was starting to wonder. His piercing bloodshot gaze made me think it might be dangerous to ask, though.
‘Uh, no, sir,’ I said. ‘We didn’t break any bones. Just theoretically, what would happen if we did?’
‘The goats would be resurrected with that damage,’ he said. ‘Which would take a long time to heal and be very annoying. Then I’d either have to kill you or make you my slave forever.’
Hearthstone signed, This god is a freak.
‘You’re right, Mr Elf,’ Thor said. ‘It is a fair and just punishment! That’s how I got my regular manservant, Thjalfi.’ Thor shook his head. ‘Poor kid. These deployments were starting to get to him. I had to grant him a furlough. I really could use another slave …’ He studied me appraisingly.
‘So …’ I set aside my goat meat. ‘How did you end up in the river, and why was that giantess trying to drown you?’
‘Oh, her.’ Thor glowered at the neighbourhood-size corpse in the middle of the icy swamp. ‘She’s a daughter of Geirrod, one of my old enemies. I hate that guy. He’s always sending his daughters to kill me.’ He gestured towards the cliffs. ‘I was heading to his fortress to see if – Well, no matter. Thank you for the assist. That was Frey’s sword, wasn’t it?’
‘Yes. Jack’s around here somewhere.’ I whistled. Jack came hovering over.
‘Hello, Thor,’ said the sword. ‘Long time no see.’
‘Ha!’ The god clapped his hands in delight. ‘I thought I recognized you. But isn’t your name Sumarbrander? Why did the human call you Jorvik?’
‘Jack,’ the sword corrected.
‘No,’ the sword said patiently. ‘Jack, with the English jay sound.’
‘Okay, fine. Well, nice job with the giantess.’
‘You know what they say.’ Jack sounded smug. ‘The bigger they are, the easier it is to fly up their nasal cavity.’
‘True,’ Thor said. ‘But I thought you were lost. How did you come to be with these strange folk?’
He calls us strange? Hearthstone signed.
‘Lord Thor,’ Sam said, ‘we actually came here looking for you. We need your help, as Magnus will now explain.’ She stared at me like, If he knows what’s good for him.
I told Thor about the Norns’ prophecy – nine days hence, sun going east, Surt explodes everything, Fenris Wolf, nasty teeth, eats world, et cetera.
Thor became agitated. Sparks flew from his elbows. He rose and paced around the fire, occasionally punching nearby trees.
‘You want me to tell you where the island is,’ he deduced.
‘That would be great,’ I said.
‘But I can’t,’ Thor muttered to himself. ‘I can’t be sending random mortals on wolf-watching tours. Too dangerous. But Ragnarok. Not ready. No. Not unless –’ He froze, then turned towards us with an eager gleam in his eyes. ‘Perhaps that’s why you’re here.’
I do not like this, Hearthstone signed.
Thor nodded. ‘The elf agrees! You have come to assist me!’
‘Exactly!’ said Jack, humming with excitement. ‘Let’s do it, whatever it is!’
I had a sudden desire to hide behind the goat carcasses. Anything the god of thunder and the Sword of Summer agreed on, I didn’t want to be part of.
Sam placed her axe at her side, as if she anticipated needing it soon. ‘Let me guess, Lord Thor: you’ve lost your hammer again.’
‘Now, I did not say that!’ Thor wagged a finger at her. ‘You did not hear that from me. Because if that were true, hypothetically speaking, and if word got out, the giants would invade Midgard immediately! You mortals don’t realize how often I keep you safe. My reputation alone makes most giants too afraid to attack your world.’
‘Back up,’ I said. ‘What did Sam mean by again? You’ve lost your hammer before?’
‘Once,’ Thor said. ‘Okay, twice. Three times if you count this time, which you shouldn’t, because I am not admitting that the hammer is missing.’
‘Right …’ I said. ‘So how did you lose it?’
‘I don’t know!’ Thor started to pace again, his long red hair sparking and popping. ‘It was just like … Poof! I tried retracing my steps. I tried the Find My Hammer app, but it doesn’t work!’
‘Isn’t your hammer the most powerful weapon in the universe?’ I asked.
‘And I thought it was so heavy nobody except you could pick it up.’
‘True. Even I need my iron gloves of strength to lift it! But giants are tricky. They’re big and strong and they have magic. With them, many impossible things are possible.’
I thought about the eagle Big Boy and how easily he’d suckered me. ‘Yeah, I get it. Is that why you were going to A-Rod’s?’
‘Geirrod’s,’ Thor corrected. ‘And, yes. He’s a likely suspect. Even if he doesn’t have it, he might know who does. Besides, without my hammer, I can’t watch my shows. I’m a season behind on Sherlock and it’s killing me! I was ready to go to Geirrod’s fortress myself, but I’m very glad you volunteered to go for me!’
