They raced toward a small bridge that crossed a stream to the longhouse's front door. It was a simple dwelling—a narrow rectangle of wood, its roof covered with turf. Smoke rose from a hole in its center. A fenced-in garden consumed the left, side yard. Cabbages and onions dotted its rows. All peaceful. No people in sight. Diana scanned the far side of the house. A peat shed offered shelter for chickens and goats. No one there either. A cat sat on the house's stone stoop.
"Stop!" Diana came to an abrupt halt, grabbing the back of Inga's dress to stop her too. She recognized the cat for what it was—a familiar. Were these people witches then? Good ones or bad ones? Were they performing a ritual nearby, or were they the sacrifices?
Before crossing the bridge, she threw up a hand, ready to blast if she had to, and called, "Hello?"
A deep voice boomed back. "Beware. Our house is protected by the goddess Freya. Pass her cat, and she's alerted."
Diana stared at the cat. It pushed itself to its feet, daring her to pass. Its eyes narrowed at her outstretched hand. It knew she was a witch. If Noir was here, he'd know in an instant if this familiar was good or evil. Cats could read each other.
"I, too, am a goddess," she called to the man. "Brought here to help you. Is everyone in your household safe? I feel magic and smell blood."
There was a long pause. Finally, the man cried, "How can I be sure if you're friend or foe? Heid has powerful enchantments."
"Come, cat. I summon you." Diana waited until the calico sauntered to her. It sniffed her ankles, then wove itself between her feet. Familiars could read witches, but not vice versa. The sleek beast could be trying to trick her, to pretend it was good, but she didn't think so. "Proof enough?" She lowered her hand.
The man stepped past the house's threshold. He was sweaty with exertion, his hands and arms smudged with dirt. He looked down at himself, embarrassed. "I'm not fit to greet a goddess. Our roof leaked. I'm fixing it." His face contorted with worry. "My son took the cows to pasture early this morning. He's working in the clearing. My wife went to pick herbs in the forest, but they both wore their talismans."
"Talismans?" Diana frowned.
"The goddess had them forged for us."
"We need to find your wife and son."
The man hesitated, his hand going to a chain that circled his neck. "I mean no disrespect, but I don't know you. Please state your name and purpose."
A fair request. "I'm Diana, goddess of the hunt. This is Inga, my assistant."
Inga's eyes widened at the introduction. "Your assistant?" She flushed with pleasure. "You know me, Einarr. Gudrun sent us."
"Inga, the shunned?" Einarr straightened his sinewy build to its full six feet—short for a Norseman—and spat on the ground near Inga's feet.
Diana took a step toward him, but Inga grabbed her arm.
"He meant no harm. I'm shunned. No one's to speak or deal with me."
"The rules have changed. You're with me." Diana's voice quivered with emotion. She pointed a finger at the farmer, and his face turned ashen. "Do you want help or not?"
She watched him struggle with himself before saying, "Follow me." He took off at a run. A packed, dirt path led through spruce trees to a small clearing. Two cows grazed there. The father turned in a circle, eyes wild, calling, "Bjorn?"
"No!" Diana jammed a hand to her stomach, gasping in pain.
"Another one?" Inga asked, her voice high with worry.
"That makes three."
A tree branch cracked, and Diana whirled, hand up, on the defensive. A tall boy who looked to be in his early teens leapt to the ground. "Father! Heid's close by. I saw her gathering plants with other witches. Odd creatures, not quite human. I hid up here."
"Three what?" the man grabbed Inga’s arm, then quickly released it. "What did she see?"
"Three sacrifices." Diana sniffed the air. “The scent of blood mingles with foul water.”
"Where's your mother?" Einarr ran a hand through his hair, too distraught to think.
"Mom's out here?"
"She went to pick herbs and dig roots."
"The bog!" the boy said.
Father and son raced through the trees. Diana and Inga followed. Tension tightened Diana's stomach with each stride. Fear pulsed through her veins. A magic haze hung heavier in the air the farther they went. The scent of blood clung in her nostrils.
"When we're near the bog, we change places," she hissed. "Mortals behind me. I don't want you caught in the crossfire." She knew the power of a blood sacrifice. Heid would be blazing with energy now. The putrid odor of black magic gagged her. It was so strong, she didn't smell the bog until they burst into the clearing.
Stupid! Einarr and Bjorn should have stopped, should have let her go first. She threw up her hands to do battle. No witches stood in a circle. They'd come and gone.
"Aesa!" The farmer ran to his wife, who knelt beside a bloodied body. He scooped her into his arms, burying his face in her neck, and sobbed.
Aesa pushed herself out of his embrace, her face pale. "These poor women… I only watched. I couldn't help them."
Diana went to study the corpses. Three teenaged girls, dressed in blue jeans and snug t-shirts, sprawled on the mucky ground, piled one on top of the other. Long, brown hair fanned out around the top girl's face. Gray eyes, rimmed with eyeliner, stared in horror, her mouth open to scream. A cell phone buzzed in her clenched hand. Dozens of knife wounds punctured her bloodied midsection. Crimson fluid oozed into the muck. It had drained from the three bodies and slithered into the foul water of the bog.
