When Diana and Inga raced into the clearing, Ormr and Asdis came to greet them. The giant stopped when he saw the young wolves that accompanied them. "Hounds! I had a pack in Giantland. I miss them."
"You left them behind?" Diana glanced at the gates, shut tight. To keep the disease inside? She hesitated. She wanted the wolves settled and it would only take a minute.
The giant dropped to his knees. He held out a hand to the wolves. "I gave them to my brother. If I don't survive this, Illugi will keep them. Who do these belong to?"
The young, gray wolf switched to his human form—a young boy, and Ormr pulled his hand away in surprise. "We belong to no one. We've joined the gods in their fight against Heid."
"As have we." Ormr eyed him warily. "Wolfbane surrounds our campground, but I can move enough earth to make you a den close by. The others will help me move rocks."
Diana glanced at the high walkway that circled the log fence. Where were the guards? Where were Tyr or Jorunda?
"Why would you do that for us?" the boy asked.
"I love hounds." Ormr's answer was plain and simple.
The boy nodded. "Then we'll stay with you."
Inga tugged on Diana’s arm, motioning to the village. “I don’t see anyone. No guards. No warriors.”
As they ran toward the gates, Ormr strode to his friends and had a short conversation. They all bent to the ground and began to shove. Diana looked back, amazed, as the topsoil rippled. Soon there was a mound of dirt where there'd been none before. Each giant grabbed rocks and piled them around the mound. "That's the best we can do," Ormr said. "The soil's too thin to dig. We’d hit rock."
The gates didn't open. Diana pounded on them, but no one answered.
"Do you need help?" the young boy cried.
"I'll use magic." She waved her hand and the gates creaked forward. From where she stood, she cast a spell. She enchanted the giant's pile of dirt, making the sides rock hard.
The boy glanced at her, eyes wide. "You made us a cave." He and his family ducked inside.
When Inga started into the village, Diana stopped her. "Stay here for now. The last thing we need is an apprentice downed by disease."
"Stay! And shut the gates behind me."
With a brief nod, Inga agreed. Diana rushed inside and ran until she reached Griswold's longhouse.
Hlif met her in the great hall. Her brittle, gray hair hung loose instead of pulled back in its usual bun. She pushed it back from her face, distressed, and motioned for Diana to follow her. "His fever's worse. His skin burns, but he cries that he’s freezing. Helga's sleeping with him to keep him warm. Even under a mountain of furs, he shivers with cold." She led Diana to Griswold's private chambers. She gave a quick knock at the door and stepped inside.
Footsteps sounded in the hall. Tyr and Freya came to join them, their expressions grim. “All the servants are down, stricken with disease,” Tyr told her.
Diana glanced at Hlif, suspicious. “But you’re healthy? So is Helga?”
“We worked in the gardens all day and most of this evening until Jorunda came to get us.” Hlif’s sunburned skin was a testimony to her words.
A young woman, sunburned, too, sat up in the fur-covered bed. She had long, drab hair and a plain, round face. She reached for her shift and tossed it over her head. When she stood, Diana could see that she was stick thin.
Hlif grimaced. "You could have kept your nightdress on, girl, but seeing as how this is your only chance to bed a warrior, why not?" She rolled her eyes. "She's even willing to risk the plague to lie with a man."
The girl blushed and lowered her head.
Diana instantly felt sympathy for her. "How long have you lain with him?" she asked.
"A few hours."
"Then you'll need a potion the minute it's ready." Diana stalked to the bed. The chieftain was covered in a red rash. She could feel the heat from his body where she stood. His breath came in short spasms. "Do you know what he ate or drank before he fell ill?"
The girl motioned toward a tankard on his bed table. "He was fine after supper. He didn't grow feverish until he retired to his chamber."
Diana bent to sniff the contents of the cup. White crystals clung to its side. The liquid gone, the poison had become visible. She picked it up between her fingers and rubbed them together to smash the white powder. She sniffed again. "Ghoul pox," she said.
Tyr frowned. "I never heard of that."
"Then you're lucky. I know an antidote."
"Is that part of your magic?"
"No, just knowledge I've accumulated the hard way. Take me to the kitchen gardens. While I pick, call for help and bring as many buckets of water as you can carry. The disease is fast and deadly. If a child was near Griswold, it's already dead." She enchanted seeds and leaves as she went. She glanced at the lowering sun. “It’s late, but it’s still light.”
“We’re getting closer to the time of the midnight sun,” Tyr proclaimed.