We did? Hearthstone asked.
‘That’s the spirit, Mr Elf! I’m glad you are ready to die for my cause!’
Really not, Hearth signed.
‘Just go to Geirrod’s fortress and check for my hammer. Of course it’s important you don’t let on that it is missing. If Geirrod doesn’t have it, we don’t want him to know that I don’t have it. But, you know, if he doesn’t have it, obviously ask him if he knows who does, without actually admitting that it’s missing.’
Samirah pressed her fingers to her temples. ‘I’m getting a headache. Lord Thor, how are we supposed to find your hammer if we can’t mention –’
‘You’ll figure it out!’ he said. ‘You humans are a clever bunch. Then, once you’ve determined the truth, I will know you are worthy of facing Fenris Wolf. I’ll give you the location of his island and you can stop Ragnarok. You help me, I help you.’
It sounded more like You help me, then you help me some more, but I doubted there was a polite way to decline without getting an iron gauntlet in my teeth.
Sam must have been thinking the same thing. Her face turned roughly the same shade of green as her hijab. ‘Lord Thor,’ she said, ‘invading a giant’s fortress with only three people would be …’
Suicidal, Hearthstone suggested. Stupid.
‘Difficult,’ Sam said.
Just then, a nearby pine tree shuddered. Blitzen dropped from the branches and landed waist-deep in a pile of slush.
Hearthstone scrambled over and helped him to his feet.
‘Thanks, buddy,’ Blitz said. ‘Stupid tree travel. Where –?’
‘Is this a friend of yours?’ Thor raised one ironclad fist. ‘Or should I –’
‘No! I mean, yes, he’s a friend. Blitzen, Thor. Thor, Blitzen.’
‘The Thor?’ Blitzen bowed so low it looked like he was trying to avoid an air strike. ‘Honoured. Seriously. Hi. Wow.’
‘Well, then!’ The thunder god grinned. ‘You have four people to storm the giant’s citadel! Friend dwarf, help yourself to my goat meat and my fire. As for me, after being stuck in that river so long, I’m going to turn in early. In the morning, you all can set off to find my hammer, which of course is not officially missing!’
Thor tromped over to his bed of furs, threw himself down and began snoring with as much gusto as he’d been farting.
Blitzen frowned at me. ‘What have you got us into?’
‘Long story,’ I said. ‘Here, have some Marvin.’
We Have the Talk-About-Turning-Into-Horseflies Chat
Hearthstone went to sleep first, mostly because he was the only one who could sleep with Thor’s snoring. Since the god had crashed outside, Hearthstone commandeered the two-man tent. He crawled inside and promptly collapsed.
The rest of us stayed up and talked around the campfire. At first I was worried we might wake Thor, but I soon realized we could’
ve tap-danced around his head, banged gongs, shouted his name and set off large explosions, and he would’ve slept right through it.
I wondered if that was how he had lost his hammer. The giants could’ve waited until he was asleep, backed up a couple of industrial cranes and done the job easy.
As night fell, I was grateful for the fire. The darkness was more complete than in the wildest places my mom and I had ever camped. Wolves howled in the forest, which gave me a bad case of the shivers. Wind moaned through the canyons like a chorus of zombies.
I mentioned this to Blitzen, but he set me straight.
‘No, kid,’ he said. ‘Norse zombies are called draugr. They move silently. You’d never hear them coming.’
‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘That’s a huge relief.’
Blitzen stirred his cup of goat stew, though he didn’t seem interested in tasting it. He’d changed into a blue wool suit with a cream-coloured trench coat, perhaps so he could blend in with the Jotunheim snow in the most stylish way possible. He’d also brought each of us a new supply pack filled with fresh winter clothes, which of course he’d sized perfectly just by guessing. Sometimes it pays to have a friend who’s a thoughtful clothes horse.
Blitz explained how he’d delivered the earrings to his mother, then had been detained in Folkvanger for various duties as Freya’s representative: judging an oyster bake, refereeing a volleyball game, serving as guest of honour at the 678th annual ukulele festival.
‘It was murder,’ he said. ‘Mom liked the earrings. Didn’t ask how I got them. Didn’t want to hear about the contest with Junior. She just said, “Oh, don’t you wish you could do work like this, Blitzen?” ’ From his coat pocket, he pulled the rope Andskoti. The ball of silk glowed silver like a miniature moon. ‘I hope this was worth it.’
‘Hey,’ I told him, ‘what you did in that contest? I’ve never seen anybody work that hard. You poured your heart and soul into that Expando-Duck. And the bulletproof tie? The chain-mail waistcoat? Just wait. We’ll get you an endorsement deal with Thor, and you’ll start a fashion trend.’
