Freya, goddess of truth and justice and ruler of Middengard, frowned. The ice in her halls cracked, as if echoing her dissatisfaction.
‘You have seen something?’ her brother Freyr, god of war and fertility, appeared at her side.
‘Someone is creating mischief in the human world.’ She sighed and the ice cracked once more.
‘Mischief?’ Freyr arched one of his delicate brows.
‘We’ll use that term for now.’ Freya knew her choice of words did not fool her brother. Mischief could mean exactly that – or it could mean a threat so dire the world could end, should Freya not intervene.
‘Is it Loki?’
‘Yes - despite my promise that if he ever returned to Middengard, I would end him, no matter what our father’s wishes were.’
Freyr thought for a moment then said, ‘I suppose – technically – he’s obeyed you. If he’s in the human world.’
His sister’s expression darkened. She was obviously in no humour for such niceties. ‘He knows the human world is under my protection. Our protection,’ she added, reminding him where his allegiance lay.
Freyr knew better than to make any further response. Freya had always been sentimental where humans were concerned. Yet he knew she wouldn’t interfere directly. No, she’d take her usual route and summon Isolde, last of the Vanir.
It had taken Isolde months to adapt to her new form. She had grown used to her old body and its human shape. She had liked the kiss of the breeze against her skin and the warmth of her cloak of many pockets; enjoyed the taste of warm bread and the scent of healing salves stored in her cave. This new body – if indeed it could be called a body – was neither hot nor cold, hungry nor thirsty. It was one thing to admire the clouds as they danced across the sky, or the water that ran still and deep in Middengard’s pools, but being of them – well, that was a different thing entirely.
At least Freya had left her in peace. It had been two years since Alice Morgan’s Doom Stone had been destroyed; two years since Isolde had lost Orla to the stars. Isolde was in no mood to help the gods, given the sacrifices she’d had to make. So when the summons arrived, she was determined to ignore it. She set it atop her workbench and weighed the words for a full two days: There is mischief afoot, the message said, that threatens that world of which you are so fond.
‘Damn you Freya,’ she muttered, snatching it up at last. ‘The world I’m so fond of, indeed. Those humans - always in trouble. And who’s the one to sort them out? Not you Freya, oh no. You haven’t left your mountain eyrie since Ragnarök and that’s the truth.’
Still muttering, she stuffed the message into her cloak. At least the journey would give her an excuse to use her owl form. Doing Freya’s dirty work would let her use any shape that pleased her. And suddenly the summons seemed more welcome than it had before.
‘You haven’t changed.’ Freya said, her blue eyes as cold as the depths of Setta Water.
‘I’ll take that as a compliment.’ Isolde, back in her old body, held the goddess’s steady gaze.
‘You risked much with that wyrd spell.’ Freya almost smiled. ‘You’re lucky to be alive.’
‘Yet here I am. To do your bidding once more.’
‘Indeed, you are. And for that you have my thanks. Come.’
Isolde hid her surprise. Freya was not in the habit of expressing gratitude. The matter must be serious then. She followed the goddess to an anteroom off the Great Hall, where Freya dismissed the Ice Guards at the door. Whatever she was about to impart it was clear she didn’t wish to be overheard.
‘I received this two days ago.’ The goddess retrieved a scroll from a carved table. ‘You may recognise the handwriting.’
Isolde cast her eyes over the parchment. The message wasn’t long and was written in the old high language of Middengard:
Queens there are three in Arthur’s fair land,
Only one has the key, theirs to command.
Should the Gate open, Chaos will reign,
A fate well deserved, for all of mankind.
Iseult bore the key but what of the Gate?
Seek in the land of the sorry Queen’s fate.
The parchment was expensive, with gilt at the edges. And the ink wasn’t ink at all, but blood. It had Loki’s dramatic stamp all over it.
‘A riddle then,’ she said. ‘Do you know what it means?’
‘Don’t you?’ Freya gave that almost-smile again. It was a test. As if Isolde needed one – she, who was nearly as old as Freya herself.
‘He’s talking about Arthur of Britain - one of your proteges. As for the queens - it could refer to any queen in that land, in any century.’
‘And the reference to Iseult? You see the connection, of course.’
‘There is no connection,’ Isolde bristled. ‘Loki is being provocative. I have nothing in common with Iseult of the fables.’
‘Perhaps not,’ Freya murmured. ‘Though she was most cruelly betrayed.’
‘Humph.’ The memory of Isolde’s betrayals was a scar not yet healed – but that had nothing to do with the matter at hand. ‘It’s a legend of the human world – nothing more. What of this key he speaks of? You know of it?’
‘I do not.’ Freya’s eyes flashed, sending a blast of cold air through the chamber. The goddess prided herself on her knowledge of all things, so this would rankle. ‘It may not be a key at all – you know how he loves metaphors. He could be sending us on a fool’s errand.’
‘Yet you believe the threat of Chaos. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here.’
‘Indeed.’ Freya stared at the likeness of her father Odin, carved into the ice behind her. ‘Loki has never forgiven me for the years he spent in Hel. Nor I him for his treacherous deeds. And yet it seems he will plague me for all eternity. Destroy my world as if it were a plaything.’
Isolde noted the use of the word my. Maybe that was the difference between her and Freya – she, at least, did not have the goddess’s dreadful arrogance. ‘So, what are you going to do?’
Freya sighed. ‘What I always do - I’m going to stop him. You must find this key and prevent the Chaos he speaks of – you and Alice Morgan together. I will create another Doom Stone. One more powerful than before.’
The words dropped like a stone into water. Isolde waited a heartbeat; two. ‘No,’ she said at last, summoning power from deep within her and trusting it would suffice. No one had ever refused Freya, at least not in the millennium that Isolde had lived.
‘No? NO?’ Freya’s form elongated, towering above her. ‘You dare to challenge me?’
The ice cracked explosively, but Isolde held her ground. ‘Challenge? No. I am asking you to reconsider. I will do your bidding – but not with Alice Morgan. You promised her a normal life.’ Then before Freya could object she hurried on, ‘There is another of the blood line willing to take her place.’
A surge of Freya’s power flung her against the ice. ‘Do you take me for a fool?’ the goddess thundered. ‘You wish me to trust Mimir’s grandson?’
‘I do,’ Isolde said, staggering to her feet. ‘Joshua Winter is worthy of your trust. He is brave of heart and sure of purpose. He saved my life, once.’
That seemed to give Freya pause. She resumed her normal size and looked at Isolde closely. ‘When you almost fell at your daughter’s hand,’ she said quietly. ‘I see it now.’
‘Joshua is worthy of your trust,’ Isolde repeated firmly. ‘You have my word.’
‘And is he worthy of a Doom Stone?’ Freya’s gaze bore into her.
‘I would caution against the use of more Doom Stones,’ Isolde said, preparing for another icy blast. But the remark was met by silence, so she went on, ‘There is another who can help him. She has gifts inherited from her mother – Helaine of Glassmere.’
Freya narrowed her eyes. ‘You mean the human child, I take it.’
‘I do. Joshua has a special bond with her. Together, they will be powerful.’
‘I see.’ Freya tapped her fingers on the parchment, tracing the riddle written there. ‘Very well,’ she said eventually. ‘I will take your counsel on this Isolde. But know that I will hold you responsible for the outcome. You dare much, in refusing my offer of a Doom Stone. Let us hope your faith in these children is not misplaced.’