Diana didn't expect to be here long. One more skirmish with Heid, a few more hellhounds, then she could go home. No reason to call Noir. He wouldn’t miss her for a few days. In the meantime, though, she needed a glade, a running brook, a copse—some place to call home.
That's when she noticed the wild area to the west of the village of mortals, and the smoke rising from a lone fire huddled in the trees. She sighed. She missed her apartment on Central Park and its amenities, but she'd find nothing like that here. Amenities might make the Vikings go soft.
She reached into her jeans pocket to jostle her pouch of bones. This wasn't their usual m.o. When the runes sent her—she went, she saw, she kicked ass. End of story. Not this time. They'd transported her to the Norse idea of the good old days. But if that were true, did a mortal live outside the protective walls of the settlement? There was only one pillar of smoke. From a chimney? A hut? If a hut, who'd dare such a risk—Heid disguised as a little, old lady who lived in a gingerbread house? Was she waiting to stuff Donar into her hot oven? That thought was appealing. Not realistic, but fun to entertain. Only one way to find out. Diana shrank herself back to mortal size and started toward the woods.
She walked longer than she expected. Hot and sweaty, even though it was barely warm outside, she stopped at the edge of a tree line to study a young woman who sat on a stone hut's front stoop. Tall and willowy, the girl looked too fragile to survive this harsh landscape. A ruse? An enemy masked as a mortal?
The girl raised her head and called, "I can sense you, even though I can't see you. Make yourself known."
Blast and damn! What was it with these Vikings? Did any of them welcome someone with a smile, with hospitality? They needed a few lessons from the Greeks. Diana stepped into the small clearing. Someone had chopped trees in a wide circle, so that the hut had a decent-sized yard. A garden grew at one side of it. A chicken coop sat on the other. Roosters and hens ran as they pleased. Diana saw a fence with a goat behind the coop. Not bad. Milk and eggs. Meat, if the girl killed the chickens.
The young woman bowed her head. "To what do I owe this honor?"
Diana blinked, surprised. This girl discerned her true being. Was she more than mortal? A nymph or sprite? Did she have powers Diana couldn't sense? "How do you know me?" Diana demanded.
"I've been waiting for you. When I was shunned from our village, the old seer told me it was my destiny to live in this hut, that I'd become your servant and learn from you."
A seer? Diana's brother, Apollo, was famous for his prophesies. At one time, pilgrims visited his shrine from every known part of the world. She wondered how long ago the village seer had known of her coming and what else the old woman might know.
The girl dipped her head, avoiding Diana's gaze. Her wavy, dark hair fell forward, hiding her face. Was she concealing something? Diana's hand went to one of her hunting knives. Her fingers tightened on its hilt. "How long have you waited?"
"Five and a half years."
"Impossible!" Diana remembered ancient times too well. A lone woman would not last in the wilderness. Stray animals, stray men…she'd find no safety. Diana hated to think what would happen to most young females driven into this forest. Raped. Eaten. That this girl survived at all was a miracle. Or a trick.
The girl straightened, still looking away, and pulled back her hair, revealing a blue tattoo that marred her right cheek. Its swirls of ink formed three spirals, writhing across her smooth skin. Diana knew the symbolism—the phases of womanhood—maiden life, married wife and mother, and old crone. The tattoo should have lessened the girl's startling beauty, but only added to it. "No one will come near me," the girl said, "not even to harm me. I'm to live all three stages of my life in shame."
"Holy Zeus! What did you do?" What possible sin could earn this kind of punishment? The girl must have been a child when first banned. She looked young now, not yet twenty.
"Griswold, our chieftan, took me, even though I was betrothed to another. When he learned I was with child, he meant to raise my baby as his own, but he's old and cruel. I threw myself off the high walkway of the wooden fence that protects our village and killed the seed that grew inside me." Her voice grew bleak. "I lived."
The wrong person was punished. Diana would have slit the chieftain's throat if he'd touched her. Men and their penises. A woman was no sperm spittoon. "And your family?" Diana asked.
"I'm dead to them."
There were things about the old times she didn't miss. "Your name, child?"
"Inga." She fretted the hem of her sleeve, unraveling a thread.
"How old are you?"
"Nineteen." The girl finally met Diana's eyes. "I'm of no use to anyone. I won't blame you if you don't want me. The seer…"
"Was right." Diana did the math. The girl was thirteen when Griswold took her. Another primitive custom she was glad to see gone. "I need someone to serve me, and I need a place to stay."
