Two days crawled by, and Diana seethed with impatience. Was Heid still pummeling Olaf, trying to force him to relent? Part of her was tempted to do as she pleased—to make herself obscure and go after him alone. But what if Heid sensed her magic? Could she escape in one piece? And what if she weren't here to help the village when Heid came? The runes predicted that without her, Tyr would fail.
Noir tried to calm her. The cat must be truly concerned. He paced by her side and lay with her at night. He rubbed his chin against her ankles and was her constant companion. She eyed him suspiciously. "You don't trust me, do you? You're worried I'll do something stupid, but I won't."
The cat's yellow eyes didn't blink. It was an accusing glare.
She huffed. "I do use some common sense."
If a cat could snort, he did.
Tyr came for her. "We're sharpening weapons and arming every villager old enough to fight. Want to help?"
It was a lesson in futility, and he knew it as well as she, but it was better than nothing. Diana followed him to the village gardens, Noir at her heels. When they finished that chore, Hlif asked for assistance in the kitchen. "We're cooking roasts and breads. We might not have time once the battle starts."
Another pointless chore. The battle would be swift and brutal, but why not? Diana mixed flour and yeast, stirred in wet ingredients, and kneaded the hell out of doughs. By the time they finished, bread loaves cooled on every available surface.
What would they think of next? she wondered. No one wanted to be idle. She was surprised they weren't out planting seeds in the middle of summer just for something to do. Jon walked into the kitchen, clearly sent to keep her busy, and was about to announce some new plan when a cry went up from the guards at the fence. Noise rumbled from the cliffs. Someone or something was scaling them. Birds dipped and cried overhead, screeching warnings. Everyone ran to see what was coming, including her.
What she saw surprised her. Row after row of strange beasts raced down the hills on the far edge of the meadow. She thought quickly. Hellhounds couldn't pass wolfbane, but the other mutants worried her. What were they? A hodgepodge mix of this and that? Elephant bodies supported serpent heads on long, thick necks. Bears grew massive, scorpion tails. Cougars walked on eight legs, like spiders. A single witch led them. Where was Heid? Where were the giants? Waiting in the wings? Ready to attack from a different direction?
Dark skies roiled behind the strange army—a huge bank of storm clouds. Winds flattened grasses. Lightning forked from side to side. Thunder boomed so loud, guards couldn't hear each other shout. Battle horns blared in the distance. What of Ormr and Asdis—outside the village fence—and the other giants and witches who'd joined them? Could they survive the onslaught, battling so many foes in the meadow? Heid had done what Diana suspected—surprised them.
She watched as Peta took to the air. He flew to the front row of monsters and belched fire, scorching the first flank of mutants. The witch shot energy at him. It hit the shields that protected his body and bounced off, killing two more beasts. Diana aimed an arrow, and the witch fell, dead. Freya grinned and shifted to dragon form. She flapped her wings and went to join Peta. Between the two of them, they roasted one row of animals after another. Diana reached into her quiver and let loose volleys of arrows. More animals fell. But there were many. Some made it to the campground, but circled its barriers, to reach the wooden gates. A few villagers, too frightened to stay put, raced out to stop them. They soon fell. Tyr, at full size, towered above the fence. He filled the open gates, swinging his sword at any beasts who tried to pass him, slicing body after body in half.
A strange mutant—part gator, part viper—stopped near the giants’ campground, reached behind him, and clamped a body between its teeth. It tossed the corpse into the meadow. A chill shivered through Diana. Her mouth went dry. But the body was too large. Not Olaf's. A giant's. No one Diana recognized. The beast plunged forward, sinking its fangs into the limp form, lifting it off the ground and shaking it.
Ormr roared and raced toward it. The corpse was clearly that of someone he knew, someone who'd stayed behind. "Illugi!" His brother, Diana remembered, the giant who kept his hounds for his return. Ormr ran toward the mutant, and when it struck, he clamped its neck between his hands, as Diana had trapped the young boy when he shifted to snake form. He snapped its neck, and it went limp. Other animals pounced on him. Asdis waded forward, throwing energy at them. She was so agitated, the white balls sizzled with power. The animals flew backwards, landing hard on the ground. Asdis' friends joined her, and monsters crumpled before them. Ormr's fellow giants followed them, finishing off the stunned beasts.
