‘Okay, first of all, who names their dinner? I don’t want to know my dinner’s name. This potato – is this potato named Steve?’
She rolled her eyes. ‘No, stupid. That’s Phil. The bread is Steve.’
I stared at her.
‘Kidding,’ she said. ‘Saehrimnir is the magical beast of Valhalla. Every day they kill it and cook it for dinner. Every morning it’s resurrected alive and well.’
‘That must suck for the animal. But is it like a cow or a pig or –’
‘It’s whatever you want it to be. My portion is beef. Different sections of the animal are chicken or pork. I don’t do pork, but some of the guys here love it.’
‘What if I’m a vegetarian? What if I want falafel?’
Sam became very still. ‘Was that some sort of joke?’
‘Why would it be a joke? I like falafel.’
Her shoulders relaxed. ‘Well, if you want falafel, just ask for the left flank. That part is tofu and bean curd. They can spice it to taste like just about anything.’
‘You have a magic animal whose left flank is made of tofu.’
‘This is Valhalla, paradise for warriors in the service of Odin. Your food will taste perfect, whatever you choose.’
My stomach was getting impatient, so I dug in. The barbecue had just the right mix of spicy and sweet. The bread was like a warm cloud with a buttery crust. Even Phil the potato tasted great.
Not being a huge fan of free-range goat’s milk, I was reluctant to try the mead, but the stuff in my goblet looked more like sparkling cider.
I took a sip. Sweet, but not too sweet. Cold and smooth, with undercurrents I couldn’t quite identify. Was that blackberry? Or honey? Or vanilla? I drained my glass.
Suddenly my senses were on fire. It wasn’t like alcohol (and, yes, I’ve tried alcohol, thrown up, tried alcohol again, thrown up). The mead didn’t make me giddy, dopey or nauseous. It was more like iced espresso without the bitter taste. It woke me up, filling me with a warm sense of confidence, but with no edginess or racing heartbeat.
‘This stuff is good,’ I admitted.
A Valkyrie swooped in, refilled my cup and flew away.
I glanced at Sam, who was brushing breadcrumbs off her scarf. ‘Do you ever do serving duty?’
‘Yeah, sure. We take turns. It’s an honour to serve the einherjar.’ She didn’t even sound sarcastic.
‘How many Valkyries are there?’
‘How many einherjar?’
Sam puffed her cheeks. ‘Tens of thousands? Like I said, this is just the first dinner. There are two other shifts for the older warriors. Valhalla has five hundred and forty doors. Each one is supposed to accommodate eight hundred warriors exiting for battle at once. That would mean four hundred and thirty-two thousand einherjar.’
‘That’s a lot of tofu.’
She shrugged. ‘Personally, I think the number is exaggerated, but only Odin knows for sure. We’ll need a big army when Ragnarok rolls around.’
‘Ragnarok,’ I said.
‘Doomsday,’ Sam said. ‘When the Nine Worlds are destroyed in a great conflagration and the armies of gods and giants meet in battle for the last time.’
‘Oh. That Ragnarok.’
I scanned the sea of teenaged fighters. I remembered my first day of public high school in Allston, a few months before my mom died and my life turned to dumpster sludge. The school had had around two thousand kids. Between classes, the halls were sheer chaos. The cafeteria was like a piranha tank. But it was nothing compared to Valhalla.
I pointed towards the head table. ‘What about the fancy dudes? Most of them look older.’
‘I wouldn’t call them fancy dudes,’ Sam said. ‘Those are the thanes, the lords of Valhalla. Each one was personally invited by Odin to sit at his table.’
‘So the empty throne –’
‘Is for Odin. Yes. He … well, it’s been a while since he’s shown up for dinner, but his ravens watch everything and report back to him.’
Those ravens made me nervous with their beady black eyes. I got the feeling they were taking a particular interest in me.
Sam pointed to the right of the throne. ‘There’s Erik Bloodax. And that’s Erik the Red.’
‘A lot of Eriks.’
‘There’s Leif Erikson.’
‘Whoa … but he’s not wearing a metal bra.’
‘I’m going to ignore that comment. Over there is Snorri. Then our charming friend Gunilla. Then Lord Nelson and Davy Crockett.’
‘Davy … wait, seriously?’
‘At the end is Helgi the hotel manager. You probably met him.’
Helgi seemed to be having a good time, laughing with Davy Crockett and chugging mead. Behind his chair, the bellhop Hunding stood looking miserable, carefully peeling grapes and handing them to Helgi one at a time.
