Diana woke to men cussing. At first, she was disoriented. Her back ached from lying on too hard a surface. Wooden walls surrounded her.
"What in Hel's name?" A man's voice rose in frustration. "The water stinks! It's turned foul."
Was that Jon's voice? Diana pushed herself to her elbow and frowned. Her muscles felt stiff and sore. After hours of sleep, her makeshift bed had proved unworthy. Noir looked up at her from the floor and hissed. When had he gotten here? She thought her familiar would ditch her for the comforts of the marble hut, but he'd come to join her, and he obviously hadn't enjoyed his slumber either.
More men grumbled in another room. The sun was barely above the horizon. Too early. Freya lay, an arm thrown over her head, in deep slumber on the bed opposite her own. Shadow curled at Freya's feet. The damn cat looked as relaxed and peaceful as his mistress. Diana closed her eyes, but the noise continued. Finally, she pulled on her jeans and went to find the cause of the problem. Noir sauntered after her.
When she reached the courtyard, Jon pointed. "Our water's tainted. Heid's polluted it. We won't survive without it."
"Shit." The men stared. Hadn't they heard a god cuss before? She shrugged her shoulders. "What's the source of your water?"
"High in the hills. A stream." Jorunda dipped a wooden cup into the bucket a servant had brought. He handed it to her. She wrinkled her nose and pushed it away. The water was discolored. It smelled strange.
Diana bit back more blasphemy. Damn Heid to Hades! Couldn't the stupid witch ever take a break?
Tyr stalked into the courtyard, glaring at them. "The village well has tainted water too." He looked to Diana.
"What do you want me to do about it?" She wasn't her best in the morning, especially when she stayed up late the night before and slept on wooden benches that felt like rock. "We'll have to follow the stream until we find the cause. If it's magic, I can fix it. If it's not, it's trickier."
Tyr's temper faded. "I'm sorry. We come to you with every problem. We expect you to work miracles. This is our own doing. We should have dug a proper well. We've relied on the stream, and that can be tampered with."
His apology instantly deflated her snit. Noir went to weave around Tyr's ankles, clearly mollified. Diana shrugged. "You've never had to worry about the water before. Now that you do, let's find the cause and fix it."
"You don't have to come this time. Jorunda, Jon, and I can go."
She stiffened, impatient again. "And if it's a trap? Olaf's shields might protect them, but that's all they can do. I can help you get to the stream and maybe find out what to do about it."
He grinned, catching her off guard. "So you are needed. Sorry."
She loved his grin. When he turned on the charm, he excelled at it, damn it. She raised an eyebrow. "No use standing around talking. People will wake and need water. Let's get moving."
"What?" It came out snarly. She wasn't the warm, fuzzy type.
"Shoes? Sandals? Something? And you might want to look in a mirror."
She blinked, offended. "What are you saying?"
"Your hair reminds me of the story of Medusa."
That's as far as he got. She glared and turned on her heel. Her faithless cat stayed to make friendly with her enemies. "Heathens!" she hissed on her way to her room. When she looked in a mirror, though, she sighed. How bad could a girl look when she got up in the morning? Chestnut waves matted together at odd angles. Then she remembered. The rain had cleaned her hair, but she'd fallen asleep on it while it was still damp. Not a good thing if your hair bordered on curly. She fought with it for a few minutes, did the best she could, then slipped on her sandals.
When she went to meet Tyr, he smiled. "Morning becomes you."
"Yeah, right. That's why you sent me off to find a comb."
"Hardly. You're exotic with snake-like hair." When she tossed him a dirty look, he said, "I can't tell lies, remember? To me, you're always beautiful."
Noir's yellow eyes slanted her a sly look. The beast was taking Tyr's side.
"Beautiful?" Next to Freya with her golden hair, sky blue eyes, and curves, Diana constantly felt inadequate. Drab. Almost boyish. She shouldn't care, but a thrill of happiness spread through her at his compliment.
"You leave everyone in your dust," Tyr told her, "wild hair or not. But Freya would never let me hear the end of it if I let her leave Asgaard without looking her best. And she'd have a few pithy words if I didn't warn you too."
Diana could see that. Freya was the goddess of love and beauty, after all. She fell into step beside him. For being totally honest, the man had a way with words. "Sky god, my ass," she fussed. "You should be called the god of lawyers and double talk. I've never heard such a smooth tongue."
He laughed. "Some think it a skill."
"Then some must believe your B.S."
The guards opened the gates and she and Tyr followed the stream across the meadow, Noir at their heels. The filthy feline actually seemed pleased to be with them. He must have enjoyed his own company long enough. The stream meandered in wide curves. They passed the sleeping giants and witches. One young wolf poked its head out of the den. When it saw them, it yawned and disappeared back inside its burrow.
