oval. The waves sloshed and boiled.
Up in the wheelhouse, Harald must have had a better view of whatever was coming to the surface. He screamed in a very ungiantish voice, ‘Cut the line!’
‘No,’ Sam said. ‘It’s too late for that.’
Harald snatched up a knife. He threw it at the cable, but Sam deflected the blade with her axe.
‘Back off, giant!’ she yelled.
‘But you can’t bring that thing up!’ Harald wailed. ‘It’s the –’
‘Yes, I know!’
The rod began slipping from my hands. ‘Help!’
Sam lunged and grabbed the fishing pole. She wedged herself next to me in the chair to assist, but I was too tired and terrified to feel embarrassed.
‘We may all die,’ she muttered, ‘but this will definitely get Ran’s attention.’
‘Why?’ I asked. ‘What is that thing?’
Our catch broke the surface and opened its eyes.
‘Meet my older brother,’ Sam said, ‘the World Serpent.’
Sam’s Brother Wakes Up Kinda Cranky
When I say the serpent opened his eyes, I mean he switched on green spotlights the size of trampolines. His irises glowed so intensely I was pretty sure everything I saw for the rest of my life would be tinted the colour of lime jelly.
The good news: the rest of my life didn’t look like it was going to be very long.
The monster’s ridged forehead and tapered snout made him look more like an eel than a snake. His hide glistened in a camouflage patchwork of green, brown and yellow. (Here I am calmly describing him. At the time the only thought in my mind was: YIKES! HUGE SNAKE!)
He opened his mouth and hissed – the stench of rancid bull’s head and poison so strong my clothes smoked. He may not have used mouthwash, but obviously the World Serpent cared about flossing. His teeth gleamed in rows of perfect white triangles. His pink maw was big enough to swallow Harald’s boat and a dozen of Harald’s closest friends’ boats.
My meat hook was embedded in the back of his mouth, right where the hangy-down uvula thing would be in a human mouth. The serpent didn’t seem too happy about that.
He shook back and forth, raking the steel line across his teeth. My fishing pole whipped sideways. The boat seesawed port to starboard, planks cracking and popping, but somehow we stayed afloat. My line didn’t break.
‘Sam?’ I said in a small voice. ‘Why hasn’t he killed us yet?’
She pressed so close to me I could feel her shivering. ‘I think he’s studying us, maybe even trying to talk to us.’
‘What is he saying?’
Sam gulped. ‘My guess? How dare you?’
The serpent hissed, spitting globs of poison that sizzled against the deck.
Behind us, Harald whimpered, ‘Drop the pole, you fools! You’ll get us all killed!’
I tried to meet the serpent’s gaze. ‘Hey, Mr Jormungand. Can I call you Mr J.? Look, sorry to bother you. Nothing personal. We’re just using you to get somebody’s attention.’
Mr J. didn’t like that. His head surged out of the water, towering above us, then crashed down again off the bow, triggering a forty-foot-tall ring of waves.
Sam and I were definitely sitting in the splash zone. I ate saltwater for lunch. My lungs discovered they could not in fact breathe the stuff. My eyes got a thorough power washing. But, incredibly, the boat didn’t capsize. When the rocking and sloshing subsided, I found myself still alive, still holding the fishing pole with my line still attached to the World Serpent’s mouth. The monster stared at me like, Why are you not dead?
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the tsunami crash against the Graves, washing all the way up to the base of the lighthouse. I wondered if I’d just flooded Boston.
I remembered why Jormungand was called the World Serpent. Supposedly his body was so long it wrapped around the earth, stretching across the sea floor like a monstrous telecommunication cable. Most of the time he kept his tail in his mouth – hey, I used a pacifier until I was almost two, so I can’t judge – but apparently he’d decided our bull’s-head bait was worth the switch.
The point being: if the World Serpent was shaking, the whole world might be shaking with him.
‘So,’ I said to nobody in particular, ‘what now?’
‘Magnus,’ Sam said in a strangled tone, ‘try not to panic. But look off the starboard side.’
I couldn’t imagine what would be more panic-inducing than Mr J. until I saw the woman in the whirlpool.
Compared to the serpent, she was tiny – only about ten feet tall. From the waist up, she wore a blouse of silver chain mail encrusted with barnacles. She might have once been beautiful, but her pearlescent skin was withered, her seaweed-green eyes were milky with cataracts, and her rippling blonde hair was shot through with grey like blight in a wheat field.
From the waist down, things got weird. Spinning around her like a dancer’s skirt, a waterspout swirled within a silver fishing net a hundred yards in diameter. Trapped in its weave was a kaleidoscope of ice floe, dead fish, plastic garbage bags, car tyres, grocery carts and other assorted flotsam. As the woman floated towards us, the edge of her net thwapped against our hull and scraped against the World Serpent’s neck.
She spoke in a deep baritone. ‘Who dares interrupt my scavenging?’
