They awoke to the ground grumbling under them.
Tyr sat up, alert. "The cliffs."
Birds darted to low branches, chattering a warning. "Giants," Diana said.
They tossed on clothes and ran toward the noise. When they reached the fork in the path, they met Freya, Inga, and Jorunda. Freya’s short sword swung from its shoulder belt. No one talked. They ran as fast and as hard as they could.
When they burst from the trees into the farm fields, a strip of scorched earth greeted them. The charred grasses crunched under their feet and the smell of blackened crops filled the air. Diana looked toward the longhouse. Peta, the dragon, spewed fire at two giants while hellhounds tried to get past him. The giants lifted body-sized shields to ward off his flames, but Diana could smell the singed flesh on their arms where the hot metal cooked their skin.
"He flew ahead of us," Freya said, "or everything would already be gone."
Diana stretched to goddess size and drew arrows from her quiver—always available in her huntress form—and let them go. The hellhounds fell before they knew they were under attack. The giants swiveled to see who was coming. When they saw the three gods, full-sized, they turned and ran. The earth shook with their footsteps. Diana sped across the heaving dirt as if she were sprinting on a boat in rough seas. Tyr and Freya kept pace.
"Go to the longhouse," Freya called to Inga and Jorunda. "See if anyone needs help."
"But…." Jorunda started to protest.
"You can be of more use to the family. They need you," Tyr called.
Peta unfurled his wings. He swept into the sky and flew toward the cliffs.
The giants knocked trees aside, smashing anything in their path. A herd of deer raced for safety. Birds rose out of crashing limbs. Squirrels leapt for outside branches.
Diana chanted, and the earth buckled in front of the giants. They tripped, grabbed at trunks, and righted themselves. If she did more, she'd uproot the trees herself—not her aim.
The giants meant to jump when they reached the earth's edge, to take their chances on finding footing farther down, but Peta blocked them, batting his wings and hovering just out of reach. He belched fire, and they had to duck aside. Tyr lunged toward the blond giant. The monster swung his shield in place, but Tyr dropped and rolled to the side, slicing the giant's ankles as he passed. The giant roared and turned to face him. The brute’s back to Freya, she ran and slammed her sword into his back. Blood gushed. The giant staggered, dropped his shield, and Tyr sliced his throat to finish him. He tumbled forward. Freya kicked him over the dirt ledge. His body crashed and bounced out of sight.
The second giant turned on Diana. At her full height and strength, she raised her hand and blasted him. He flew backward into the air. Peta snatched him in his jaws. The giant's backbone crunched, his body went limp, and Peta landed with him. After one quick roast, Peta began his meal.
"Iiiich." Freya held her nose. "We thank you, dragon, but we'll let you eat in peace."
Peta's lips curled in a reptile grin. They left him and started back to the longhouse. The joy of victory faded fast at the sight of the farmer's wife, shoulders hunched, kneeling in a nearby field. Inga stood silently over her.
"This never gets easier." Tyr went to join them.
The woman's husband was stomped flat. Diana had seen bodies trampled beneath horse hooves or bloodied by stampeding animals, but she'd never seen anything like this. It looked as though the man had stuck to the bottom of the giant's sandal, and the giant peeled him off. A teenaged girl lay on the ground nearby, tossed aside like a rag doll.
Inga lowered her voice. She turned to the gods. "Egill was working the fields and Dorny was taking the cows to pasture when the giants came."
"Egill's other children?" Tyr asked.
"Around the house, helping with chores. Peta got here in time to protect them."
Diana nodded. It could have been worse. The entire farm and family could be destroyed. But no wife and mother—after losing her husband and child—would feel that way now.
"The farms are too far away from the village," Tyr said. "We can't get to them in time. We need to move everyone and their livestock inside the fences until this threat has passed."
"Our crops," a young man said. He'd come from the sod barn after settling the livestock. A piece of straw still clung to his dark-blond hair, forgotten in his hurry. Diana studied his intent gaze and felt the weight of his responsibility. He was now the man of the family.
Freya motioned toward the gardens and fields. "Peta, the dragon, will accompany each family to its farm once a week. It's not the same as daily care, but the crops are high enough that they'll survive. When we can, Diana and I will come too."
The boy gave a quick nod, then went to his mother. She flung herself against him, and he did his best to comfort her.
Diana swallowed. "How old is he?" she asked Inga.
"The same year you became an adult," Jorunda told her.
Inga reached for the warrior's hand. She gripped it tightly. "Children grow up quickly here."
"Too quickly." Diana remembered that, too, from early cultures. Some said that youth in modern times prolonged maturity as long as possible, but at thirteen, no one was an adult. They shouldn't have to be.
Tyr read her expression and said, "This is our meadow. We do all that we can to protect it. These events don't usually occur here."
Diana nodded. Tyr didn't like this any more than she did.
He cleared his throat and turned to the family. "I know this is a hard time for you to leave, but we can escort you to the village. We'll help herd your animals there, too."
The wife looked at their longhouse and fought back a sob. She gave a curt nod and steeled her expression. Her son held out a hand to steady her. "I'll get my other children," she said.
Two more boys and two girls came from the house. They made a procession—the family and the animals—as they walked to the village. The smallest boy, three years old, rode on Tyr's shoulders. The mother held a six-year-old's hand while her other children clustered around her legs. Diana and Freya led chickens and ducks. The oldest son held the ropes for a cow and three goats. Dogs ran back and forth, barking, between them.
When they reached the meadow before the village, Ormr and Asdis came to greet them. The six-year-old saw the giant and began to scream. Ormr's face fell.
"He just watched two giants squash his father," Tyr explained.
"Poor, little one." Ormr snatched up the next oldest child and set her on his shoulders. "Uncle Ormr will keep you safe from the mean giants," he told her.
