The Sword of Summer (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard 1) - Page 6


that much. I definitely didn’t feel like a hero. I’d got my butt kicked and my guts cannonballed. By stabbing Surt and toppling off the bridge, I’d simply failed in the most productive way possible. A brave death? Not so much.

I froze.

An idea struck me with the force of a sledgehammer.

My mom … If anyone had died bravely, she had. To protect me from –

Just then someone knocked on my door.

It swung open and a girl stepped inside … the same girl who had circled over the battle on the bridge then pulled me through the grey void.

She had ditched her helmet, chain mail and glowing spear. Her green headscarf was now around her neck, letting her long brown hair spill freely over her shoulders. Her white dress was embroidered with Viking runes around the collar and cuffs. From her golden belt hung a set of old-fashioned keys and a single-bladed axe. She looked like the maid of honour at someone’s Mortal Kombat wedding.

She glanced at the overturned sofa. ‘Did the furniture offend you?’

‘You’re real,’ I noted.

She patted her own arms. ‘Yes, it appears I am.’

‘My mother,’ I said.

‘No,’ she said, ‘I’m not your mother.’

‘I mean, is she here in Valhalla?’

The girl’s mouth formed a silent Oh. She gazed over my shoulder as if considering her answer. ‘I’m sorry. Natalie Chase is not among the Chosen.’

‘But she was the brave one. She sacrificed herself for me.’

‘I believe you.’ The girl examined her key ring. ‘But I would know if she were here. We Valkyries are not allowed to choose everyone who dies bravely. There are … many factors, many different afterlives.’

‘Then where is she? I want to be there. I’m no hero!’

She surged towards me, pushing me against the wall as easily as I’d flipped the sofa. She pressed her forearm against my throat.

‘Don’t say that,’ the girl hissed. ‘DO – NOT – SAY – THAT! Especially not tonight at dinner.’

Her breath smelled like spearmint. Her eyes were somehow dark and bright at the same time. They reminded me of a fossil my mom used to have – a cross section of a nautilus-like sea animal called an ammonite. It seemed to glow from within, as if it had absorbed millions of years of memories while lying under the earth. The girl’s eyes had that same sort of lustre.

‘You don’t understand,’ I croaked. ‘I have to –’

She pushed harder against my windpipe. ‘What do you think I don’t understand? Grieving for your mother? Being judged unfairly? Being somewhere you don’t want to be, forced to deal with people you’d rather not deal with?’

I didn’t know how to respond to that, especially since I couldn’t breathe.

She stepped away. As I choked and gagged, she paced the foyer, glaring at nothing in particular. Her axe and keys swung on her belt.

I rubbed my bruised neck.

Stupid, Magnus, I told myself. New place: learn the rules.

I couldn’t start whining and making demands. I had to set aside the question of my mother. If she were anywhere, I’d figure that out later. Right now, being in this hotel was no different than walking into an unfamiliar youth shelter, alley encampment or church-basement soup kitchen. Every place had rules. I had to learn the power structure, the pecking order, the no-nos that would get me stabbed or rolled. I had to survive … even if I was already dead.

‘Sorry,’ I said. My throat felt like I’d swallowed a live rodent with lots of claws. ‘But why do you care if I’m a hero or not?’

She smacked her forehead. ‘Wow, okay. Maybe because I brought you here? Maybe because my career is on the line? One more slip-up and –’ She caught herself. ‘Never mind. When you’re introduced, go along with what I say. Keep your mouth shut, nod your head and try to look brave. Don’t make me regret bringing you here.’

‘All right. But, for the record, I didn’t ask for your help.’

‘Odin’s Eye! You were dying! Your other options were Helheim or Ginnungagap or …’ She shuddered. ‘Let’s just say there are worse places to spend your afterlife than Valhalla. I saw what you did on the bridge. Whether you recognize it or not, you acted bravely. You sacrificed yourself to save a lot of people.’

Her words sounded like a compliment. Her tone sounded like she was calling me an idiot.

She marched over and poked me in the chest. ‘You have potential, Magnus Chase. Don’t prove me wrong or –’

From the wall speakers, a horn blast sounded so loudly it rattled the picture on the mantel.

‘What’s that?’ I asked. ‘An air raid?’