“I need water!”
Hlif and Helga grabbed buckets and hurried away.
Tyr ran to fetch warriors to help him. He came back immediately. "We'll have to do everything ourselves. They're all sick. Every single one of them, even Jorunda."
He and Freya ran to the well too. When they returned, Diana said, "Blow a horn or something. We don't have much time." She grabbed a pestle and mortar and set to work. Freya watched and followed. In twenty minutes, they had the first powders ready.
"Add three pinches of this to each cup of water." Diana turned to Hlif. "Drink this, then get the village organized. Three lines again. And hurry. Helga, drink yours, then send Inga to me."
"Is it safe for her to come inside?" Freya asked.
"Now that I know what we're fighting."
Tyr hurried to round up villagers.
"Don't miss anyone," Diana warned.
Diana kept working while the others distributed medicine to the villagers. She had Helga and Hlif dispense it to Griswold, then to the other servants in the house. When Inga came, Diana made her drink before saying, "The warriors are sick. Help them."
Diana worked at a feverish pace, making more and more powder, but when she finished and went to join Tyr and Freya in the village square, their faces told her what she feared to ask. "How many?" she finally said.
"It hadn’t spread to the village," Tyr said. "We got lucky there, but every child in Griswold's longhouse. They were dead before we got here."
"Up to what age?"
"Ten. All gone." His voice betrayed him. He rubbed a hand across his forehead. Freya crumpled to the ground, sitting cross-legged. "I thought the rowan protected against dark magic."
"Spells and chants, yes. Even energy. But germs, no. Where would Heid have found ghoul pox?"
"From your world," Freya said. "She must have brought it back with her."
Diana shook her head. Not wise to despair. Only cowards sagged in defeat. "Did we get to the adults in time?"
"Griswold lost three elders," Tyr said. "And Jon isn't doing well. If Jorunda is Griswold's right-hand man, Jon would be his left. When Griswold dismissed everyone else, he and Jon stayed in the hall, talking."
Diana liked everything she'd seen about Jon so far. She shifted her gaze to the ground, aggravated that Heid always caught her by surprise.
"She's been planning this for a long time," Tyr said in that way he had of reading her thoughts before she expressed them.
"We got lucky," Diana mumbled, half lost in thought. "If the gardens hadn’t had the herbs and roots that might prove useful…" Her voice trailed off.
He put an arm around her shoulders. "How could you guess? One thing after another's been thrown at you since you got here. You don't know our world, our customs…" He looked up to see Griswold weaving toward them. Helga trailed in his wake, wringing her hands.
The chieftain's face was contorted with anger. His eyes burned. His hands were clenched into fists. When he neared Diana, he lifted his finger to point. "You!" he seethed. "You witch! You made us take wafers and poisoned us all!"
Tyr's posture went ramrod straight. "Hold your tongue, chieftain."
"The gods mock us!" Griswold cried. "They laugh at our misery! My wife died at my side. Jon took her from my bed. You've brought the Roman here to toy with us. She pretends to be a friend and weakens us at each and every turn."
Freya sprang to her feet. Hands on hips, she glared at the chieftain. "Like when she saved you from the hellhounds or the giants?"
"Send her away!" Griswold yelled. "Send her back to her own world! Dear gods, protectors, take your mortals back to your bosoms."
His words were cut off. Tyr lifted him off the ground and dangled him in the air. "You embarrass me with your ignorance. If Diana wanted to kill you, you'd be dead. And if she had no stomach to murder you, she could ask me. I'd gladly do it."
"He's fevered," Helga cried. "His dreams and nightmares control him. He's not himself."
Tyr stared into the chieftain's eyes. "Sadly, he's as sane as he ever gets."
Helga rushed forward, throwing herself at Tyr's feet. "Please, great and mighty god. He doesn’t know what he says. The disease addles him."
"This isn't the time," Diana told Tyr in a low voice. "We have enough worries at the moment."
Tyr thumped Griswold to the ground. Helga jumped to support him, but the chieftain pushed her away. "You filthy, hideous bitch! Get out of my sight! Your face turns my stomach."
Helga staggered as though struck. She took a few steps backwards. "My lord…"
"Leave me!" he roared. "You're like holding a bag of shriveled carrots—all angles and points. Be gone!"
The girl turned and ran. Tyr took a deep breath. Between gritted teeth, he snarled, "You just sent the one person who championed you away, so return to your longhouse alone. I have no desire to touch you or lend you an arm."