Einarr followed his wife's gaze. Voice hoarse, he asked, "Who are they?"
"Girls from modern times," Diana said. "Heid plucked them from their own world to bring them here."
The wife's jaw set in a firm line. "The gods proclaimed that we cannot cross our times with others'. This is our fight, not theirs."
"Heid's not following the rules." The voice surprised them all. It came from the far side of the bog. Diana looked up to see Freya crossing toward them. "When my necklaces protected you, she had to look elsewhere for a sacrifice."
Inga froze in place, too overwhelmed to move.
"Sorry. I forgot myself." Freya shrank to mortal size.
"Your talismans protected these people from a coven of witches?" Diana asked.
Freya shook her head. "No, they're not strong enough, but if Heid killed one of them, I'd know immediately. And I'd come."
"So Heid brought these girls here, to the bog, hoping no one would know."
"Or find them." Freya glanced at their surroundings. "It's not a place where people come often." Freya took a chain from around her neck and held it out for Inga. "Here. I can get another one. Wear this until you can protect yourself."
"Protect myself?" Inga's hand trembled as she took the talisman.
"Get used to goddesses, dear. You have a purpose in life. Diana and I will train you. You're to learn powerful magic, perhaps even a match for Heid’s."
Diana planted her feet in an angry stance. She raised an eyebrow, not sure of this new turn of events. "You and I? I don't think so. I work alone."
"I know, Roman, but we can't win this battle doing things the old way. For better or worse, your world and mine must unite."
Diana pressed her lips together and counted to ten. She needed to think. Everything about this venture expanded with time. It kept spinning further and further out of control. She shut her eyes and when she opened them, Freya was smiling at her.
"I didn't think you'd stay if I mentioned that right away, and you didn't let on you were staying at all."
"Pairing up is temporary, right?" Diana snapped.
"We can hope. I find you intriguing, but I don't think the Norse fascinate you quite as much." Freya motioned to Inga. "Put on the necklace, girl. You'll probably need it."
Inga gratefully draped the cat pendant around her throat. Her fingers fumbled as she slid it under the neckline of her coarse dress.
The farm wife reached for her husband's hand. She curled her other palm on her son's shoulder. "Without our pendants, Heid would have done this to us, wouldn't she?"
"If you'd have stumbled on their ritual by accident, she would have anyway," Diana said.
Einarr's arm snaked around his wife's waist and pulled her close. The son didn't tear his eyes off the girls' bodies. He pointed to the round, metal hoops that lined the one's left eyebrow and pierced her nose. "Look how she’s decorated. She must have been a priestess. Maybe all three were. Should we build a pyre to burn them?"
"No." Diana didn't correct him. She gripped the girl's arm. She was a pretty, young thing on the brink of adulthood. Shame on Heid for taking her, for taking all three of them. Bile rose in her throat, and she forced it down. This was a cheap shot, a cowardly trick. "I'm taking the girls back. Their families should find them. Waiting and wondering is a horrible thing. If I can spare them that, I will." In a blink, she was gone, transporting the girls with her. She followed the trail of magic Heid had left behind and found herself in the parking lot of a shopping mall. The door of a car stood open. Heid must have snatched the girls before they could get inside. Diana placed their bodies on the car's front seat, then thought herself back to the bog.
On her reappearance, Freya gave her an odd look. "What do three girls' deaths matter to you? They're mortals, ones who don't even know of your existence."
"No one thinks about the old gods anymore. Why should they?"
"You told me yourself that you're not sentimental, that you don't involve yourself in the affairs of mortals."
"Heid misused witchcraft to kill that child and her friends. Magic is my responsibility."
Freya raised an eyebrow, questioning her. "But what if some poor innocent is accused of the murder? What then? You've helped one mortal and made life harder for another."
"We're gods! I mean, really! I cast an obfuscate spell." These Vikings had lived in their own little world too long. "No one will ever learn what really happened or be accused of their murders."
"You can do that?"
"No, I can't cast spells. Even so, you surprise me. Regardless of what you say, you care more for mortals than you let on."
Diana balled her fingers into fists. She didn't have to defend herself to anyone, let alone a Viking. "I thought a Norse would celebrate their deaths, put them down to destiny. You seem to relish fighting and martyrdom."
"Give us some credit, Roman."
Inga breathed a loud sigh and stepped between the two goddesses. "Why are you picking on Diana? Why can't you be nice to her?"
"Nice? I'm always nice! I'm the goddess of love and beauty…" Freya's words trailed off. "Are you beginning to like this Roman?"
Inga raised her chin, mimicking Diana's habit. "She doesn't have to stay here. She's chosen to, and Gudrun put me in her care."
Freya gazed at her thoughtfully. "You see, Roman? You've already corrupted one of our own."
For whatever reason, it pleased Diana that Inga had championed her, and it pleased her more that Freya was all right with that. "It's possible it's the other way around, that you've corrupted me. I'm still here, aren't I?"
"We're a practical race. We do what we have to. I believe we're meant to learn from one another." She looked at the small family who'd been listening to them with interest. "For now, though, we'd better get these people to their farm. Bjorn, show us the way to the meadow."