‘What’s the deal with the manager and Hunding?’
Sam made a sour face. ‘Ancestral feud when they were alive. When they died, both made it to Valhalla, but Odin honoured Helgi more. He put Helgi in charge of the hotel. Helgi’s first order was that his enemy Hunding would be his servant and do his menial tasks for all time.’
‘That doesn’t seem like much of a paradise for Hunding.’
Sam hesitated. In a quieter voice, she said, ‘Even in Valhalla, there’s a pecking order. You don’t want to be at the bottom. Remember, when the ceremony begins –’
At the high table, the thanes began banging their cups on the table in unison. All around the hall, the einherjar joined in until the Hall of the Slain thundered with a metal heartbeat.
Helgi stood and raised his goblet. The noise died down.
‘Warriors!’ The manager’s voice filled the hall. He looked so regal it was hard to believe he was the same guy who a few hours ago had offered me a suite upgrade and a minibar key. ‘Seven new fallen have joined us today! That would be reason enough to celebrate, but we also have a special treat for you. Thanks to Valkyrie Captain Gunilla, today, for the first time, we will not just hear about our newcomers’ worthy deeds, we will be able to see them!’
Next to me, Sam made a choking sound. ‘No,’ she muttered. ‘No, no, no …’
‘Let the presentation of the dead commence!’ Helgi bellowed.
Ten thousand warriors turned and looked expectantly in my direction.
Four Million Channels and There’s Still Nothing On Except Valkyrie Vision
Hooray for going last.
I was relieved when the presentations started with einherjar at the other end of the table … until I saw what the other newbies had done to get into Valhalla.
Helgi called, ‘Lars Ahlstrom!’
A heavyset blond guy rose with his Valkyrie. Lars was so nervous he knocked over his goblet, splashing magic mead all over his crotch. A wave of laughter rippled through the hall.
Helgi smiled. ‘As many of you know, Captain Gunilla has been phasing in new equipment over the past few months. She’s been fitting her Valkyries’ armour with cameras to keep everyone accountable – and hopefully to keep us entertained!’
The warriors cheered and banged their mugs, drowning out the sound of Sam cursing next to me.
Helgi raised his goblet. ‘I present to you, Valkyrie Vision!’
Around the tree trunk, a ring of giant holographic screens flickered to life, floating in mid-air. The video was choppy, apparently taken from a camera on the shoulder of a Valkyrie. We were high in the air, circling over the scene of a sinking ferry in a grey sea. Half the lifeboats dangled sideways from their cables. Passengers jumped overboard, some without life jackets. The Valkyrie swooped in closer. The video’s focus sharpened.
Lars Ahlstrom scrambled along the tilting deck, a fire extinguisher in his hands. The door to the inside lounge was blocked by a large metal container. Lars struggled to move it, but it was too heavy. Inside the lounge, a dozen people were trapped, banging desperately on the windows.
r /> Lars shouted something to them in … Swedish? Norwegian? The meaning was clear: GET BACK!
As soon they did, Lars smashed the extinguisher against the window. On the third try, it shattered. Despite the cold, Lars stripped off his coat and laid it across the broken glass.
He stayed at the window until the last passengers were safely out. They ran for the lifeboats. Lars picked up the fire extinguisher again and started to follow, but the ship lurched violently. His head slammed into the wall and he slid down, unconscious.
His body began to glow. The Valkyrie’s arm appeared in the frame, reaching out. A shimmering golden apparition rose from Lars’s body – his soul, I guessed. Golden Lars took the Valkyrie’s hand, and the video screens went dark.
All around the feast hall, warriors cheered.
At the head table, the thanes debated among themselves. I was close enough to hear some of it. One guy – Lord Nelson? – questioned whether a fire extinguisher could count as a weapon.
I leaned towards Sam. ‘Why does that matter?’
She tore her bread into smaller and smaller pieces. ‘To get into Valhalla, a warrior must die in battle with a weapon in his or her hand. That’s the only way.’
‘So,’ I whispered, ‘anyone could get into Valhalla if they just grabbed a sword and died?’
She snorted. ‘Of course not. We can’t have kids taking up weapons and dying on purpose. There’s nothing heroic about suicide. The sacrifice, the bravery has to be unplanned – a genuine heroic response to a crisis. It has to come from the heart, without any thought of reward.’
