through with his own brother’s death … that could not have been easy.
‘So Hearth made himself an empty cup,’ I said. ‘Like perthro.’
‘Trying to fill himself with the power of magic,’ Sam agreed. ‘I don’t know all the meanings of perthro, Magnus. But I do know one thing – Hearthstone cast it when we were falling from the cliff into the river.’
I tried to remember, but I’d been overwhelmed with exhaustion as soon as I gripped the sword. ‘What did it do?’
‘It got us here,’ Sam said. ‘And it left Hearthstone like that.’ She nodded to his snoring form. ‘I can’t be sure, but I think perthro is his … what do Christians call it? A “Hail Mary pass”. He was throwing that rune like you’d throw dice from a cup, turning our fate over to the gods.’
My palm was now bruised from clenching the stone. I still wasn’t sure why Hearthstone had given it to me, but I felt a strong instinct to keep it for him – if only temporarily. No one should carry that kind of fate alone. I slipped the rune into my pocket.
We trekked through the wilderness in silence for a while. At one point, Jack led us over the river on a fallen tree trunk. I couldn’t help looking both ways for giant squirrels before crossing.
In places the snow was so deep we had to hop from boulder to boulder while Otis the goat speculated about which one of us would slip, fall and die first.
‘I wish you’d be quiet,’ I muttered. ‘I also wish we had snowshoes.’
‘You’d need Uller for that,’ said the goat.
‘The god of snowshoes,’ said Otis. ‘He invented them. Also archery and … I don’t know, other stuff.’
I’d never heard of a snowshoe god. But I would’ve paid real money if the god of snowmobiles had come roaring out of the woods right then to give us a lift.
We kept trudging along.
Once, we spotted a stone house on the summit of a hill. The grey light and the mountains played tricks with my perception. I couldn’t tell if the house was small and nearby, or massive and far away. I remembered what my friends had told me about giants – that they lived and breathed illusions.
‘See that house?’ Jack said. ‘Let’s not go there.’
I didn’t argue.
Judging time was difficult, but by late afternoon the river had turned into a raging current. Cliffs rose along the opposite bank. In the distance, through the trees, I heard the roar of a waterfall.
‘Oh, that’s right,’ said Otis. ‘I remember now.’
‘You remember what?’ I asked.
‘Why I left. I was supposed to get help for my master.’
Sam brushed a clump of snow off her shoulder. ‘Why would Thor need help?’
‘The rapids,’ said Otis. ‘I guess we’d better hurry. I was supposed be quick, but I stood watching you guys for almost a day.’
I flinched. ‘Wait … we were unconscious for a whole day?’
‘At least,’ said Otis.
‘He’s right,’ Jack said. ‘According to my internal clock, it’s Sunday the nineteenth. I warned you, once you took hold of me … well, we fought those dwarves on Friday. You slept all the way through Saturday.’
Sam grimaced. ‘We’ve lost valuable time. The Wolf’s island will appear in three more days, and we don’t even know where Blitzen is.’
‘Probably my fault,’ Otis offered. ‘I should’ve saved you earlier, but giving a human mouth-to-mouth – I had to work up my nerve. My therapist gave me some breathing exercises –’
‘Guys,’ Jack the sword interrupted, ‘we’re close now. For real this time.’ He hovered off through the woods.
We followed the floating sword until the trees parted. In front of us stretched a beach of jagged black rocks and chunks of ice. On the opposite bank, sheer cliffs rose into the sky. The river had turned into full-on class-five rapids – a combat zone of white-water and half-submerged boulders. Upstream, the river was compressed between two skyscraper-size stone columns – man-made or natural, I couldn’t tell. Their tops were lost in the clouds. From the fissure between them, the river blasted out in a vertical sheet – less like a waterfall and more like a dam splitting down the middle.
Suddenly Jotunheim did not seem like Vermont. It seemed more like the Himalayas – someplace not meant for mortals.
It was hard to focus on anything except the raging falls, but eventually I noticed a small campsite on the beach – a tent, a fire pit and a second goat with dark fur pacing nervously on the shore. When the goat saw us, he came galloping over.
Otis turned to us and shouted over the roar of the river, ‘This is Marvin! He’s my brother! His proper name is Tanngrisnr – Snarler – but –’
‘Otis!’ Marvin yelled. ‘Where have you been?’
‘I forgot what I was doing,’ said Otis.
Marvin bleated in exasperation. His lips were curled in a permanent snarl, which – gee, I dunno – might have been how he got the name Snarler.