‘Magnus is right,’ Sam said. ‘Well, maybe not about the endorsement deal with Thor – but you have real talent, Blitzen. If Freya and the other dwarves don’t see it, that’s their problem. Without you, we never would’ve got this far.’
‘You mean you wouldn’t have been kicked out of the Valkyries; Magnus wouldn’t have died; we wouldn’t have half the gods mad at us; fire giants and einherjar wouldn’t be out to kill us; and we wouldn’t be sitting in the wilderness of Jotunheim with a snoring god?’
‘Exactly,’ Sam said. ‘Life is good.’
Blitzen snorted, but I was happy to see a little spark of humour in his eyes. ‘Yeah, okay. I’m going to sleep. I’ll need it if we’re going to storm a giant’s castle in the morning.’
He crawled into the tent and muttered to Hearthstone, ‘Make some room, you tent hog!’ Then he draped his overcoat across the elf, which I thought was kind of sweet.
Sam sat cross-legged in her jeans and new snow jacket, her hood pulled over her headscarf. Snow had started to fall – big fluffy flakes that dissolved and hissed in the flames.
‘Speaking of the contest in Dwarfland,’ I said, ‘we never got to talk about the horsefly –’
‘Hush.’ Sam glanced apprehensively at Thor. ‘Certain people aren’t keen on my father, or my father’s children.’
‘Certain people are snoring like a chainsaw.’
‘Still …’ She studied her hand as if making sure it hadn’t changed. ‘I promised myself I wouldn’t shape-shift, and in the last week I’ve done it twice. The first time … well, the stag was after us on the World Tree. I turned into a deer to distract it so Hearthstone could get away. I didn’t think I had a choice.’
I nodded. ‘And the second time you turned into the horsefly to help Blitzen. Those are both great reasons. Besides, shape-shifting is an awesome power. Why wouldn’t you want to use it?’
The firelight made her irises almost as red as Surt’s. ‘Magnus, true shape-shifting isn’t like my hijab’s camouflage. Shape-shifting doesn’t just change your appearance. It changes you. Every time I do it, I feel … I feel more of my father’s nature trying to take hold of me. He’s fluid, unpredictable, untrustworthy – I don’t want to be like that.’
I gestured at Thor. ‘You could have him for a dad – a farting giant with goat grease in his beard and tattoos on his knuckles. Then everybody in Valhalla would love you.’
I could tell she was trying not to smile. ‘You are very bad. Thor is an important god.’
‘No doubt. So is Frey, supposedly, but I’ve never met him. At least your dad is kind of charming, and he has a sense of humour. He may be a sociopath, but –’
‘Wait.’ Sam’s voice tightened. ‘You talk as if you’ve met him.’
‘I … I kind of walked right into that, didn’t I? Truth is, he’s been in a few of my near-death experiences.’
I told Sam about the dreams: Loki’s warnings, his promises, his suggestion that I take the sword to my Uncle Randolph and forget about the quest.
Sam listened. I couldn’t tell if she was angry or shocked or both.
‘So,’ she said, ‘you didn’t tell me this earlier because you didn’t trust me?’
‘Maybe at first. Later, I just – I wasn’t sure what to do. Your dad is kind of unsettling.’
She tossed a twig into the flames and watched it burn. ‘You can’t do what my dad suggests, no matter what he promises. We have to face Surt. We’ll need the sword.’
I remembered my dream of the burning throne – the dark face floating in the smoke, the voice with the heat of a flamethrower. YOU AND YOUR FRIENDS WILL BE MY TINDER. YOU WILL START THE FIRE THAT BURNS THE NINE WORLDS.
I looked around for Jack, but I didn’t see him. The sword had volunteered to hover the perimeter ‘on patrol’, as he put it. He suggested I wait until the last possible minute to reclaim him, since once I did I would pass out instantly from the strain of murdering a giantess by nostrilcide.
Snow continued to fall, steaming against the stones around the fire pit. I thought about our near-lunch in the food court of the Transportation Building, how nervous Sam had acted around Amir. That seemed like a thousand years ago.
‘When we were on Harald’s boat,’ I recalled, ‘you said your family had a long history with all the Norse god stuff. How? You said your grandparents came from Iraq …?’
She threw another stick into the flames. ‘Vikings were traders, Magnus. They travelled everywhere. They got all the way to America. It shouldn’t be a surprise they got to the Middle East, too. Arabic coins have been found in Norway. The best Viking swords were modelled after Damascus steel.’
‘But your family … You’ve got a more personal connection?’
She nodded. ‘Back in medieval times, some of the Vikings settled in Russia. They called themselves the Rus. That’s where the word Russian comes from. Anyway, the Caliph – the big king down in Baghdad – he sent an ambassador north to find out more about the Vikings, set up trade routes with them, that kind of stuff. The ambassador’s name was Ahmed ibn-Fadlan ibn-al-Abbas.’
