‘I do.’ Blitzen fluffed his ascot. ‘Hearth and I scouted it out before you got here. Come on!’
He led the way down the pier. I think he just wanted us to appreciate how well he swaggered in his new yellow pith helmet.
At the end of Long Wharf, across from the closed-for-the-season kiosk for whale-watching tours, another kiosk had been cobbled together from plywood scraps and cardboard appliance boxes. Above the service window, a sloppily finger-painted sign read: WOLF-WATCHING CRUISE. TONIGHT ONLY! ONE RED GOLD PER PERSON! CHILDREN UNDER FIVE FREE!
Sitting in the booth was a dwarf who was definitely less svartalf and more maggot. About two feet tall, he had so much facial hair it was impossible to tell if he had eyes or a mouth. He was dressed in a yellow raincoat and a captain’s hat, which no doubt protected him from the dim daylight and also made him look like the mascot for a gnomish lobster-restaurant franchise.
‘Hello, there!’ said the dwarf. ‘Fjalar, at your service. Care to take the cruise? Lovely wolf-spotting weather!’
‘Fjalar?’ Blitzen’s face sagged. ‘You wouldn’t happen to have a brother named Gjalar?’
‘Right over there.’
I wasn’t sure how I’d missed it, but docked a few feet away was a Viking longship fitted with an outboard motor. At the stern, chewing on a piece of jerky, sat another dwarf who looked exactly like Fjalar except he wore grease-stained overalls and a floppy-brimmed felt hat.
‘I can see you’ve heard about our exceptional service,’ Fjalar continued. ‘So can I put you down for four tickets? Once-a-year opportunity!’
‘Excuse us a moment.’ Blitzen steered us out of earshot. ‘Those are Fjalar and Gjalar,’ he whispered. ‘They’re notorious.’
‘Thor warned us,’ Sam said. ‘We don’t have much choice.’
‘I know, but –’ Blitzen wrung his hands – ‘Fjalar and Gjalar? They’ve been robbing and murdering people for over a thousand years! They’ll try to kill us if we give them any opportunity.’
‘So basically,’ I summed up, ‘they’re like pretty much everyone else we’ve met.’
‘They’ll stab us in the back,’ Blitz fretted, ‘or strand us on a desert island, or shove us overboard into the mouth of a shark.’
Hearth pointed to himself then tapped a finger to his palm. I’m sold.
We marched back to the kiosk.
I smiled at the homicidal lobster mascot. ‘We’d love four tickets, please.’
Heather Is My New Least Favourite Flower
I didn’t think anything could be worse than our fishing expedition with Harald. I was wrong.
As soon as we left the harbour, the sky darkened. The water turned as black as squid ink. Through the haze of snow, the shoreline of Boston morphed into something primeval – the way it might have looked when Skirnir’s descendant first sailed his longship up the Charles.
Downtown was reduced to a few grey hills. The runways at Logan Airport turned to sheets of ice floating on open water. Islands sank and rose around us like a time-lapse video of the last two millennia.
It occurred to me that I might be looking at the future rather than the past – the way Boston would appear after Ragnarok. I decided to keep that thought to myself.
In the quiet of the bay, Gjalar’s outboard motor made an obscene amount of noise – rattling, growling and coughing smoke as our boat cut through the water. Any monsters within a five-mile radius would know where to find us.
At the prow, Fjalar kept watch, occasionally shouting warnings to his brother, ‘Rocks to port! Iceberg to starboard! Kraken at two o’clock!’
None of that helped calm my nerves. Surt had promised we would meet tonight. He planned on burning my friends and me alive and destroying the Nine Worlds. But in the back of my mind lurked an even deeper fear. I was about to meet the Wolf at last. That realization dredged up every nightmare I’d ever had about glowing blue eyes, white fangs, feral snarls in the darkness.
Sitting next to me, Sam kept her axe across her lap, where the dwarves could see it. Blitzen fussed with his yellow ascot, as if he could intimidate our hosts with his wardrobe. Hearthstone practised making his new staff appear and disappear. If he did it right, the staff shot into his hand out of nowhere, like a bouquet of flowers spring-loaded in a magician’s sleeve. If he did it wrong, he goosed Blitzen or whopped me upside the back of the head.
After a few hours and a dozen staff-induced concussions, the boat shuddered like we’d hit a cross-current. From the bow, Fjalar announced, ‘It won’t be long now. We’ve entered Amsvartnir – Pitch-Black Bay.’
‘Gee –’ I looked at the inky waves – ‘why do they call it that?’
The clouds broke. The full moon, pale and silver, peered down at us from a starless void. In front of us, fog and moonlight wove together, forming a coastline. I’d never hated the full moon so much.
‘Lyngvi,’ Fjalar announced. ‘The Isle of Heather, prison of the Wolf.’