‘This is the help you found?’ Marvin fixed his yellow eyes on me. ‘Two scrawny humans and a dead elf?’
‘He’s not dead!’ I yelled. ‘Where is Thor?’
‘In the river!’ Marvin pointed with his horns. ‘The god of thunder is about to drown, and if you don’t figure out a way to help him I’ll kill you. By the way, nice to meet you.’
Well, There’s Your Problem. You’ve Got a Sword Up Your Nose
I couldn’t help it.
When I heard the name Thor, I thought about the guy from the movies and comics – a big superhero from outer space, with bright Spandex tights, a red cape, goldilocks hair and maybe a helmet with fluffy little dove wings.
In real life, Thor was scarier. And redder. And grungier.
Also, he could cuss like a drunken, creative sailor.
‘Mother-grubbing scum bucket!’ he yelled. (Or something along those lines. My brain may have filtered the actual language, as it would’ve made my ears bleed.) ‘Where is my backup?’
He stood chest-deep in the flood near the opposite side, clinging to a scrubby bush that grew from the cliff. The rock was so smooth and slick there were no other handholds. The bush looked like it was about to pull free of its roots. Any minute, Thor was going to get flushed downstream, where rows of jagged rocks shredded the current in a series of cataracts, perfect for making a Thor smoothie.
From this distance, through the spray of water and mist, I couldn’t see much of the god himself: shoulder-length red hair, a curly red beard and bodybuilder arms protruding from a sleeveless leather jerkin. He wore dark iron gauntlets that reminded me of robot hands, and a chain-mail waistcoat Blitzen would’ve found very trendy.
‘Beard-burning son of a mud-lover!’ roared the god. ‘Otis, is that you? Where’s my artillery? My air support? Where the Helheim is my cavalry?’
‘I’m here, boss!’ Otis called. ‘I brought … two kids and a dead elf!’
‘He’s not dead,’ I said again.
‘A half-dead elf,’ Otis corrected.
‘What good is that?’ Thor bellowed. ‘I need that giantess killed, and I need her killed NOW!’
‘Giantess?’ I asked.
Marvin headbutted me. ‘That one, stupid.’
He nodded towards the waterfall. For a moment, the fog cleared from the tops of the cliffs, and I saw the problem.
Next to me, Sam made a sound like she was being garroted. ‘Holy Heimdall.’
Those skyscraper-size pillars of rock were actually legs – immense legs so grey and rough they blended in with the surrounding cliffs. The rest of the woman was so tall she made Godzilla look like a toy poodle. She made the Sears Tower look like a traffic cone. Her thigh-length dress was stitched together from so many animal hides it probably represented the extinction of several dozen species. Her face, somewhere up there in the stratosphere, was as stony and grim as a Mount Rushmore president’s, surrounded by a hurricane of long dark hair. She gripped the clifftops on either
side of the river as if straddling the torrent was hard even for her.
She looked down, smiling cruelly at the little speck of thunder god caught in the current, then squeezed her legs closer together. The waterfall sprayed out between her shins in a highly pressurized curtain of liquid force.
Thor tried to shout but got a mouthful of river. His head went under. The bush he was clinging to bent sideways, its roots snapping one after the other.
‘She’s going to wash him into oblivion!’ Marvin said. ‘Do something, humans!’
Like what? I thought.
‘He’s a god,’ I said. ‘Can’t he fly? Can’t he zap her with lightning or – what about his hammer? Doesn’t he have a hammer?’
Marvin snarled. He was very good at snarling. ‘Gee, why didn’t we think of that? If Thor could do any of those things without losing his grip and getting instantly killed, don’t you think he would’ve done it by now?’
I wanted to ask how a god could get killed, since they were supposed to be immortal. Then I thought about Mimir existing forever as a severed head, and Balder getting cut down by a mistletoe dart and spending eternity down in Hel World.
I looked at Sam.
She shrugged helplessly. ‘Against a giant that big, I have nothing.’
Hearthstone mumbled in his sleep. His eyelids were starting to flutter, but he wasn’t going to be casting magic anytime soon.
That left me only one friend to call on.
The sword hovered next to me. ‘Yeah?’
‘You see that massive giantess blocking the river?’
‘Technically speaking,’ Jack said, ‘I can’t see anything, because I don’t have eyes. But, yes, I see the giant.’
‘You think you could fly up there and, I dunno, kill her?’