Wings flapped overhead, and Diana looked up to see Peta landing beside them.
"Did you fly Noir and Shadow here?" Diana asked. "I thought you'd hate the village."
The dragon shimmered into a man, and Peta said, "When you and Freya decided to stay, we had no desire to meet a handful of witches by ourselves. Where you go, we go."
Tyr explained about the tainted water, and Peta shrugged. "I'll stay at the village. If this is another distraction, the warriors might need my help. I understood there's nothing of importance at the marble house, right?"
"Not a thing." Diana yawned and rubbed sleep from her eyes. "I feel better with you here, Peta. Thank you."
"I always miss your company, cat." Sorry, but true. Noir, in all of his moodiness, was usually her constant companion.
He raised his paw and began to lick it.
Diana laughed. "I can't believe a dragon has better manners than my familiar."
"Take care, goddess. Heid is too clever for her own good." Peta flew to the village gates and curled into a ball to sleep. Diana glared at her cat. No wonder he sought her out. He wasn't one for camping.
Tyr and Diana strode beside the stream until it disappeared into the tree line. Tyr bent and inhaled its scent. "I've never smelled anything like this."
"It almost smells like magic gone bad."
"No, like something sweet gone sour." Good magic turned dark? But whose magic? What kind? She raised a questioning brow at Noir, but the cat turned his head. He didn't know either.
The land gradually inclined until they passed the smashed rowan grove near Snorri's farm. Diana hadn't thought of Snorri and his daughter for a long time. She tried not to. They reminded her of Gudrun. Someone had coerced Snorri into killing the village seer, even though he feared for his life and soul. Gods didn't take kindly to mortals destroying those they protected. She sighed.
"What is it?" Tyr turned to study her face.
"We're close to Snorri's farm, aren't we? That whole mess—him, his daughter, and Gudrun—was such a waste. And I still don't understand what anyone gained by it."
"You mean our traitor?"
"I've given that thought. Gudrun told us that she was returning to the village to do another reading, and that this time, she knew what question to ask her runes. My guess is the traitor is someone close to Griswold, and he believed she might discover him. He couldn't take that chance."
"So he sent Snorri to kill her. That makes sense."
"The traitor wouldn't risk it himself. Since he poisoned Griswold, he must live or work in the chieftain's longhouse. If you ask the runes to show you the traitor, would they?"
She shook her head. "I can try, but they've warned us that there is a traitor and that seems to be all they're willing to do."
"Would you try now?" Tyr asked.
"I need some place to throw the bones."
He led her to Snorri's farm. The wooden house lay in a heap of charred rubble, its turf roof collapsed on burnt timbers. Weeds flourished in the fenced area that was once a garden. The turf shed had one window opening. Chickens ran in and out of the partially open door. Noir padded away to pester them.
"That's where Snorri and Vigdis lived after their house burned?" Diana asked.
"Pitiful, isn't it?" Tyr went inside the barn and returned with a wooden bench—what Norse considered a bed, she reminded herself. What she considered too hard and narrow to be comfortable for anything. He put it in the small clearing.
Diana reached into her pouch and removed her runes. She asked, "Who's the village traitor?" and tossed them. Every bone fell face down. She sighed. "No answers. The runes have their reasons."
"I've wondered about that. The only answer I can think of is that the traitor is meant to survive the battle. If we discovered who he is, that wouldn't happen."
Tyr stared, unnerved by her guess. "Destiny wants this man to survive?"
"At least until after the battle. Maybe longer."
"So we could fight this battle, hopefully win it, and still have a traitor among us?"
Tyr didn't like that idea at all, she could tell. His lips pressed together in a firm line. His expression went grim. "Fate's not being very kind to us."
She gathered her bones and returned them to their pouch. "You're Vikings. Isn't that what you expect?"
He didn't laugh. He lifted the bench and lugged it back inside the barn. Silently, they started back to the stream.
"Noir! Are you coming?"
The cat sprawled on a fence post, enjoying the sun. He'd endured as much adventure as he meant to. They'd stop for him on the way back.
As they climbed higher and higher up a rock strewn hill, the stream bed grew narrow with a hard, stony bottom. The water ran fast enough that it looked clear, the discoloration gone, but the smell worsened. Not from the water, Diana realized. She sniffed. The odor hung in the air.
Tyr pointed to a cluster of boulders straight ahead. "That's the start of the stream, a small pond that collects rain water and runoff from melted snow."
The boulders were big enough that Diana didn't see the pond until they were almost upon it. Tyr stopped so suddenly in front of her that she ran into him. His body went rigid. His hand formed a fist. "What is it?" She peeked around him and put a hand to her mouth to stifle her gasp.
