustrated. "Your village will soon be attacked and you send your best warriors on a hunt?"
"Hlif told me our venison is almost gone. So is our boar. What would you have us eat if Heid circles the village to starve us out?"
Diana had heard enough. "This isn't going to be a siege. It's going to be a bloody mess. You don't need to stock provisions."
Griswold snarled. "Siege or not, Hlif said we're almost out of meat. You've enjoyed your suppers here, haven't you? Animals don't just walk through our gates for us to slaughter them."
In one smooth motion, Freya drew her short sword from the belt around her shoulder. "You stupid, little man!"
Griswold kicked at Shadow. The cat jumped out of his way and crouched, ready to spring. Freya gasped and lunged for the chieftain. Tyr grabbed her to hold her back.
"I'm tired of your always questioning my orders!" Griswold yelled. "This is my village. I'm the chieftain."
"Not if you're in the underworld with Hel," Freya warned.
Diana bent to lift Shadow and pet him. The cat squirmed, still ready to attack, but she held him close.
Tyr pointed a finger at the chieftain, ready to speak his mind, when a cry went up from the gate. More shouts followed. A tall, stocky warrior hurried into the room. "It's the hunters! They're back. There’s trouble."
Everyone turned to rush to the gates, but Diana started back toward Griswold’s longhouse. She ran to join the others just as the guards were pushing the heavy, wooden doors open. Temper pooled in her stomach when she saw a dead body tossed over the back of a horse. Inga raced past her, pushing people out of her way. When she saw Jorunda, battered but alive, she fell in a heap on the ground. He jumped from his horse and ran to her. The others circled them.
"Give your report, Rannveig," Griswold barked.
The young man who rode beside Jorunda was as tall and as broad as his mentor. He'd pulled his dark-blond hair, the color of wheat, back in a ponytail. "Two witches attacked us on Skull Hill. Finally, Jorunda tilted his shield enough that one's energy bounced off it to hit the other. We finished her while she was stunned, but the second witch killed Finna before we could defeat her."
"Another warrior down," Griswold grumbled. "And hardly any meat."
"Is that all you can say?" Diana looked at the dead, young man on the horse. He looked to be only eighteen or nineteen.
"You're lucky it wasn't Jorunda!" Freya snapped. "Look at him. He took the brunt of the witch's energy to save his men."
A bruise puffed Jorunda's forehead. It would turn dark by evening. Bruises ran up and down both of his arms.
Rannveig said, "The witch wouldn't stop attacking. She threw energy at him over and over again."
Holding a shield against a witch's hits jarred a man with each blow, Diana knew. Jorunda's right trouser was torn and his skin bloodied where he'd fallen to his knee during the fight.
"He's going to be too sore to move tomorrow," Diana said. She pointed to Finna's body. "And that man died for no good reason!"
Freya sensed Diana's distress and placed a hand on her arm. "But he died bravely. Watch and see." She mumbled a name, and within minutes, a horse galloped overhead. Diana looked up to see a fair maiden, dressed in war gear with a glinting spear in her hand, swoop from the sky. A cape waved behind her. Ravens flew at her side. Her face was lovely, her expression fierce. She pulled her horse next to Finna's body, lifted it onto her own mount, and with a nod to Freya, leapt upward and galloped away.
Diana stared. "Who was that?"
"One of my Valkyries, she's taking Finna to Folkvang, my home. He died in battle, one of the worthy slain."
No one said anything or made a movement for an instant.
Griswold's face contorted. "It's not fair! If a man's lucky enough to live through many battles, such as I have, he's punished for reaching old age. I've earned Valhalla. I've led my warriors and ruled my village."
Freya's lips turned down in disgust. "I've watched you in battle. You advise your men from the rear flanks."
Griswold glared at her. His hands balled into fists. He lashed out at his men, looking at the horse at the end of the procession. One deer was draped across its back. "Is that all you got?"
Rannveir answered. "Skull Hill isn't that far from here."
Griswold's lips pulled back in a snarl, but Tyr interrupted before the chieftain could work himself into a worse temper. "Let's get your men inside the gates."
"Go!" Griswold roared at them. "Get out of my sight!"
Rannveir leaned forward, and his horse lunged toward the village. The warriors who accompanied him followed. Jorunda lifted Inga onto his horse and trotted at a more sedate pace. Tyr and Freya went to collect Finna's mount.
While everyone moved forward, Diana slipped along the fence to see Peta. The dragon lifted his head and shifted to man.
"I meant to go with them," he said right away, "but Jorunda warned me to stay. He was worried the village might need my help while they were gone."
"No one knew they left. We would have argued against it."
"Griswold's idea. The chieftain told them to slip off while you were busy with the well."
"Why? Did Jorunda say?"
"The chieftain's tired of your interference."
Diana chewed her bottom lip.
Peta grinned. "What troubles you?"
"Jon was hurt while digging the well today. Finna was killed on the hunting trip. Jorunda's so banged up, his reflexes are slow."
"You think someone's weeding out Griswold's army."
"It would weaken the village."
"Any ideas who?"
Diana let out a long breath. "Someone called to Griswold while we were digging. He turned and lost his balance. Hlif told Griswold that the longhouse was nearly out of meat, but I just checked. There's more than enough."
"The head of Griswold's house servants."
Peta stilled a minute, thinking. "But does she fetch the meat herself or send someone? She could have been misinformed."
Diana shrugged. She had no idea.
Peta grew thoughtful. "It's easy enough to make Griswold look foolish. An upheaval at the wrong time could doom every man, woman, and child who live inside these gates."
"That's my worry."
Peta leered. "Hlif is the right gender. Griswold seems easily swayed by a skirt."
"Not hers. Hlif's gray with age. Griswold wouldn’t have her. He prefers his women young."
"Like his wife. Only he soon tired of her. Wise beyond her years, from what I've heard. The people liked and respected her. Perhaps her death was convenient for someone else's plans."
“Another woman’s.” On impulse, Diana hugged him. "Peta, you're brilliant!"
"Much intrigue can happen between two sheets. Mistresses make wonderful spies, and Norse women can be ruthless."
Diana shivered. She thought of Freya with her short sword. "I'll start asking around. Someone must know who Griswold's sleeping with."
"This is a job better done by your obscuring spell. When you blend, no one knows you're near. That could be an advantage now."
Diana narrowed her eyes. "Dragons are known for their magic and wisdom. You're happy on your island, aren't you?"
"I'm of no danger to you or yours, if that's what you're asking. Mortals don't taste that good." Peta chuckled as he shifted and returned to his nest, and Diana hurried to pass through the still open gates. Her steps had a new bounce to them. She didn’t know who the traitor was yet, but she had an idea on how to find out