Jack hummed indignantly. ‘You want me to kill a two-thousand-foot-tall giantess?’
‘Well, here’s the thing. You’d need to grab me and throw me like you’ve never thrown anything before. You’d need to really believe that killing this giantess is a worthy deed. And you’d need to be prepared for what will happen when you take hold of me again. How much energy would it take you, personally, to climb that two-thousand-foot-tall giant and kill her?’
The effort would probably destroy me, I thought. But I didn’t see much choice.
We needed information from Thor. Sam and Hearthstone and two antisocial talking goats were depending on me.
‘Let’s do it.’ I grabbed the sword.
I tried to focus. I didn’t care so much about saving Thor. I didn’t even know the guy. Nor did I particularly care why a half-mile-tall giantess thought it was funny to stand in a river and spray a waterfall between her shins.
But I did care about Sam, Blitzen and Hearthstone. They’d risked their lives to get me this far. No matter what Loki promised, I had to find a way to stop Surt and keep Fenris Wolf chained. The Wolf had caused my mother’s death. Mimir had said that Fenris sent his two children … They were supposed to kill me. My mom had sacrificed her life to keep me alive. I had to make her sacrifice mean something.
The huge grey giantess represented everything that was in my way. She had to go.
With every bit of my strength, I threw the sword.
Jack sliced skyward like a rocket-powered boomerang.
What happened next … well, I wasn’t sure I saw correctly. It was a long way up. But it looked like Jack flew into the giantess’s left nostril.
The giantess arched her back. She made a face like she was going to sneeze. Her hands slipped from the clifftops. Jack flew out of her right nostril as the giantess’s knees buckled and she fell towards us.
‘Timber!’ Jack yelled, spiralling back to me.
‘RUN!’ I screamed.
Too late. The giantess face-planted in the river with a mighty FLOOM!
I have no memory of the wall of water that washed me into a tree, along with Sam, a half-asleep Hearthstone and the two startled goats. Nevertheless, that’s what must have happened. By sheer luck, none of us died.
The giantess’s body had completely changed the topography. Where there had been a river, there was now a wide icy marsh, with water gurgling and spluttering around Dead Lady Island as it tried to find new ways to get downstream. The beach was six inches underwater. Thor’s campsite had vanished. The god himself was nowhere to be seen.
‘You killed Thor!’ Otis bleated. ‘You dropped a giantess on him!’
The giantess’s right arm twitched. I almost fell out of the tree. I was afraid Jack had only stunned her, but then Thor wriggled his way out of the giantess’s armpit with much cursing and grunting.
Sam and I helped Hearthstone out of the tree as the god of thunder trudged across the giantess’s back, jumped into the marsh and waded towards us. His eyes were blue, rimmed with angry red. His expression was so fierce it would’ve sent wild boars running for their mommies.
Jack the sword appeared at my side, glistening with various types of goo typically found in a giant’s nostril.
‘So what do you think, señor?’ His runes glowed. ‘You proud of me?’
‘I’ll answer that if I survive the next two minutes.’
The angry god stopped in front of me. Water dripped from his red beard onto his extremely large chain-mail-clad chest. His pot-roast-size fists were clenched in their iron gauntlets.
‘That –’ he cracked a grin – ‘was amazing!’
He clapped me on the shoulder so hard he dislocated several joints. ‘Join me for dinner! We can kill Otis and Marvin!’
No Spoilers. Thor Is Way Behind on His Shows
Yep. we killed the goats.
Thor promised they would be resurrected good as new the next morning, so long as we didn’t break any bones. Otis assured me frequent death was good for his exposure therapy. Marvin growled at me to get on with it and not be a weak-kneed wimp.
It was a lot easier killing Marvin.
After two years of homelessness, I thought I knew how tough it could be to keep myself fed, but let me tell you: killing and butchering an animal for my own supper was a new experience. You think it’s gross to pull a half-eaten sandwich out of a bin? Try skinning a goat, cutting it into chunks, building a fire, then cooking the meat on a spit while attempting to ignore the goat heads staring at you from the scrap pile.
You might assume that kind of experience would turn me into a vegetarian. But nope. As soon as I smelled the cooking meat, my hunger took over. I forgot all about the horrors of goat slaughter. Those Otis-kebabs were the best things I ever tasted.
As we ate, Thor chatted about giants, Jotunheim and his opinions of Midgard television shows, which, for some reason, he followed religiously. (Can I say a god did something religiously?)