Inga glanced at the small, wooden hut, embarrassed. "This is so plain…."
Plain was putting it mildly. Diana had seen campgrounds with more charm. Stones stacked one upon another supported a turf roof with a giant hole in its center. The open, wood door showed a dirt floor inside, a fire pit under the roof’s opening. There were no windows. "It will do. I'll send for some things to make it more comfortable." She was not about to live in this pit. No roads came here. She couldn't use cars or trucks, but gods had other devises at their disposal.
"Send where?" Inga gestured at the trees that surrounded them.
Diana raised her face skyward. An owl flew to the bottom branches of a nearby ash. It stayed a minute before she motioned it away.
Inga watched, surprised. "It's daylight. An owl came, then left. You didn't say anything to it."
"I don't need words. Birds hear me. Our things will arrive soon." More important matters weighed on Diana's mind. "For now, take me to the edge of the forest. Show me your village. Does the seer still live?"
"She swore she wouldn't die until she met you." Inga pushed herself to her feet in one, lithe movement. "This way." She crossed the clearing and gracefully wove between conifers—the main trees of the forest. She didn't talk. That surprised Diana. She thought the girl would have questions, but from Inga's rigid back and stiff movements, Diana suspected she was ill at ease. She’d need time to work up the courage to say more.
Stately ash and birch towered above the spruce, but they were scarce. Diana caught sight of an occasional oak or elm. They walked deeper and deeper into the woods. The scent of pine engulfed them. Dried needles slid beneath their feet. Rocks peeked through the thin soil wherever vegetation thinned. Sweat trickled between Diana's breasts. She looked at Inga, and damp hair clung to the girl's cheeks. She followed Inga half an hour more until the girl stopped at the edge of a granite outcrop. Beyond that lay a meadow. It stretched to tended fields, surrounded by wooden rails. Beyond those, the village was defended by a tall, heavy fence made from upright tree trunks pounded into the earth, their tips sharpened into points.
"Not very impressive." Diana swiped her brow. Her gaze followed the bed of a stream that meandered through the knee-high grasses. Someone had tunneled it beneath the logs to provide water for the village. "If anyone dammed the stream…." It would be easy enough to do. There were plenty of rocks in the fields.
"We have a well," Inga told her, defending her former home. "And lots of gardens. It would be hard to starve us out."
Diana turned to study her, surprised. "You're still loyal to your people. Why? They weren't loyal to you."
Inga's cheeks flamed, and she looked down. "It's our way. I got what I deserved."
Diana didn't argue, even though she wanted to. Instead, she stuck to the obvious. "There are no fruit trees in sight." No olives, no figs. Not even a grape vine. This country was so rugged, Diana couldn't imagine crops growing here, but they must. She inhaled and the smell of cooking cabbage drifted from the settlement. Fresh bread baked somewhere. Her thoughts strayed. No grocery stores or gourmet coffee shops. What she'd give for a latte right now!
"We raise cows and sheep," Inga said, pointing to animals on a nearby hill. "For meat, milk, and cheese. And there are deer and bear to hunt."
Diana looked at the grazing animals and shook her head. They had horns. "Those aren't sheep."
Embarrassed, Inga's cheeks reddened once more. "Not like yours, maybe. I've been told ours are thinner, wilder. But they taste good."
"Onions, peas, leeks, and cabbage."
The important question. "Wine?"
"We have mead and ale."
Diana sighed. Freya spoke true when she said life was harsh here. "All good, I'm sure." She'd have her favorite foods delivered too.
They were about to cross the wide meadow to the village's heavy gate when a clatter of hooves made them look toward the crest of a far-off hill. Riders lunged over its peak and descended toward the village. Heid’s mutated hellhounds ran alongside them.
A cry went up from the guard tower on the wooden fence. A horn sounded. Men took their places on the walkway.
A woman led the attacking troops. Raven black hair glinted in the sunlight. She stopped at the base of the hillside and raised outstretched arms. Magic gathered to her. It hung thick in the air. Diana could taste it. It left a bitter, pungent slick on her tongue.
She spat on the ground. Dark spells and chants. This must be Heid. A shiver of excitement danced along Diana's nerves. It was time the witch learned her place, along with a few manners.
Heid waited. A dozen women of various shapes and sizes came to join her. Several towered above her, too large to ride horses. Her coven? They joined together to strengthen Heid's spell.