Peta and Freya divided, Peta torching the left side of the army while Freya burned the right. The storm clouds never moved. Diana shot more and more arrows. Fewer and fewer animals remained. What was Heid waiting on? Why conjure a storm if she wasn't going to use it?
Then Diana saw horses coming. Three riders raced toward them on huge, glorious steeds. "The bridge!" Finna called. "Heid's at the bridge!"
Diana stared. Finna was dead. She'd seen his body draped over his horse. Then she understood. Freya had sent him to Folkvang. He was a warrior for Asgaard now. She shook her head. Heid couldn't be at the rainbow! Heimdall would have sounded the horn.
Suddenly, Diana realized the importance of the storm. The thunder was so loud, laced with blasts from fake battle horns, that they couldn't hear Heimdall's warning. Irritated, she shot energy at the heavens. It expanded as it went, obliterating the roiling clouds when it reached them.
Everything went silent. Beasts and villagers alike stopped to look upward before returning to the fight. She glanced toward the village. Tyr and Jorunda waved their swords in triumph.
Diana motioned to the three riders as they turned their steeds to race away. She bolted after them. Tyr frowned and hurried to follow. Freya, too, saw the riders and flew overhead. They'd almost reached the bridge when Heid and her troops swooped toward them.
"A surprise attack," Tyr cursed. "Heid's not after the bridge. She's after us."
Diana had to admire the witch's strategy—worthy of Odysseus himself. If the dark witch could destroy or capture them, the village would be hers. And then she could take Bifrost.
Giants and witches fanned out to battle them. Tyr gripped his sword, as did the three warriors from Asgaard. Freya landed beside them, ready to spew fire. Diana reached for her arrows.
Heid galloped toward them. A cruel smile curved her lips. She shot a rope of energy behind her, lifted a small burden, and tossed Olaf's corpse to the ground between them.
The dwarf's body was covered with bruises. Toe prints from giants mingled with blasts from witches. He'd been battered mercilessly before he died.
Heat churned through Diana's veins. It surged from her core and formed a halo around her. Ice crystals powdered Freya's scales. They slid past her talons and spread over the ground, withering grasses.
Diana turned to Tyr. "Send Freya’s warriors home to safety.”
He called to them, "Return to Asgaard. Watch over the bridge!"
They wheeled their steeds and did as told. Tyr came to stand beside the goddesses. He waved his hand, and dark clouds gathered overhead. Winds churned viciously.
Heid laughed. "There are three of you, and an army of us!"
Diana cursed, and a bolt of lightning zigzagged straight toward Heid’s horse. The stallion reared, knocking Heid to the ground. When she tried to stand, ice slid beneath her feet. It crept over her boots, intending to freeze her there. She shot energy into the ice to melt it and free herself. Her witches raised their arms to defend her, but Diana blasted them away. They flew so far, only four still moved after they hit the hard dirt.
"Finish them!" Heid screamed, and giants rushed forward. Giants who'd played with Olaf as a toy, who'd kicked and bruised him, battered him and maimed him.
Diana's fury exploded. Heat blasts smashed into them. Screams pierced the air as flesh burned, holes opened, and bodies fell. Tyr rushed forward with his sword, finishing them once they were down. Peta and Freya swooped over the giants, belching fire. If they held their shields over their heads to protect themselves, Diana was free to blast their midsections with her magic.
Heid threw blast after blast of energy at Diana, doing her best to keep her busy while the three witches staggered back to her side. The fourth aimed at Tyr, but he easily deflected her magic. A giant rushed him when the second witch slashed a fork of energy his way. Freya lashed her tail at the giant, knocking him to the ground. Tyr’s sword glistened, and the giant’s blood pooled with his friends’. Hellhounds sprang forward. Peta gave a happy roar and toasted them all. The third witch shot magic at him. It hit his armor and bounced back at her, forcing Heid to jump out of its way.
Diana took advantage of the distraction and shot balls of energy at the two witches who’d fired at Tyr. A blast hit with enough force that one of them flew into the air, and Freya snapped the witch between her jaws. Heid shot a furious bolt at Freya and burned a hole through her left wing. Freya wobbled, then crashed to earth, skidding to a halt beside Diana. Diana waved her hands, and a wave of energy flew across the field toward Heid. The witches had to retreat from its force, giving Freya time to shift back to goddess form safely. Diana laid a hand on her friend and pumped healing energy into her, but it would take time before her left arm functioned properly.