‘Giants!’ He shook his head in disgust. ‘After all these centuries, you’d think they would learn to stop invading Midgard. But no! They’re like the … what is it? The League of Assassins in Arrow! They just keep coming back! As if I would let anything happen to humans! You guys are my favourite species!’
He patted my cheek. Fortunately, he had taken off his iron gloves, or he would’ve broken my jaw. Unfortunately, he hadn’t washed his hands after gutting the goats.
Hearthstone sat at the fire, nibbling on a piece of Marvin haunch. He was getting some of his strength back, though every time I looked at him I had to force myself not to sob. I wanted to hug the poor guy, bake him a batch of cookies and tell him how sorry I was about his crappy childhood, but I knew he wouldn’t want pity. He wouldn’t want me to start treating him differently.
Still … the empty-cup runestone weighed heavily in my coat pocket.
Sam stayed at the edge of the fire, as far from Thor as she could get. She said as little as possible and made no sudden movements, which meant that most of Thor’s attention was on me.
Everything the thunder god did, he did with gusto. He loved cooking his goats. He loved eating
and drinking mead. He loved telling stories. And he loved farting. Boy, did he love farting. When he got excited, sparks of electricity flew from his hands, his ears and … well, I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.
Unlike his movie version, there was nothing polished about Thor. His face was handsome in a beat-up way, like he’d spent years in the boxing ring. His chain mail was filthy. His leather jerkin and trousers had worn to the colour of dirty snow. Tattoos covered his muscular arms. On his left biceps, SIF was inscribed inside a heart. Around his right forearm coiled a stylized World Serpent. Across his knuckles on either hand, in block letters, were the names MAGNI and MODI. At first I was nervous about the name Magni, because it was so close to Magnus – the last thing I wanted was my name printed across the thunder god’s fist – but Sam assured me, quietly, that it was a totally different name.
Thor regaled me with his theories about a hypothetical death match between Daryl from The Walking Dead and Mike from Breaking Bad. Back when I was hanging out on the sidewalks of Boston, I would’ve been happy to talk TV for hours just to pass the time, but now I had a quest looming. We’d lost a whole day to unconsciousness. Speculating on the new autumn line-up wasn’t going to mean much if the world was consumed in flames three days from now.
Still, Thor was having so much fun it was hard to change the subject.
‘So what do think?’ he asked. ‘Best villain in an ongoing series?’
‘Uh … wow, tough one.’ I pointed at his knuckles. ‘Who are Magni and Modi?’
‘My sons!’ Thor beamed. With the goat grease in his beard and the random electrical sparks flying from his fingers, I was worried he might set himself on fire. ‘I’ve got a lot of sons, of course, but they’re my favourites.’
‘Yeah?’ I asked. ‘How old are they?’
He frowned. ‘Ah, this is embarrassing, but I’m not sure. They might not even be born yet.’
‘Magnus,’ Sam interrupted, ‘Lord Thor’s two sons Magni and Modi are fated to survive Ragnarok. Their names are spoken in the prophecies of the Norns.’
‘That’s right!’ Thor leaned towards Sam. ‘Who are you again?’
‘Uh … Sam, my lord.’
‘You have a familiar aura, girl.’ The god furrowed his red eyebrows. ‘Why is that?’
‘I was a Valkyrie …?’ Sam inched backwards.
‘Oh. Maybe that’s it.’ Thor shrugged. ‘You’ll have to excuse me. I’ve been on three thousand, five hundred and six consecutive deployments to the eastern front, keeping the giants at bay. I get a little jumpy sometimes.’
Hearthstone signed, And gassy.
Thor belched. ‘What did the elf say? I do not speak Gesticulation.’
‘Um, he was wondering how you keep current on television,’ I said, ‘seeing as you’re out in the field so much.’
Thor laughed. ‘I have to do something to keep myself sane!’
Hearthstone signed, How’s that working out for you?
‘The elf agrees!’ Thor guessed. ‘I can watch my shows anywhere, or at least I could. Among its many other powers, my hammer Mjolnir got full bars of service and HD resolution in any of the Nine Worlds!’
‘Got, past tense?’ Sam asked.
Thor cleared his throat loudly. ‘But enough about television! How’s that goat meat? You didn’t break any bones, did you?’
Sam and I exchanged looks. When we’d first introduced ourselves to the god, I’d found it strange that Thor didn’t have his hammer. It was sort of his signature weapon. I’d figured maybe it was just in disguise, like my sword. Now I