A mound of bodies lay in the center of the pond. She stared. She'd never seen such loveliness. Each had fair hair and coloring. Their features were exquisite. Their extraordinary beauty made her catch her breath. All were dressed in white. Many of the women were barefoot.
"White elves," Tyr said. "Magic and Light."
Diana remembered what he'd told her when they crossed the rainbow bridge to visit Asgaard. He'd said the white elves had no ill will or greed, that they were kind, gentle spirits. "They have their own land, don't they? Between Asgaard and Midgard? How did Heid…?"
"The elves are free to come and go as they please. They enjoy flying to Midgard to enchant gardens or to dance in the meadows. Heid must have ambushed them there."
Tears stung Diana's eyes. Silly, she knew. She'd never met an elf, but it physically hurt her to see such beauty destroyed. Tyr's reaction was much fiercer. He started toward the cliff edge.
"What are you going to do?" Diana demanded.
"I'm going to find Heid and deal with her myself."
She gripped his arm, pulling him back. "Not one of your best ideas."
"Heid has to be stopped! White elves only do good."
The pond was so clear, Diana could see to its bottom. She looked at the bodies. All youthful. They reminded her of her friends, the nymphs, eternally caring for the things of Nature. It was no easy job being a nymph these days. Mortals killed off the streams and trees they lived in, forcing them to flee to Mount Olympus. They were happy enough there, but their true love was a giant oak or a small creek, a weeping willow or a sluggish river. She wrapped her arms around Tyr. "You won't find Heid, and you'll leave chaos in your wake. She'll love that. Show respect and help me bury your elves."
He looked away from her for a minute and took deep breaths. Finally, his hand relaxed. His shoulders softened. "We'll have to burn them. We can't dig. It's too rocky. I'll make a pyre of branches. It'll take a while. First, we'll move the bodies. Can you call a wind to dry them off, so that they'll burn?"
She nodded. Together, they hauled one body after another out of the water. No easy feat in mortal form, so they both stretched and grew to their full size. Even then, by the time they finished, much of the day had passed.
"Elves are minor gods, but still gods. Mortals can't harm them. Only another god could do this, but even in death, they don't decay." Tyr looked at the pond. "Why did their corpses pollute the stream?"
"Their magic was seeping out of them. It's good magic, but it was dying. That's the cause of the odor and the odd color."
"Will the stream clear now? Can the village use it once more?"
"I'll say a purifying chant." She knelt beside the pond and slid her fingers into the water. It was icy cold. This spell was older than most. As she whispered the Celtic words from ages past, the water sparkled more clearly and the foul smell disappeared. That done, she called for the winds. By the time the bodies dried, the water in the village would be clear. Then, she went to help Tyr haul wood up the hill. Again, even working at full size, it took a while, the trees grew at such a distance from the pond.
When each body was situated on the wood, Tyr called on Donar to smite the pyre with lightning. Flames crackled. Smoke billowed. Tyr and Diana returned to their human shapes. Tyr bowed his head. Ancient words in his own language poured from his lips. Even though she didn't understand what he said, the solemnity of his mood and his tone sank deep into Diana. She respected him more for his reverence of things sacred and rare. When the final ashes settled on the jagged rocks, she raised her arms and said a chant of her own.
A sprout pushed from a crack in the rock. It sprang skyward, its trunks thickening as it grew. Thick fingers of bark entertwined with one another until they shot out in different directions. At the end of each branch, flowers spurted. Their pure, white petals fluttered together like fairy wings. Thirty in all, for the thirty bodies to be honored here.
Tyr wrapped his arm around her shoulders. "You can make beauty grow from rocks and ash?"
"This tree will thrive here," she said. "A remembrance to their magic."
"And what sort of tree is it?"
"A new species, a one of a kind."
They followed the stream back to Snorri's farm to collect Noir. On the way to the village, it burbled before them, clean and clear. When they reached the meadow, the wolves were drinking at its banks. Guards opened the gates, and they could see people at the well.
Freya came to greet them. Her footsteps slowed as she drew closer. "Come. First, we'll eat and drink. Tell us your story when you're surrounded by friends."
Diana hesitated. For such a fierce people, the Norse could be remarkably thoughtful.
When they walked into the dining room, they found Shadow stretched out on the long, wooden table. Noir jumped up to join him.
"Noir!" Diana stared at her sleek, black cat. He swiveled his head to return her gaze, unblinking. "You know better!"
Freya sighed. "When my cat came into the longhouse, Griswold set his dogs on him. The scuffle ended quickly. He is a witch's cat. The dogs only suffered scratches, but Griswold threw anything handy at Shadow. This is his revenge, to let Griswold know he'll come and go as he pleases."