The island looked like the caldera of an ancient volcano – a flattened cone maybe fifty feet above sea level. I’d always thought of heather as purple, but the rocky slopes were carpeted with ghostly white flowers.
‘If that’s heather,’ I said, ‘there sure is a lot of it.’
Fjalar cackled. ‘It’s a magical plant, my friend – used to ward off evil and keep ghosts at bay. What better prison for Fenris Wolf than an island entirely ringed with the stuff?’
Sam rose. ‘If Fenris is as big as I’ve heard, shouldn’t we be able to see him by now?’
‘Oh, no,’ Fjalar said. ‘You have to go ashore for that. Fenris lies bound in the centre of the island like a runestone in a bowl.’
I glanced at Hearthstone. I doubted he could read Fjalar’s lips behind that bushy beard, but I didn’t like the reference to a runestone in a bowl. I remembered the other meaning of perthro: a dice-rolling cup. I didn’t want to run blindly into that caldera and hope for Yahtzee.
When we were about ten feet from the beach, the keel of the boat ground against a sandbar. The sound reminded me unpleasantly of the night my mother died – our apartment door creaking just before it burst open.
‘Out you go!’ Fjalar said cheerfully. ‘Enjoy your walking tour. Just head over the ridge there. I think you’ll find the Wolf well worth the trip!’
Maybe it was my imagination, but my nostrils filled with the smell of smoke and wet animal fur. My new einherji heart was testing the limits of how fast it could beat.
If it hadn’t been for my friends, I’m not sure I would’ve had the courage to disembark. Hearthstone leaped over the side first. Sam and Blitzen followed. Not wanting to be stuck on the boat with lobster dwarf and his jerky-eating brother, I swung my legs overboard. The waist-deep water was so cold I imagined I would be singing soprano for the rest of the week.
I slogged onto the beach, and a wolf’s howl split my eardrums.
Now, sure … I’d been expecting a wolf. Ever since childhood, wolves had terrified me, so I’d tried my best to gather my courage. But Fenris’s howl was unlike anything I’d ever heard – a note of pure rage so deep it seemed to shake me apart, breaking my molecules into random amino acids and icy Ginnungagap run-off.
Safe in their boat, the two dwarves cackled with glee.
‘I should have mentioned,’ Fjalar called to us, ‘the ride back is a little more expensive. All your valuables, please. Gather them together in one of your bags. Toss them to me. Otherwise, we’ll leave you here.’
Blitzen cursed. ‘They’ll leave us here anyway. That’s what they do.’
At the moment, heading inland to confront Fenris Wolf was very low on my wish list. At the top of my wish list was: Cry and Plead for the Treacherous Dwarves to Take Me Back to Boston.
My voice quavered, but I tried to act more courageous than I felt.
‘Get lost,’ I told the dwarves. ‘We don’t need you any more.’
Fjalar and Gjalar exchanged looks. Already their boat was drifting
‘Didn’t you hear the Wolf?’ Fjalar spoke more slowly, as if he’d overestimated my intelligence. ‘You’re stuck on that island. With Fenris. That’s a bad thing.’
‘Yeah, we know,’ I said.
‘The Wolf will eat you!’ Fjalar cried. ‘Bound or not, he will eat you. At dawn the island will disappear and take you with it!’
‘Thanks for the lift,’ I said. ‘Pleasant trip back.’
Fjalar flung up his hands. ‘Idiots! Suit yourself. We’ll collect your valuables from your skeletal remains next year! Come on, Gjalar, back to the docks. We might have time to pick up another load of tourists.’
Gjalar revved the motor. The longship turned and disappeared into the darkness.
I faced my friends. I got the feeling they wouldn’t mind another rousing speech like, We’re a family of empty cups and we will dominate!
‘Well,’ I said, ‘after running from an army of dwarves, facing a monster squirrel, killing three giant sisters and butchering a pair of talking goats … how bad can Fenris Wolf be?’
‘Very bad,’ Sam and Blitz said in unison.
Hearthstone made two OK signs, crossed them at the wrists and flicked them apart – the sign for awful.
‘Right.’ I pulled my sword from pendant form. The blade’s glow made the heather look even paler and more ghostly. ‘Jack, you ready?’
‘Dude,’ said the sword, ‘I was forged ready. Still, I get the feeling we’re walking into a trap here.’
‘Show of hands,’ I asked my friends, ‘is anybody surprised by that?’
Nobody raised their hand.
‘Okay, cool,’ said Jack. ‘As long as you realize you’ll probably all die in agony and start Ragnarok, I’m down. Let’s do this!’
The Small Bad Wolf
I remember the first time I saw Plymouth Rock.
My reaction was, ‘That’s it?’
Same with the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and the Empire State Building in New York – up close and personal, they seemed smaller than I’d imagined, not worth the hype.
That’s how I felt when I saw Fenris Wolf.