‘Dinner.’ The girl straightened. She took a deep breath and extended her hand. ‘Let’s start again. Hi, I’m Samirah al-Abbas.’

I blinked. ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but that doesn’t sound like a very Viking-ish name.’

She smiled tightly. ‘You can call me Sam. Everyone does. I’ll be your Valkyrie this evening. Pleased to meet you properly.’

She shook my hand, her grip so tight my finger bones popped. ‘I will now escort you to dinner.’ She forced a smile. ‘If you embarrass me, I’ll be the first to kill you.’

TWELVE

At Least I’m Not on Goat-Chasing Duty

In the hallway, my neighbours were starting to emerge. Thomas Jefferson Jr looked about my age. He had short curly hair, a lanky frame and a rifle slung over one shoulder. His blue wool coat had brass buttons and chevrons on the sleeve – a U.S. Army Civil War uniform, I guessed. He nodded and smiled. ‘How you doing?’

‘Um, dead, apparently,’ I said.

He laughed. ‘Yeah. You’ll get used to it. Call me T.J.’

‘Magnus,’ I said.

‘Come on.’ Sam pulled me along.

We passed a girl who must’ve been Mallory Keen. She had frizzy red hair, green eyes and a serrated knife, which she was shaking in the face of a six-foot-seven guy outside the door marked X.

‘Again with the pig’s head?’ Mallory Keen spoke in a faint Irish brogue. ‘X, do you think I want to see a severed pig’s head every time I step out of my front door?’

‘I could not eat any more,’ X rumbled. ‘The pig head does not fit in my refrigerator.’

Personally, I would not have antagonized the guy. He was built like a bomb-containment chamber. If you happened to have a live grenade, I was pretty sure you could safely dispose of it simply by asking X to swallow it. His skin was the colour of a shark’s belly, rippling with muscles and stippled with warts. There were so many welts on his face it was hard to tell which one was his nose.

We walked past, X and Mallory too busy arguing to pay us any attention.

When we were out of earshot, I asked Sam, ‘What’s the deal with the big grey dude?’

Sam put her finger to her lips. ‘X is a half-troll. He’s a little sensitive about that.’

‘A half-troll. That’s an actual thing?’

‘Of course,’ she said. ‘And he deserves to be here as much as you.’

‘Hey, no doubt. Just asking.’

The defensiveness in her voice made me wonder what the story was.

As we passed the door for HALFBORN GUNDERSON, an axe blade split the wood from the inside. Muffled laughter came from the room.

Sam ushered me into the elevator. She pushed away several other einherjar who were trying to get in. ‘Next car, guys.’

The spear-cage door slid shut. Sam inserted one of her keys into an override slot on the panel. She pressed a red rune and the elevator descended. ‘I’ll take you into the dining hall before the main doors open. That way you can get the lay of the land.’

‘Uh … sure. Thanks.’

Nordic easy-listening music started playing from the ceiling.

Congratulations, Magnus! I thought. Welcome to warrior paradise, where you can listen to Frank Sinatra in Norwegian FOREVER!

I tried to think of something to say, preferably something that

would not make Sam crush my windpipe.

‘So … everybody on floor nineteen looks about my age,’ I noted. ‘Or – our age. Does Valhalla only take teenagers?’

Samirah shook her head. ‘The einherjar are grouped by the age they were when they died. You’re in the youngest tier, which goes up to about age nineteen. Most of the time, you won’t even see the other two tiers – adults and seniors. It’s better that way. The adults … well, they don’t take teens seriously, even if the teens have been here hundreds of years longer.’

‘Typical,’ I said.

‘As for the senior warriors, they don’t always mix well. Imagine a really violent retirement home.’

‘Sounds like some shelters I’ve been in.’

‘Shelters?’

‘Forget it. So, you’re a Valkyrie. You chose all the people in the hotel?’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I personally chose everyone in this hotel.’

‘Ha, ha. You know what I meant. Your … sisterhood or whatever.’

‘That’s right. Valkyries are responsible for choosing the einherjar. Each warrior here died a valiant death. Each had a belief in honour, or some connection to the Norse gods that made him or her eligible for Valhalla.’

I thought about what Uncle Randolph had told me, how the sword had been a birthright from my father. ‘A connection … like being the child of a god?’