‘So … what if the thanes decide that a newbie shouldn’t have been picked? Does he go back to being alive?’ I tried not to sound too hopeful.
Sam wouldn’t meet my eyes. ‘Once you’re an einherji, there’s no going back. You might get the worst work assignments. You might have a hard time earning respect. But you stay in Valhalla. If the thanes rule the death unworthy … well, the Valkyrie takes the punishment for that.’
‘Oh.’ Suddenly I understood why all the Valkyries at our table looked a little tense.
The thanes took a vote among themselves. They agreed unanimously that the fire extinguisher could count as a weapon and Lars’s death could be seen as in combat.
‘What greater enemy is there than the sea?’ said Helgi. ‘We find Lars Ahlstrom worthy of Valhalla!’
More applause. Lars almost fainted. His Valkyrie held him up while smiling and waving at the crowd.
When the noise died down, Helgi continued. ‘Lars Ahlstrom, do you know your parentage?’
‘I –’ The newcomer’s voice cracked. ‘I never knew my father.’
Helgi nodded. ‘That is not uncommon. We will seek wisdom from the runes, unless the All-Father wishes to intercede.’
Everyone turned towards the unoccupied throne. The ravens ruffled their feathers and squawked. The throne remained empty.
Helgi didn’t look surprised, but his shoulders slumped with disappointment. He motioned towards the fire pit. From a cluster of servers and cooks, a lady in a green hooded robe shuffled forward. Her face was hidden in the shadows of her cowl, but, judging from her stooped posture and her gnarled hands, she must have been ancient.
I murmured to Sam, ‘Who’s the Wicked Witch?’
‘A vala. A seer. She can cast spells, read the future and … other stuff.’
The vala approached our table. She stopped in front of Lars Ahlstrom and pulled a leather pouch from the folds of her robe. She plucked out a handful of runestones like the ones in Uncle Randolph’s study.
‘And the runes?’ I whispered to Sam. ‘What are they for?’
‘They’re the old Viking alphabet,’ she said, ‘but each letter also symbolizes something powerful – a god, a type of magic, a force of nature. They’re like the genetic code of the universe. The vala can read the stones to see your fate. The greatest sorcerers, like Odin, don’t even need to use the stones. They can manipulate reality simply by speaking the name of a rune.’
I made a mental note to avoid Odin. I didn’t need my reality manipulated any further.
In front of our table, the vala muttered something under her breath. She cast the stones at her feet. They landed on the floor – some face up, some face down. One rune in particular seemed to catch everyone’s attention. The holographic screens projected its image to everyone in the hall.
The mark meant nothing to me, but hundreds of warriors shouted with approval.
‘Thor!’ they cried. Then they started to chant, ‘THOR, THOR, THOR!’
Sam grunted. ‘As if we need another child of Thor.’
‘Why? What’s wrong with them?’
‘Nothing. They’re great. Gunilla over there … she’s a daughter of Thor.’
The Valkyrie captain was smiling, which was even scarier than her scowl.
As the chanting subsided, the vala raised her withered arms. ‘Lars, son of Thor, rejoice! The runes say you shall fight well at Ragnarok. And tomorrow, in your first combat, you shall prove your valour and be decapitated!’
The audience cheered and laughed. Lars suddenly looked very pale. That just made the warriors laugh harder, as if decapitation were a hazing ritual no worse than a wedgie. The vala gathered her runes and retreated while Lars’s Valkyrie helped him back into his seat.
The ceremony continued. Next up was a newcomer named Dede. She’d saved a bunch of kids at her village school when a warlord’s soldiers had tried to kidnap them. She’d flirted with one of the soldiers, tricked him into letting her hold his assault rifle, then turned it on the warlord’s men. She was killed, but her selfless act gave the other kids time to get away. The video was pretty violent. The Vikings loved it. Dede got a standing ovation.
The vala read the runes. She confirmed that Dede’s parents were regular mortals, but nobody seemed to mind that. According to Dede’s fortune, she would fight valiantly at Ragnarok. Over the next week she would lose her arms several times in combat. Within a hundred years she would rise to the thanes’ table.
‘Oooooo!’ the crowd murmured appreciatively.
The other four newcomers were equally impressive. They’d all saved people. They’d sacrificed their lives bravely. Two were mortals. One was a son of Odin, which caused a minor commotion.
Sam leaned towards me. ‘Like I said, Odin has not been seen in quite a while. We welcome any sign that he still moves among mortals.’