The young boy led them back to the clearing where he'd left the cows. As they herded them toward the longhouse, Diana noticed that each cow was branded with the sign of a cat. "For protection?" she asked Freya.
"Livestock means survival. We've done our best to take no chances."
"Then this is no new battle. You've been struggling with Heid for a while now."
"It's been centuries since we've dealt with her, but recently, she returned, stronger and more determined. Her tactics keep escalating. Why else do you think Tyr and Donar would join Heimdall to guard Bifrost? We've been worrying, watching."
When they crossed the wooden bridge that led to the farm, the wife hesitated and turned to them. "We thank you for saving our lives. But are you safe? What of you and yours?"
To Diana, it seemed an odd question. Romans didn't ponder their gods' immortality. They accepted it. But Freya sighed. "We have nothing to fear from mortals. Nor from Heid, hopefully—she's a lesser goddess. But I'm not sure who we're up against." Freya's blue eyes scanned the hillside, turning toward the rainbow bridge. "The giants have been our constant enemies."
The wife nodded, not surprised by Freya's answer. That puzzled Diana. Didn't mortals want their gods to be invincible? Why would they worship them if they might fail?
Diana thought about that on their journey back to the hut. She knew, firsthand, that gods could be defeated, not that modern mortals would embrace that concept. But hadn't Jupiter stolen his power from his father, Saturn? Wasn't Prometheus chained to a rock until Hercules rescued him? As far as she knew, though, they couldn't be killed. The Titans remained, still chained, deep in Tartarus. But these Norse gods and goddesses believed that eventually, they'd perish. Was that possible? How would that affect her if she joined them?
Diana was well equipped to deal with Heid and witches, but giants? If she helped the Norse battle and lost, what then? Would she be tossed into some pit with Tyr, Donar, and Freya? Or worse, could she actually be destroyed in their idea of a fiery Ragnarok? Surely, some of her fellow gods and goddesses could be of more help. Athena, goddess of war and strategy, came to mind. Or maybe Mars—if he could get along with Tyr and Donar. Her brother, Apollo, would gladly come to her aid, but his disposition wasn't nearly as bloodthirsty as her own.
Freya seemed to sense her indecision. "We've defeated the giants many times. The Aesir and Vanir can deal with brute force."
"Good." Things were looking up. "I can deal with magic."
"We haven't been fair to you, Roman. You thought you were only sent to help. You didn't realize you'd be asked to risk your life for us. We ask a lot. Is it too much?"
As a matter of fact, it was, but what choice did she really have? Fight now, or fight later. The seer seemed to think that together, she and the Norse might win. "This isn't just your battle, or the runes wouldn't have sent me. It's my battle too, and Romans are no cowards." Diana stopped so abruptly, Inga bumped into her. Hands on hips, she turned to Freya. "But I'm sick of being called Roman. My name's Diana. Quit being so damned condescending. As Greeks and Romans, we conquered every bit as much of the world as you did, maybe more."
Freya's laugh rang through the wood. "We can learn to be friends, Ro…" She caught herself. "…Diana."
"I can summon more help," Diana offered. "Athena would come. Mars is a bother, but he is god of war."
"We're struggling enough dealing with one Roman." When Diana's eyes blazed, Freya quickly added, "No offense meant. But, if more were needed, your runes would have told you. You were sent to us, only you."
A sensible argument. Diana could find no fault with it. "Then it must be because of my magic."
"My thoughts exactly." Freya raised her arm in a salute. "To magic!" she cried.
"I'll send for my cat." If Diana was going to stay, she needed her familiar. Freya wasn't the only goddess who associated felines with magic. Diana had been whisked away too fast to bring Noir, and she'd hesitated to bring him when she thought her stay here would be short. She knew he wouldn't like the Norse lands. They were too rugged, too cold, but he'd have to deal with it. She needed him.
"You have cats too?" Freya asked.
"A cat. I think you started it. Egyptians worshipped them, but you made them part of magic. Why you couldn't have picked a more agreeable animal is beyond me."
Inga shook her head, bemused. She'd been walking behind them, listening in on their conversation. Now, she looked from one of them to the other.
"Spit it out, girl" Freya said. "You can't be shy. What worries you?"
"How are you two going to stay together? The hut's only one room. You bicker more than Griswold and Gudrun."
"We'll be fine," Diana assured her. "It will work."
"There's only one wooden bench to sleep on."
Inga stared. "We haven't been gone that long."
"Greeks like their luxuries. What can I say?"
"Did you send for things from your world?" Freya's voice bubbled with enthusiasm.
"No, Mount Olympus."
Freya clapped her hands together in excitement. "We're going to learn a lot from you, aren't we?"
Diana's tone turned teasing. "Probably not. Norse are stubborn, but let's enjoy ourselves while we can. Warfare is serious. It doesn't have to be uncomfortable."
Freya laughed. "I can hardly wait to see what you've done." She hurried her steps, and Diana decided that goddesses of love and beauty could all be swayed by luxuries and indulgence. She, however, was goddess of the hunt. Amenities had their place, and she enjoyed them, but life was a harsh mistress. The strongest and the best could fall.