‘Fadlan like Fadlan’s Falafel. Al-Abbas like –’
‘Right. Like me. Al-Abbas means of the lion. That’s my branch of the clan. Anyway –’ she pulled a sleeping bag out of her backpack – ‘this guy Ibn Fadlan kept a journal about his time with the Vikings. It’s one of the only written sources about what the Norse were like back then. Ever since, my family and the Vikings have been intertwined. Over the centuries, my relatives have racked up a lot of weird encounters with … supernatural beings. Maybe that’s why my mother wasn’t too surprised when she found out who my dad really was.’ She spread out her sleeping bag next to the fire. ‘And that’s why Samirah al-Abbas is fated never to have a normal life. The end.’
‘Normal life,’ I mused. ‘I don’t even know what that means any more.’
She looked like she wanted
to say something, then changed her mind. ‘I’m going to sleep.’
I had a weird vision of our ancestors, medieval Chase and medieval al-Abbas, sitting around a campfire in Russia twelve hundred years ago, comparing notes on how the Norse gods had messed up their lives, maybe with Thor snoring on a bed of furs nearby. Sam’s family might be intertwined with the gods, but as my Valkyrie she was also intertwined with my family now.
‘We’ll figure things out,’ I promised. ‘I don’t know about normal, but I’ll do everything I can to help you get what you want – a place in the Valkyries again, your marriage with Amir, a pilot’s licence. Whatever it takes.’
She stared at me as if processing the words from another language.
‘What?’ I asked. ‘Do I have goat blood on my face?’
‘No. Well, yes, you do have goat blood on your face. But that’s not … I was just trying to remember the last time anybody said something that nice to me.’
‘If you want, I’ll go back to insulting you tomorrow,’ I said. ‘For now, get some sleep. Sweet dreams.’
Sam curled up by the fire. Snow settled lightly on the sleeve of her coat. ‘Thank you, Magnus. But no dreams, please. I don’t want to dream in Jotunheim.’
I Got the Horse Right Here. His Name Is Stanley
Thor was still snoring like a defective wood chipper when we were ready to leave the next morning. That’s really saying something, since I had slept forever. Jack the sword had not been kidding about the effect of killing the giantess. As soon as I’d reclaimed the sword after Sam fell asleep, I had passed out instantly.
At least I hadn’t lost a full twenty-four hours this time. With Fenris Wolf appearing in only two more days, I couldn’t afford any more long naps. I wondered if maybe, just maybe, I was growing more resilient as I became bonded to the sword. I hoped so, but I still felt like I’d been flattened under a giant rolling pin all night.
We packed up our gear and ate a cold breakfast of MORNING, MAGGOT! energy bars from Blitz’s supply bags (yum). Then Hearthstone nestled the severed heads of the two still-dead goats in Thor’s arms like teddy bears. Never let it be said that elves don’t have a sense of humour.
I looked down at the drool turning to ice in Thor’s beard. ‘And to think that the defence of Nine Worlds rests on this god.’
‘Let’s get going,’ Blitzen muttered. ‘I don’t want to be around when he wakes up with Otis and Marvin.’
The dead giantess proved helpful. We climbed over her to cross the icy swamp. Then we discovered that we could scale her left foot to reach the first ledge in the side of the cliff.
Once we got that far, I stared up at the remaining five hundred metres of sheer icy rock. ‘Awesome. Now the real fun begins.’
‘Wish I could still fly,’ Sam murmured.
I imagined she could fly, with a little shape-shifting, but after our conversation last night I decided against mentioning that.
Blitz handed his pack to Hearthstone, then wriggled his stubby fingers. ‘Don’t worry, kids. You’re climbing with a dwarf today.’
I frowned. ‘You’re a mountaineer now as well as a master of fashion?’
‘I told you, kid, dwarves were formed from maggots that burrowed through Ymir’s flesh.’
‘And you seem strangely proud of it.’
‘Rock to us is like … well, not rock.’ He punched the side of the cliff. Rather than breaking his fist, he left an indentation just the right size for a handhold. ‘I’m not saying it’ll be fast or easy. It takes me a lot of effort to shape rock. But we can do it.’
I glanced at Sam. ‘Did you know dwarves could punch through stone?’
‘Nope. That’s new to me.’
Hearthstone signed, Use the magic rope? Rather not fall to death.
I shuddered. I couldn’t think about the rope Andskoti without thinking about the Wolf, and I didn’t like thinking about the Wolf. ‘We need that rope to bind Fenris, right? I don’t want to do anything that might weaken it.’
‘Don’t worry, kid.’ Blitz brought out the silken cord. ‘This rope can’t be weakened. And Hearthstone’s right. We might as well tie it to one another for safety.’