The last newcomer was a daughter of Heimdall. I wasn’t sure who that was, but the Vikings seemed impressed.
My head was swimming from too much information. My senses were on fire from too much mead. I didn’t even realize we’d reached the end of the table until Helgi called my name.
‘Magnus Chase!’ he bellowed. ‘Rise and impress us with your courage!’
My Blooper Video Goes Viral
My courage impressed no one.
I squirmed in my seat as the video played. The einherjar watched the screens in shocked silence. Then the mumbling and grumbling began, punctuated by bursts of incredulous laughter.
Valkyrie Vision showed only portions of what had happened. I saw myself on the bridge, facing Surt as he summoned a fiery tornado. The camera zoomed in on me threatening him with my corroded piece of metal. Then Hearth and Blitz appeared. Blitz hit the Black One with his MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS sign. Hearth’s squeaky toy arrow hit me in the butt. Surt punched me. Surt kicked me in the ribs. I puked and squirmed in agony.
The video fast-forwarded to me backing up against the bridge railing. Surt threw his fiery asphalt cannonball. I swung my sword and missed. In the feast hall, thousands of warriors grunted ‘Ooooo!’ as the chunk of asphalt hit me in the gut. Surt charged, and we both went over the side, grappling as we fell.
Just before we hit the water, the video froze and zoomed in. The sword was now sticking out of Surt’s gut, but my hands weren’t on the grip. They were wrapped around Surt’s big neck.
An uncomfortable murmur spread through the room.
‘No,’ I said. ‘No, that’s not how – Someone edited that. It’s like a blooper reel.’
Sam’s face had turned to stone. At the thanes’ table, Captain Gunilla smirked. Her cameras, I realized, her editing.
For some reason, Gunilla wanted to disgrace Sam by making me look like an idiot … which, granted, wasn’t a difficult task.
Helgi set down his goblet. ‘Samirah al-Abbas … explain.’
Sam touched the edge of her scarf. I had a feeling she wanted to pull it over her head and hope the room disappeared. I couldn’t blame her.
‘Magnus Chase died bravely,’ she said. ‘He stood alone against Surt.’
More uneasy murmuring.
One of the thanes stood. ‘You say that was Surt. A fire jotun, certainly, but if you are suggesting it was the Lord of Muspellheim himself –’
‘I know what I saw, Erik Bloodax. This one –’ Sam gestured at me like I was a prize specimen – ‘saved many lives on that bridge. The video does not show the whole story. Magnus Chase acted like a hero. He deserves to be among the fallen.’
Another thane rose. ‘He didn’t actually die with the sword in his hand.’
‘Lord Ottar –’ Sam’s voice sounded strained – ‘the thanes have looked past such a technicality before. Whether or not Magnus gripped the sword at the moment of death, he died bravely in combat. That is the spirit of Odin’s law.’
Lord Ottar sniffed. ‘Thank you, Samirah al-Abbas, daughter of Loki, for teaching us the spirit of Odin’s law.’
The tension level in the hall went up about thirty notches. Sam’s hand drifted towards her axe. I doubted anyone but me could see how her fingers twitched.
Loki … I knew that name – Norse mythology’s big villain, born of giants. He was the arch-enemy of the gods. If Sam was his daughter, why was she here? How had she become a Valkyrie?
I happened to meet Gunilla’s eyes. The captain was obviously loving this drama. She could barely suppress a smile. If she was Thor’s kid, that explained why she hated Sam. In the old stories, Thor and Loki were always trying to melt each other’s faces.
The thanes debated among themselves.
Finally, Helgi the manager spoke. ‘Samirah, we’re not seeing any heroism in this boy’s death. We see a dwarf and an elf with toy weapons –’
‘A dwarf and an elf?’ I asked, but Helgi ignored me.
‘– we see a fire jotun who fell off a bridge and took the boy with him. That’s an unusual situation, a son of Muspell crossing into Midgard, but it has happened before.’
‘Shoot,’ muttered a thane with bushy sideburns. ‘Y’all should’ve seen the big ol’ fire jotun Santa Anna had with him at the Alamo. I tell you –’
‘Yes, thank you, Lord Crockett.’ Helgi cleared his throat. ‘As I was saying, we see very little evidence that Magnus Chase was a worthy choice for Valhalla.’
‘My lords –’ Sam spoke slowly and carefully, like she was addressing children – ‘the video is not accurate.’
Helgi laughed. ‘Are you suggesting we shouldn’t trust our own eyes?’