Diana scooped Noir up so that servants could bring in the meal. Freya shooed Shadow to the floor. Tyr waited until food and drinks were brought before he told the others about their day.
At first, silence greeted him. Their friends sat, stunned. Freya put a hand to her throat, her face pinched. "Thirty white elves? I can't imagine."
"It's Summer Fest." Tyr's voice was flat, without emotion. "The elves' celebration for the fields of man. Heid must have killed them there."
"But why?" Inga reached out a hand for Jorunda. "How do their deaths benefit her?"
"They don't. Heid could have fouled the stream with a potion. We might not have even noticed and drank bad water. No," Tyr scowled. "This was about temper. Heid wanted to punish us, to hurt us." When no one spoke, he told them about the tree Diana left as a testimony to the elves' deaths.
Freya blinked and swiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "How thoughtful. And fitting."
Diana wasn't good with compliments, so brushed it away. "If Heid can pollute your stream once, she can do it again. You might want to store water or dig to an underground stream."
Freya gave a tired smile. "A clever change of topic, but you're right. A well would be best. Finding water here is no easy job, though."
"I can help with that," Diana said. "I can sense its energy."
"Once we know where it is, the warriors can try to reach it." Freya was warming to the idea, Diana could tell.
"Not always possible." Jorunda glanced outside at the hard packed dirt. "If we hit rock…."
"We'll try another spot," Jon said. "We'll dig until we get lucky."
Tyr pushed back from the table. His plate was barely touched, Diana noticed. He looked at the others who shared the meal—their tightknit group—and scowled at Jon and Jorunda. "As much as I've enjoyed your company, and your chieftain's absence, it makes me wonder. Griswold had no concerns about your water?" There was no mistaking the scorn in his voice.
Jorunda hurried to say, "We're to report to him later."
"And why is that?"
The warriors exchanged glances. Finally, Jon said, "The cats were the final insult. Griswold has no love of the goddesses. He believes it's mutual. He thought it better this way."
"So you'll deliver the details of the water and the elves' deaths so that your chieftain can sulk and pout?"
"Our lord is trying to be a good host." Jorunda looked at Tyr's expression and further words died on his lips.
Jon made an effort, too. "We meet in his chambers each evening to discuss the day's events."
"You'd better hurry then." Freya nodded at the sun, sinking lower in the sky. "You'll want to catch him while he's sober."
"Before he drinks himself to bed, in private, in his room." Tyr's attention shifted suddenly. Out of the blue, he asked, "Do any of you remember who healed the fastest when Heid sent the pox here?"
Diana knew he was thinking about the conversation they'd had earlier, about the traitor in their midst. The poison had been administered to Griswold in the drinking horn they'd found on his nightstand.
Jorunda stared, unable to make the leap in subjects so quickly. He finally shook his head. "We were too sick to remember much from that time."
"Why?" Inga frowned at him.
"We believe whoever administered the poison took an antidote at the same time. That way, he'd be sick, but he'd be sure to heal."
Inga and Freya glanced at each other, but shook their heads. "We were too busy to pay attention."
Tyr blurted, "Diana asked the runes to show her the traitor, but they refused. She believes it's because he's destined to survive our upcoming battle."
"Oh, sky god." Freya came around the table to offer him a hug. "This has been a miserable day for you, hasn't it? You care too much."
"And you don't?"
"I care," Freya corrected. "But you take things too much to heart. We're all doing our best. That's all we can do. The rest is in the hands of the Norns."
"They only foretell our fates. They don't determine them."
"Then there's nothing more we can do, is there?" Freya kissed the top of his blond head. "Our journeys are determined. Our only choice is how well we live them."
Tyr's brows furrowed in a deep scowl. His mood surprised Diana. He was so willing to accept his own death, she thought he'd be as fatalistic about the deaths of others. He reached for her hand. "Will you walk with me?"
She blinked her surprise. "Now?"
"I need to find calm. Walks help. So does your presence."
She rose alongside him. "I've never been known as a calming effect before."
He gave a faint grin. "Your ferociousness makes me retreat. Your impatience forces me to find answers. Your powers overwhelm me. I guess that makes you good for me."
Freya shook her head. "For a man of words, this wasn't your shining moment."
"I can't find words for how I feel about our huntress. Words are inadequate." He gave Diana's hand a tug and started for the door. "Don't wait up," he told the others.
Freya's laugh chimed behind them. The goddess of love and beauty was pleased with herself. She'd better enjoy it while she could. Tomorrow, Diana intended to have her do another reading. Many things had shifted. The bones might have different answers from their previous ones.