I’d heard all these terrible stories about him: the gods were too scared to feed him; he could break the strongest chains; he’d eaten Tyr’s hand; he was going to swallow the sun on Doomsday; he was going to devour Odin in a single bite. I’d expected a wolf bigger than King Kong with flamethrower breath, death-ray eyes and laser nostrils.
What I got instead was a Wolf the size of a wolf.
We stood at the top of the ledge, looking down into the valley where Fenris sat calmly on his haunches. He was larger than an average Labrador retriever, but definitely no bigger than me. His legs were long and muscular, built for running. His shaggy grey coat swirled with tufts of black. Nobody would’ve called him cute – not with those gleaming white fangs, or the bones littering the ground around his paws – but he was a handsome animal.
I’d been hoping to find the Wolf lying on his side, hog-tied and fastened to the ground with nails, staples, duct tape and Krazy Glue. Instead, the golden rope Gleipnir restrained him more like the leg irons used to transport criminals. The glimmering cord was tied around all four of his ankle joints, allowing enough slack for the Wolf to shuffle around. Part of the rope had apparently once been tied around the Wolf’s snout like a muzzle. That section now fell across his chest in a loose loop. The rope didn’t even appear to be anchored to the ground. I wasn’t sure what was keeping Fenris from leaving the island unless there was one of those doggy no-no invisible fences around the perimeter.
All in all, if I were the god Tyr, getting my hand bitten off so the other gods would have time to bind the Wolf, I would’ve been pretty torqued off at this shoddy work. Didn’t the Aesir have one decent god of knots?
I glanced at my friends. ‘Where’s the real Fenris? That has to be a decoy, right?’
‘No.’ Sam’s knuckles whitened on the handle of her axe. ‘That’s him. I can sense it.’
The Wolf turned towards the sound of our voices. His eyes shone with a familiar blue light that sent a xylophone mallet down the back of my ribcage.
‘Well.’ His voice was deep and rich. His black lips curled in a very human sneer. ‘Who do we have here? Have the gods sent me a snack?’
I revised my impression of the Wolf. Maybe his size was ordinary. Maybe he didn’t sneeze laser beams. But his eyes were colder and more intelligent than any predator I’d ever encountered – animal or human. His snout quivered as if he could smell the fear on my breath. And his voice … his voice flowed over me like molasses, dangerously smooth and sweet. I remembered my first feast in Valhalla, when the thanes didn’t want Sam to speak in her defence because they feared the silver tongue of Loki’s children. Now I understood.
The last thing I wanted to do was approach the Wolf. Yet his tone said, Come on down. We’re all friends here.
The entire caldera was maybe a hundred yards across, which meant the Wolf was much closer than I would’ve liked. The ground sloped gently, but the heather was slick under my feet. I was terrified I might slip and slide right between the Wolf’s paws.
‘I’m Magnus Chase.’ My voice was not as smooth as molasses. I forced myself to meet Fenris’s gaze. ‘We have an appointment.’
The Wolf bared his teeth. ‘We do indeed, son of Frey. Vanir-spawn have such an interesting scent. Normally I only get to devour the children of Thor, or Odin, or my old friend Tyr.’
‘Sorry to disappoint.’
‘Oh, not at all.’ The wolf paced, the rope gleaming between his feet, barely slowing his gait. ‘I’m quite pleased. I’ve been waiting a long time for this.’
On my left, Hearthstone banged his white oak staff against the rocks. The heather plants glowed brighter, a fine silvery mist rising from them like a lawn-sprinkler system. With his free hand, Hearth signed to me, Flowers make the prison. Stay within.
Fenris Wolf chuckled. ‘The elf is wise. Not powerful enough – not nearly powerful enough to face me – but he is right about the heather. I can’t stand the stuff. Funny, though … how many brave mortals choose to leave its safety and come within my reach. They want to test their skill against me, or perhaps they simply want to make sure I am still bound.’ The Wolf leered at Blitzen. ‘Your father was one of those. A noble dwarf with the best of intentions. He approached me. He died. His bones are around here somewhere.’
Blitzen let loose a guttural scream. Sam and I had to restrain him to keep him from charging the Wolf with his new harpoon.
‘Quite sad, really,’ the Wolf mused. ‘Bilì was his name? He was right, of course. This ridiculous rope has been loosening for ages. At one time, I was completely unable to walk. After a few centuries, I managed to hobble. I still can’t cross the heather. The further I move from the centre of the island, the more the rope tightens and the more pain I endure. But it’s progress! The real breakthrough came … oh, a little over two years ago, when I finally managed to shake that cursed muzzle off my snout!’
Sam faltered. ‘Two years ago …’
The Wolf tilted his head. ‘That’s right, little sister. Surely you knew. I began whispering in the dreams of Odin – what a fine idea it would be to make you, the daughter of Loki, a Valkyrie! What a fine way to turn a potential enemy into a valuable friend.’