The girl's eyes went wide with fear, then with surprise. Asdis took the eight-year-old boy's hand and said, "Come meet my friends." She whistled for the wolves, who ran to greet them. Soon, the children were on the grass, petting them.
Asdis turned her attention to the mother. "Where are you going to stay?" she asked.
Tyr answered, "I was going to take them inside the gates, but there's no room for their livestock."
"We can watch over the animals here," Ormr said. "If we're warned ahead of time, we'll take them inside the gates before the battle starts."
Tyr nodded. "You'll need fences."
"We're giants," Ormr said. "Trees, we can move." With a yell to his friends, they set about yanking pines out of the ground. Asdis and her witches pulled knives from their belts.
"We can do better than that," Jon told her, strolling through the gates to join Jorunda. He and the warriors who accompanied him carried axes.
"We need enough fences for every farm," Freya told them. "But not in the meadow. The runes predict that's where we'll battle."
"No problem. More people volunteered to help." Jon pointed as the gates opened once more and a dozen people crossed to them. Diana smiled when she saw Helga walking alongside a tall, sinewy man dressed in the garb of a freeman.
Helga introduced him when she grew nearer. "Freya, Diana, this is Gizurr. He trains Griswold's horses."
Jorunda said, "One of the best. Griswold values him highly. He'd do nothing to make him unhappy."
Jon nodded agreement. "He's given him Helga to wed."
Gizurr blushed, embarrassed. Helga gazed at him adoringly. His collarbones protruded. His ears stuck out from his head, and his Adam's apple bobbed in his throat. He reached for Helga's hand, seeking comfort. Diana glanced at Freya. "You were right. A soul mate."
Freya's expression softened. "I'm glad to see my magic worked."
Both goddesses stared in surprise when Hlif walked toward them. "No one knows this village better than I do," the old woman told them. "I can find places for these people to stay."
"There'll be more," Freya warned. "We intend to bring every farm family to the meadow."
"All the more reason you need my help. I know who has a spare room or an empty stall. Families might not be able to stay together, but everyone will have a roof over his head."
"Will Griswold mind that you leave your duties to help us?" Freya's tone bristled. "I don't want you slapped for ignoring his needs."
Hlif shrugged. "Slaps sting for an instant, then they're gone. These are my people. It's my duty to help them."
While the villagers built fences on the far end of the meadow, flanking each side of the village, Tyr, Freya, and Diana went to the remaining farms to escort one family after another to safety. Once they got them to the meadow, Hlif found them somewhere to stay. They were going to their last stop, Einarr's, when a horn blasted.
"Heimdall." Tyr raced toward the rainbow bridge. Diana and Freya followed.
Thunder shook the sky. Lightning bounced everywhere. Giants, hellhounds, and witches tried to breach the bridge. Donar stood at its entry, blocking their way. Two hounds lunged past him as he used his hammer to deflect the witches' magic. A god—dressed in resplendent white armor—stood guard near the rainbow's arch. He easily lifted both hellhounds and threw them into the stream below. Their howls of pain were short-lived. Boiling water engulfed them.
Peta blew fire at the giants. They retreated behind the hellhounds. A witch aimed energy at the dragon, and Diana zapped her from behind. Screaming, the witch flew forward from the blast. Donar stepped aside and let her fall into the steaming water. She sank like the hounds.
Diana held off the rest of the witches as Tyr grabbed a giant's shoulder at the rear of the attack. He whirled him around, then reached for his sword and slashed at his throat. The giant's head fell backwards, attached to his body by only a thin flap of skin. Freya darted and stabbed as she circled the giants, a frenzy of speed. Blood oozed from their arms and legs, maiming them.
A second horn blew, and a dark cloud settled over the giants, witches, and hounds. The world went dark. When it lifted, they were gone.
"Damn!" Diana kicked a stone. It flew into the seething water. They'd had their enemies trapped between them. She turned to look around. Heid must have been close enough to watch the battle. Coward. She let everyone else do her fighting, but everyone would be long gone by now, carried from one rune port to another.
Donar slammed his hammer to the ground. "Was Heid here? Did she make herself invisible again?"
"If she was, she didn't do anything to defend her friends," Tyr said. "She let three of them die."
Diana walked to the edge of the rainbow and looked down at the churning water. What a crappy way to die. She frowned at Donar. "I thought I heard you splashing through this stream the first night I got here, but the water's boiling. I must have been wrong."
"No, I wade through it. It does me no harm. The bridge won't hold me. I'm too heavy. The others can pass over it on horseback, but not me."
Tyr waved away their conversation. He turned to Donar. "Was anyone harmed?"
"Neither Heimdall nor me. The dragon received a scratch, but seems fine."
Heimdall waved from his post on the bridge. "Others gathered at my mansion on the arch. No one would have passed."
Tyr nodded. "Heid sent giants to Egill's farm to distract us so that she could rush the bridge, but today was just a test. For all of us. She's looking for weak spots."
"And she found some, or Egill would be alive," Freya said. "Hopefully, we've learned from our mistakes."
Donar seemed in the mood to talk, to discuss strategy, but Diana couldn't relax. Einarr and his family were still at their farm. Enough innocent people had died. If she could make anyone safer, she wanted to.
Tyr sensed her restlessness. "We have one more family to fetch," he said. "I'll join you tomorrow, Donar. We'll talk then."
Donar sent Diana an angry scowl, but he couldn't solve every problem with his hammer or strength. She turned on her heel to hurry to Einarr's.
When they finally had the last farm family at the village, she could feel her body relax. It wasn't a perfect solution. Heid would still come with her troops. But having everyone together to protect them would be simpler.
Then she frowned. Was that what Heid wanted? To gather mortals and gods in one place to destroy them? Diana squared her shoulders. Let her try.