Too bad for them. Diana needed no coven to upset their plans. She muttered incantations of her own. When Heid's blast of energy shot toward the wooden wall, Diana's power knocked it sideways. An ancient birch burst into flames.
Heid's head swiveled to the tree line where Diana and Inga stood. Diana could sense her surprise. No, more than that. Outrage. The witch was clearly used to getting her way. Heid's shoulders straightened. She whirled her hand over her head and slammed force in their direction.
Brazen witch! She didn't know whom she was playing with. But how could she? She probably thought she was fighting a white witch summoned to the village.
Diana put up a hand, caught the energy, and hurled it back at her. Let Heid think about that! Horses and riders scurried out of the way. The twelve underling witches ran for their lives. Rocks exploded beneath them. Stallions whinnied in panic and reared onto their hindlegs, their front hooves pawing the air.
Heid stood in her stirrups, staring harder in their direction. She cocked her head to the side, unsure of herself. She barked a sharp order and her troops turned and fled.
Inga stared, wide-eyed, before turning to Diana. "How did you do that?"
"I'm mistress of witches. All magic is mine."
The girl's face drained of color, going sickly pale. Her hands trembled. "You're a witch?"
"Artemis, Diana, Hecate—I go by many names."
"But you use magic."
"I'm a goddess too."
Her words didn't assure Inga. "I've never met a good witch."
"Your village has no magic to help protect you, to do enchantments?"
"We have no witches at all." Inga's tone implied that's how it should stay.
"How can that be? Where there's black magic, there should be white."
Inga shrugged, taking a step back from her.
"Relax, child. Magic and nature are almost one. You'll learn that in time. I'll teach you."
Inga's dark blue eyes grew darker still. "You want me to become a witch?"
"You said I was supposed to teach you. There are worse things," Diana said.
Inga shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. "What are they?"
Before Diana could answer, the village gate parted, distracting her. A single man strode through the opening and left the village. Tall and fair, he carried a shield in one hand, a sword in the other. The gates shut behind him. A white flag waved from the hilt of his weapon. He crossed half the meadow, but came no closer until Diana motioned him forward. When he saw Inga, his gaze shifted away from the girl, then back again. He locked eyes with her and growled, "Please tell me you didn't bring this upon us."
Inga bowed her head, refusing to answer.
"What is it with you guys?" Diana fumed. "Brought what upon you? We just saved your sorry asses." She looked him up and down. A mortal. She'd sense if he were half-god. And still he was built like a statue—tall and muscled. "Are there any small Vikings?" she asked.
"Not warriors." He planted his feet firmly. "Inga? You didn't respond. Are you consorting with witches now?"
The girl raised her chin. "She's a good witch, Jorunda." She motioned to Diana with deference. "This goddess just saved you from Heid. You owe her thanks."
"A goddess?" He raised an eyebrow. "There's no such thing as a good witch. You know that. We saw her defeat Heid. What does she want? Why is she here? To take the village for herself?"
Diana's hands clenched into fists. She refused to squash this ill-natured man. "Why would I want you? Where are your TVs? Your internet? Have you no idea what you're missing?"
His gaze told her that he thought her crazy, but he answered cautiously. "We've lived here as long as anyone can remember. You?"
"I'm not from around here, thank Zeus, but the runes called me to help."
A flicker of hope lit his features. "The runes?"
At last, she'd found something he knew, something he understood. These people lived in a bubble of time. For what purpose? It made no sense to her. If Donar and Tyr turned down a goddess, why rely on mortals? She'd have to ask Freya about that, how it worked. For now, she simply nodded. "Ask the seer about me. She knew I was coming. I have magic. I can protect you."
"The gods protect us," he stated.
"Fine! Then ask the seer why I was summoned here.” She’d like to know the answer to that one herself.
Jorunda turned back toward the village, motioning for her to follow. "You're allowed to enter our gates. Griswold will see you, but Inga's not welcome."
"Allowed? How gracious of him." Diana meant to say more, but Inga interrupted.
"You say my name," the girl whispered. "It's forbidden."
He clamped his lips tight, looking uncomfortable.
Diana shrugged her shoulders. "Tell Griswold to kiss my fanny. Where Inga goes, I go." She took Inga's hand, turned on her heel, and started to leave.
"Wait!" Jorunda tried to hide desperation, but couldn't. "She can come too. I'll have Griswold meet you outside the fence."
Diana almost laughed. Like they could keep her out, but she was here to help, not to antagonize. She followed silently.