‘No,’ Sam said. ‘Odin would never listen to you.’
‘Would he not?’ The Wolf snarled with pleasure. ‘That’s the wonderful thing about you so-called good folk. You hear what you want to believe. You think your conscience is whispering to you when it is, perhaps, the Wolf instead. Oh, you have done very well, little sister, bringing Magnus to me –’
‘I didn’t bring him to you!’ Sam shouted. ‘And I’m not your little sister!’
‘No? I smell the changeling blood in your veins. You could be powerful. You could make our father proud. Why do you fight it?’
The Wolf’s teeth were as sharp as ever, his leer jus
t as vicious, but his voice filled with sympathy, disappointment, melancholy. His tone said, I could help you. I am your brother.
Sam took a step forward. I grabbed her arm.
‘Fenris,’ I said, ‘you sent those wolves … the night my mother died.’
‘You wanted to kill me –’
‘Now, why would I want that?’ His blue eyes were worse than mirrors. They seemed to reflect back at me all my failures – my cowardice, my weakness, my selfishness in running away when my mother needed me most. ‘You were valuable to me, Magnus. But you needed … seasoning. Hardship is wonderful for cultivating power. And look! You have succeeded – the first child of Frey strong enough to find the Sword of Summer. You have brought me the means to escape these bonds at last.’
The world spun beneath me. I felt like I was back on Stanley the horse – plummeting with no reins, no saddle, no control. All this time, I’d assumed Fenris wanted me dead. That’s why his wolves had attacked our apartment. But his real target had been my mother. He’d killed her to affect me. That idea was even worse than believing my mom had died to protect me. She’d died so this monster could forge me into his harbinger – a demigod capable of attaining the Sword of Summer.
I was filled with so much rage I couldn’t focus.
In my hand, the sword began to hum. I realized how long Jack had been silent. He pulled at my arm, tugging me forward.
‘Jack,’ I muttered. ‘Jack, what are you –?’
The Wolf laughed. ‘You see? The Sword of Summer is destined to cut these bonds. You cannot stop it. The children of Frey have never been fighters, Magnus Chase. You can’t hope to control the blade, much less fight me with it. Your usefulness is at an end. Surt will arrive soon. The blade will fly to his hands.’
‘Mistake …’ Jack murmured, tugging to escape my grip. ‘Mistake to bring me here.’
‘Yes,’ the Wolf purred. ‘Yes, it was, my fine blade. Surt thinks all of this was his idea, you understand. He’s an imperfect tool. Like most fire giants, he’s a lot of hot air, more bluster than brains, but he will serve his purpose. He’ll be very happy to take possession of you.’
‘Jack, you’re my sword now,’ I said, though I could barely hold on with both hands.
‘Cut the cord …’ Jack hummed insistently. ‘Cut the cord.’
‘Do it, Magnus Chase,’ said Fenris. ‘Why wait for Surt? Cut me loose of your own free will and I will be grateful. Perhaps I would even spare you and your friends.’
Blitzen growled even better than the Wolf. From his pack, he pulled out the new string, Andskoti. ‘I was ready to bind this mutt. Now I think I might just strangle him.’
‘I agree,’ Samirah said. ‘He dies.’
I wanted more than anything to join them. I wanted to charge the beast and run him through. The Sword of Summer was supposed to be the sharpest blade in the Nine Worlds. Surely it could cut wolf hide.
I think we would’ve done it, but Hearthstone swept his staff in front of us. The runestone perthro flared with gold light.
Look. The command was more a tremor than a sound. I turned and stared in amazement at Hearthstone.
The bones. He didn’t use sign language. He didn’t speak. His thought was simply there, clearing my mind like wind through fog.
I looked again at the skeletons littering the ground. All of them had been heroes – the children of Odin, Thor or Tyr. Dwarves, humans, elves. They’d all been tricked, enraged, enchanted by Fenris. They’d all died.
Hearthstone was the only one of us who couldn’t hear the Wolf’s voice. He was the only one thinking clearly.
Suddenly the sword was easier to control. It didn’t stop fighting me, but I felt the balance shift slightly in my favour.
‘I’m not freeing you,’ I told the Wolf. ‘And I don’t need to fight you. We’ll wait for Surt. We’ll stop him.’
The Wolf sniffed the air. ‘Oh … too late for that. You don’t need to fight me? Poor mortal … I don’t need to fight you, either. There are others to do that for me. As I said, good folk are so easy to manipulate, so ready to do my work for me. Here are some now!’
Across the island, a voice yelled, ‘STOP!’
At the opposite side of the ridge stood our old friend Gunilla with a Valkyrie on either side of her. Fanning out to her left and right were my old hallmates: T.J., Halfborn, Mallory and X the half-troll.