I was afraid Sam might laugh at me, but she nodded gravely. ‘Many einherjar are demigods. Many are regular mortals. You’re chosen for Valhalla because of your courage and honour, not your heritage. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to be …’

I couldn’t decide if her tone was wistful or resentful.

‘And you?’ I asked. ‘How did you become a Valkyrie? Did you die a noble death?’

She laughed. ‘Not yet. I’m still among the living.’

‘How does that work exactly?’

‘Well, I live a double life. Tonight, I’ll escort you to dinner. Then I have to rush home and finish my calculus homework.’

‘You’re not joking, are you?’

‘I never joke about calculus homework.’

The elevator doors opened. We stepped into a room the size of a concert arena.

My mouth dropped. ‘Holy –’

‘Welcome,’ Samirah said, ‘to the Feast Hall of the Slain.’

Tiers of long tables like stadium seating curved downward from the nosebleed section. In the centre of the room, instead of a basketball court, a tree rose taller than the Statue of Liberty. Its lowest branches were maybe a hundred feet up. Its canopy spread over the entire hall, scraping against the domed ceiling and sprouting through a massive opening at the top. Above, stars glittered in the night sky.

My first question probably wasn’t the most important. ‘Why is there a goat in the tree?’

In fact, a lot of animals skittered among the branches. I couldn’t tell what most of them were, but wobbling along the lowest branch was a very fat shaggy goat. Its swollen udders rained milk like leaky showerheads. Below, on the dining-hall floor, a team of four stocky warriors carried a big golden bucket on poles set across their shoulders. They shuffled back and forth, trying to stay under the goat so they could catch the streams of milk. Judging by how soaked the warriors were, they missed a lot.

‘The goat is Heidrun,’ Sam told me. ‘Her milk is brewed to make the mead of Valhalla. It’s good stuff. You’ll see.’

‘And the guys chasing her around?’

‘Yeah, that’s a thankless job. Behave yourself, or you might get assigned to vat duty.’

‘Uh … couldn’t they just, I don’t know, bring the goat down here?’

‘She’s a free-range goat. Her mead tastes better that way.’

‘Of course it does,’ I said. ‘And … all the other animals? I see squirrels and possums and –’

‘Sugar gliders and sloths,’ Sam offered. ‘Those are cute.’

‘Okay. But you guys eat dinner here? That can’t be hygienic with all the animal droppings.’

‘The animals in the Tree of Laeradr are well behaved.’

‘The Tree of … Lay-rah-dur. You named your tree.’

‘Most important things have names.’ She frowned at me. ‘Who are you again?’

‘Very funny.’

‘Some of the animals are immortal and have particular jobs. I can’t spot him right now, but somewhere up there is a stag named Eikthrymir. We call him Ike for short. You see that waterfall?’

It was hard to miss. From somewhere high in the tree, water ran down grooves in the bark and formed one powerful torrent that cascaded off a branch in a roaring white curtain. It crashed into a pond the size of an Olympic pool between two of the tree’s roots.

‘The stag’s horns spray water non-stop,’ Sam said. ‘It flows down the branches into that lake. From there, it goes underground and feeds every river in every world.’

‘So … all water is stag-horn run-off? I’m pretty sure that’s not what they taught me in earth science.’

‘It’s not all from Ike’s horns. There’s also snowmelt, rainwater, pollutants and trace amounts of fluoride and jotun spit.’

‘Jotun?’

‘You know, giants.’

She didn’t appear to be kidding, though it was hard to be sure. Her face was full of tense humour – her eyes darting and alert, her lips pressed together like she was either suppressing a laugh or expecting an attack. I could imagine her doing stand-up comedy, though maybe not with the axe at her side. Her features also seemed strangely familiar – the line of her nose, the curve of her jaw, the subtle streaks of red and copper in her dark hair.

‘Have we met before?’ I asked. ‘I mean … before you chose my soul for Valhalla?’

‘I doubt it,’ she said.

‘But you’re mortal? You live in Boston?’

‘Dorchester. I’m a sophomore at King Academy. I live with my grandparents and spend most of my time finding excuses to cover for my Valkyrie activities. Tonight, Jid and Bibi think I’m tutoring a group of elementary students in maths. Any other questions?’