The one remaining giant rushed them, and Freya turned on him savagely. She froze the ground beneath his feet so that he lost his balance and skidded toward her waiting short sword. Another batch of hounds swept toward them, and Freya froze them too. When Diana blasted them, they shattered when they hit the ground.
Heid and her three, remaining witches formed a tight knot and combined their powers. They aimed at Peta in unison and hit him with such force, the dragon somersaulted backward through the air. He landed on the far side of the rainbow bridge and lay, limp, at the entrance to Asgaard.
Tyr’s bellow shook the ground. Diana waved her hand to magnify his power, and the earth’s ripple became a tidal wave of dirt. It hit Heid and her witches, knocking them off their feet. When one of the witches tried to stand, Diana slammed her with so much force, she flew onto the burning bridge and went up in flames. Another witch tried to crawl away, but Tyr scowled and a whirlwind picked her off the ground. Tyr waved, and it threw her at a tree. She crumpled and fell, her neck at an odd angle.
Heid grabbed the last witch’s hand and turned to run, but Diana’s words held them in place. She glanced across the bridge at Peta’s still form, and energy swirled in hot masses around her. She could feel Freya’s anger chill the air. The two goddesses looked at each other. They, too, joined hands to spew their energies across the field. The steam hit Heid and her companion. Their flesh melted from their bones.
Tyr placed a hand gently on Diana’s shoulder. "Diana, love, we want to protect the meadow, not destroy it."
His touch stilled her. His voice calmed her. He'd called her love. Her energy slowed, along with Freya’s. They blinked at each other. No one stood. Heid's army was annihilated.
Diana stalked to the puddle of liquefied flesh and charred bones. “Let dark magic come back from that!”
But there was no resurrection.
Diana smiled. "The last of Heid."
Freya immediately strode forward, studying the corpses that littered the ground.
"Surely you're not going to choose a warrior for Folkvang from one of these?" Tyr asked.
"Griswold," she seethed. "I want to see him dead."
They all looked, but the chieftain's corpse was not among the fallen. They ended up, standing in a huddle, over Olaf’s beaten body. “He died doing battle for us,” Freya said and gave a quick call. Hoofbeats raced across the bridge as Finna bound toward them on his magnificent horse. She motioned to Olaf. The warrior smiled. He scooped up the dwarf and started back across the bridge. “He can join the smiths in Asgaard,” he said. “His work is worthy of gods.”
Tyr began to follow them, shoulders slumped as he walked toward Peta, but the dragon stirred. Diana stared, then ran through the rainbow’s flames to reach him. She pressed her hands on his scales and filled him with energy. Peta raised his head, belched smoke, and smiled.
Freya threw her arms around his neck to hug him.
Peta shifted to his human form. “Did we win?” he asked.
Tyr offered his arm for support. “With your help, victory was ours.”
Slowly, they walked back to the meadow. Ormr and his giants were gathering dead bodies into a pile. Warriors, along with Asdis and her witches, placed dry wood on and around them.
“Heid?” Jorunda called when he saw Tyr.
“Griswold?” Jon asked.
"Wasn't with them." Freya sneered. "Why doesn't that surprise me?"
Tyr turned to Jorunda. "What of our casualties? How many did we lose?"
Jorunda motioned to the corpses of the villagers who'd rushed outside to battle the mutant beasts.
"Everyone who stayed inside the gates remained unharmed," Jon said.
Just as the runes had predicted. Diana, Freya, and Inga exchanged glances.
"What will become of Griswold?" Diana asked.
Tyr's expression turned thoughtful. "There’s no place for him to hide in the meadow. Heid's gone. He'll have to live in Giantland." Tyr turned to Ormr and his friends and smiled. "I've heard that giants don't treat mortals well."
Ormr's grim countenance softened slightly. "When we return home, we'll spread word that Griswold contributed to Illugi’s death. He'll be shunned by any giants of worth."
"His life will not be pleasant," Asdis added.
Ormr ran a hand through his thick hair. "If you have no further need of our services, we'll take Illugi home to bury him."