"Jorunda!" Griswold turned in a circle, almost falling. "Where's my damned warrior?"
"Sick with your disease, as are the others."
"Fighting for his life," Tyr said between his teeth. "Now go."
Griswold staggered as he turned. He took a few steps, then swayed. No one moved to help him. He looked back toward Inga. "Come, girl. Assist me."
"She's no longer yours to command," Freya said. "You shunned her, remember? Crawl to your bedchamber if you must."
Red dots of anger spotted Griswold's cheeks. "Someone help me!"
Not one of them moved.
Slowly, painfully, Griswold returned to his longhouse.
When he was out of sight, Diana said, "The disease had to be administered. Someone poured it into his drink. There's an empty bottle or jar somewhere."
Tyr thought a minute. "Whoever did this would be absent now. To stay would expose him to the disease."
"We can seal the village gates," Freya said. "When he returns, we can catch him."
"If he returns." Tyr looked to the high walk that circled the wooden fence. No guards on duty patrolled it, but they'd heal soon. "I'll have a word with them."
Freya waited until Tyr was out of earshot. "Too bad Jorunda found Griswold so soon. How much longer would it have taken before the chieftain was dead?"
Diana waved her comment away and started for the longhouse. "Unfortunately, Griswold is destined to survive. Remember?"
"Hey! What are you doing?" Freya demanded, watching her go.
"I want to find that container." The idea of going through garbage wasn't appealing, but Diana wanted to see the receptacle that held the poison. Her search didn't take long. She found two, small, tin tubes buried under cabbage leaves in the kitchen.
"Two?" Tyr asked, coming to stand behind her.
Diana sniffed them. "One's the disease. The other's the cure."
Diana nodded. "Heid's clever. If her traitor didn't grow ill, he'd look suspicious. But if he took the antidote the minute his fever started, he'd recover quickly."
"So our traitor's still here, even though the shape shifter died."
"The wolf was minor to Heid's plans," Diana said. "But someone in the village is well connected to her. This vial means she's taking great pains not to have him discovered."
Tyr began to pace the cavernous kitchen. "So nothing's changed. The runes' prophesy still stands. We didn't kill the traitor, and he didn't leave to survive the disease."
"I'm afraid so." Diana began to gather her things. "The warriors' strength won't return for a few more hours. Inga should stay to care for them. The village would be easy to attack now. Would you like Freya and me to stay here too?"
"No." Tyr turned toward the door. "I don't want everyone in one place if Heid comes for us."
Smart strategy, but Diana didn't like leaving him alone to protect the village. She pulled her pouch of runes from her jeans pocket and rummaged through them. She brought out a bone with no letter of the alphabet on it, a blank. She handed it to him.
"What is it?" Tyr turned it over, and when he turned it again, the image of a peacock appeared engraved in the bone.
"A toe from Argus, the Greek watchman with 100 eyes."
Tyr frowned. "If I'm holding his toe, he must have fallen asleep on the job."
"That's another story." Diana grinned. "But the point is, this will enable me to always watch over you. All you have to do is think my name and rub the bone, and I'll come."
Tyr's expression turned solemn. "You offer too much."
"For you, I'd do much more." And she realized, she meant it. Somehow, some way, this Norse god had become too dear to her.
He reached for her, lowering his head to kiss her lips, when Helga burst into the room. The plain girl saw them and blushed bright red. "Oh lord!" She turned to flee, but Tyr stopped her. "I'm sure we're in your way. We were about to leave."
"My mistress sent me to start soup…I'm to fetch a bone for broth…." She stammered to a stop, adjusting her shift to cover her nonexistent figure. "I'm to take Vigdis' place in the kitchen—a great honor. If I leave, Hlif will have my hide. Great Woden, I'm sorry."
"Soup will help the warriors rebuild their strength. We have things to do too." Tyr took Diana's hand and led her away. His footsteps slowed outside, and he looked for a place to duck from curious eyes. Too late. Freya saw them and hurried toward them, a smile on her lips. "Olaf's agreed to make more talismans. Soon, we'll have one for each warrior. It won't protect them from disease, but it will save them from black magic. He had a few extra to get us started." In triumph, she held up chains bearing cat pendants.
Tyr glanced at Diana. "Some other time?"
"Is that a promise?"
Freya's jaw dropped in surprise. "You two? Now?"
"Not anymore," Tyr growled. "Let's go to the meadow."
“Inga?” Freya asked.
“Can stay here to care for the warriors.”