Her eyes sent the opposite message: Enough with the personal stuff.

I wondered why she lived with her grandparents. Then I remembered what she’d said earlier, about understanding what it was like to grieve for a mother.

‘No more questions,’ I decided. ‘My head would explode.’

‘That would be messy,’ Sam said. ‘Let’s get your seat before –’

Around the perimeter of the room, a hundred doors burst open. The armies of Valhalla swarmed in.

‘Dinner is served,’ Sam said.

THIRTEEN

Phil the Potato Meets His Doom

We were swept up in a tidal wave of hungry warriors. Einherjar poured in from every direction, pushing, joking and laughing as they headed for their seats.

‘Hold on,’ Sam told me.

She grabbed my wrist and we flew into the air, Peter-Pan-style.

I yelped. ‘A little warning?’

‘I said hold on.’

We skimmed above the heads of the warriors. Nobody paid us much attention except for one guy I accidentally kicked in the face. Other Valkyries were also zipping around – some escorting warriors, some carrying platters of food and pitchers of drink.

We headed towards what was obviously the head table – where the home team would’ve sat if this were a Celtics game. A dozen grim-looking dudes were taking their seats in front of golden plates and jewel-encrusted goblets. In the place of honour stood an empty wooden throne with a high back, where two ravens perched, grooming their feathers.

Sam landed us at the table to the left. Twelve other people were just getting seated – two girls and four guys in regular street clothes; and six Valkyries dressed more or less like Sam.

‘Other newcomers?’ I asked.

Sam nodded, her eyebrows furrowed. ‘Seven in one night is a lot.’

‘Is that good or bad?’


‘More heroes dying means more bad things are stirring in the world. Which means …’ She pursed her lips. ‘Never mind. Let’s get seated.’

Before we could, a tall Valkyrie stepped in our path. ‘Samirah al-Abbas, what have you brought us tonight – another half-troll? Perhaps a spy from your father?’

The girl looked about eighteen. She was big enough to play power forward in the NBA, with snow-blonde hair in braids down either shoulder. Over her green dress she wore a bandolier of ball-peen hammers, which struck me as an odd choice of weapon. Maybe Valhalla had a lot of loose nails. Around her neck hung a golden amulet shaped like a hammer. Her eyes were as pale blue and cold as a winter sky.

‘Gunilla –’ Sam’s voice tightened – ‘this is Magnus Chase.’

I held out my hand. ‘Gorilla? Pleased to meet you.’

The girl’s nostrils flared. ‘It is Gunilla, captain of the Valkyries. And you, newcomer –’

The foghorn I’d heard earlier echoed through the hall. This time I could see the source. Near the base of the tree, two guys held a black-and-white animal horn the size of a canoe while a third guy blew into it.

Thousands of warriors took their seats. Gorilla gave me one last stink-eye, then spun on her heel and marched off to the head table.

‘Be careful,’ Sam warned me. ‘Gunilla is powerful.’

‘Also kind of a butt.’

The corner of Sam’s mouth twitched. ‘That, too.’

She looked shaken, her knuckles white on the haft of her axe. I wondered what Gunilla had meant by a spy from your father, but, since my windpipe was still sore from the last time I made Sam angry, I decided not to ask.

I sat at the end of the table next to Sam, so I didn’t get to talk to the other newbies. Meanwhile, hundreds of Valkyries flew around the room, distributing food and drink. Whenever a Valkyrie’s pitcher was empty, she would swoop over the golden vat now bubbling over a large fire, fill her pitcher with yummy goat’s-milk mead and continue serving. The main course came from a roasting pit at the other end of the room. Rotating on a hundred-foot-long spit was the carcass of an animal. I wasn’t sure what it had been when it was alive, but it was easily the size of a blue whale.

A Valkyrie flew past, depositing a platter of food and a goblet in front of me. I couldn’t tell what the slices of meat were, but they smelled great, drizzled in gravy with potatoes on the side and thick slices of bread with butter. It had been a while since I’d had a hot meal, but I still hesitated.

‘What kind of animal am I eating?’

Sam wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. ‘It’s named Saehrimnir.’


Tags: Rick Riordan Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard Fantasy
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