"We thank you for all you've done for us," Tyr said.
"Likewise," Ormr told them.
Asdis smiled at Diana. "You've made witches out of us. We thank you."
"Your world needs all the white witches it can get," Diana said. "Griswold tried his best to eradicate you."
The wolves came forward next, and the shifter among them turned to his human shape. "We were of little use to you in this battle. Would you like us to leave too?"
"We wouldn't have found Olaf without your help," Jorunda said. "We welcome you, if you'll stay with us."
"We'd be proud to run by your side," the boy said, "but we prefer our den in the meadow, rather than living inside your gates."
"The meadow's your home, and you're our friends." Jorunda put an arm around Inga's shoulders. "But we'll expect you at our wedding."
The boy grinned. "And we'll be expecting lots of table scraps."
Inga turned to Peta. "And you, friend? We couldn't have won without you."
"I haven't had this much fun for decades!"
"Will you be returning home too?" Jorunda asked.
"My wife and children are waiting for me on our island." He bowed before Diana. "It was a pleasure, goddess."
Noir and Shadow padded forward to say their goodbyes before Peta returned to dragon form and took to the air.
Tyr looked at Jorunda. "We have work to do. You won't want bodies rotting at your door."
Diana, Freya, and Inga left them to it. They might help win battles, but they didn't clean up after them.
Tyr raised himself onto an elbow. "Modern living has some advantages."
Diana snuggled against him. "We didn’t have to cook last night. And who knew you’d love Italian?"
He grinned, watching the sun’s first rays slant through her bedroom window. “I don’t want to leave, but I have duties to perform.”
“Let Donar do them.”
His smile widened. “That would prove interesting.”
“You’re one of the old gods,” Diana argued. “Can’t you partially retire?”
“Like you have?” He bent to kiss her forehead. “I have to admit, your world is worth visiting.”
“My world, or me?”
“I’d follow you anywhere.” He rolled onto his back and stared up at her high ceiling. “I like your apartment. Everything’s browns and greens.”
“Like my forest at home.” Noir howled at the bedroom door. “He doesn’t like being locked out. He usually sleeps with me.”
“When we’re sleeping he’s welcome, but there are some things even a familiar shouldn’t be familiar with.”
She rolled onto her side and touched a finger to the blank rune on the cord that circled his neck. "I'll always be able to find you now. You’d better behave yourself."
"I might not be able to. You’ll have to come to my world to check on me."
"You think I won't?"
"You’d better. If I visit you, and you visit me, we'll get by."
She sighed. "I want more than that."
The sky god grew serious. "So do I, but your place is with your people, and my duty is with mine. In truth, though, there are no more Romans. They’ve all become Italians, opened restaurants, and make pasta. You live in Manhattan. How many Greeks or Romans do you have to care for?"
"I'm a citizen of the world now, old god. I've kept up with the times."
"No one cares for your altars."
"That's why they need me. They know so little."
Tyr frowned. "If Gudrun was right, mortals will need both of us again."
"She said that we’d face more battles, that our destinies are intertwined." Diana rested her elbows on his chest. “You’re stuck with me.”
He cupped her face in his hand. "It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it."
She smiled and nibbled on his jawline. Strong and solid, just like him. "It works for me, but I have ideas to make it better." Her hand slid under the blankets.
He groaned and pulled her on top of him. “You have the day off. I don’t. I have to go home.”
"Mmm, in a few minutes. Woden and Donar can wait." She lowered her face to his, and her hair fell forward like a veil, hiding her kiss.
He sighed. "I’ve stocked your marble house. It’s ready for whenever you come to the meadow."
“We won’t stay at your place in Asgaard?”
“We could, but I thought you’d like your own surroundings better.”
“Screw the surroundings if we’ll have more privacy.”
“That too.” He moved beneath her, and thoughts of the meadow left her. An hour later, she lay in bed with Noir as her only companion. Tyr had to leave. She understood his duties, and he respected hers. Eventually, according to Gudrun’s runes, they’d have to join together to fight another battle. But in the meantime, she was determined to enjoy everything she could about the sky god.
A Norse and a Greek. Who knew? He could grow of fond of New York, and she could look forward to Northern lights and reindeer furs.
BTW, if you enjoyed EMPTY ALTARS, I hope you come back next week for something new:)