Harald the frost giant screamed. He was a champion screamer. He scrambled to the bow and threw a bunch of gold coins over the side. Then he turned to Sam. ‘Quick, girl, your payment to me! Give it to Ran!’
Sam frowned, but she tossed another five coins overboard.
Instead of sinking, the red gold swirled into Ran’s net and joined the floating merry-go-round of debris.
‘O Great Ran!’ Harald wailed. ‘Please don’t kill me! Here, take my anchor! Take these humans! You can even have my lunch box!’
‘Silence!’ The goddess shooed away the frost giant, who did his best to cower, grovel and retreat all at the same time.
‘I’ll just be below decks,’ he sobbed. ‘Praying.’
Ran regarded me as if deciding whether I was large enough to fillet. ‘Release Jormungand, mortal! The last thing I need today is a world-flooding event.’
The World Serpent hissed in agreement.
Ran turned on him. ‘And you shut up, you overgrown moray. All your writhing is stirring up the silt. I can’t see a thing down there. How many times have I told you not to bite at any old rancid bull’s head? Rancid bulls’ heads are not native to these waters!’
The World Serpent snarled petulantly, tugging at the steel cable in his mouth.
‘O Great Ran,’ I said, ‘I am Magnus Chase. This is Sam al-Abbas. We’ve come to bargain with you. Also, just wondering … why can’t you cut the fishing line yourself?’
Ran let loose a torrent of Norse curses that literally steamed in the air. Now that she was closer, I could see stranger things swirling in her net – ghostly bearded faces, gasping and terrified as they tried to reach the surface; hands clawing at the ropes.
‘Worthless einherji,’ said the goddess, ‘you know full well what you have done.’
‘I do?’ I asked.
‘You are Vanir-spawn! A child of Njord?’ Ran sniffed the air. ‘No, your scent is fainter. Perhaps a grandchild.’
Sam’s eyes widened. ‘Right! Magnus, you’re the son of Frey, son of Njord – god of ships, sailors and fishermen. That’s why our boat didn’t capsize. That’s why you were able to catch the serpent!’ She looked at Ran. ‘Um, which, of course, we already knew.’
Ran snarled. ‘Once brought to the surface, the World Serpent is not simply bound by your fishing line. He is connected to you by fate! You must now decide, and quickly, whether to cut him loose and return him to his slumber, or let him awaken fully and destroy your world!’
In the back of my neck, something snapped like a rusty spring – probably the last bit of my courage. I looked at the World Serpent. For the first time, I no
ticed that his glowing green peepers were covered by a thin translucent membrane – a second set of eyelids.
‘You mean he’s only partially awake?’
‘If he were fully awake,’ said the goddess, ‘your entire Eastern Seaboard would already be underwater.’
‘Ah.’ I had to resist the urge to throw away the fishing pole, undo my safety harness and run around the deck screaming like a little Harald.
‘I will release him,’ I said. ‘But first, great Ran, you have to promise to negotiate with us in good faith. We want to barter.’
‘Barter with you?’ Ran’s skirts swirled faster. Ice and plastic crackled. Shopping carts ploughed into one another. ‘By rights, Magnus Chase, you should belong to me! You died of drowning. Drowned souls are my property.’
‘Actually,’ Sam said, ‘he died in combat, so he belongs to Odin.’
‘Technicalities!’ Ran snapped.
The faces in Ran’s net gaped and gasped, pleading for help. Sam had told me, There are worse places to spend your afterlife in than Valhalla. Imagining myself tangled in that silvery web, I was suddenly grateful to my Valkyrie.
‘Well, okay then,’ I said. ‘I guess I can just let Mr J. wake up fully. I didn’t have any plans for tonight.’
‘No!’ Ran hissed. ‘Do you have any idea how hard it is to scavenge along the seafloor when Jormungand gets agitated? Let him go!’
‘And you promise to negotiate in good faith?’ I asked.
‘Yes. Fine. I am in no mood for Ragnarok today.’
‘Say: By my troth –’
‘I am a goddess! I know better than to swear by my troth!’
I glanced at Sam, who shrugged. She handed me her axe, and I cut the fishing line.
Jormungand sank beneath the waves, glaring at me through a bubbling green cloud of poison as he descended, as if to say, NEXT TIME, LITTLE MORTAL.
Ran’s swirling skirts slowed to the speed of a tropical storm. ‘Very well, einherji. I promised to barter in good faith. What do you want?’
‘The Sword of Summer,’ I said. ‘I had it with me when I hit the Charles River.’
Ran’s eyes glistened. ‘Oh, yes. I could give you the sword. But, in exchange, I would want something valuable. I’m thinking … your soul.’
My Sword Almost Ends Up on eBay
‘I’m thinking not,’ I replied.
Ran made a rumbling sound like a whale with heartburn. ‘You – the grandson of that meddler, Njord – come here asking to barter, disturbing the World Serpent, interrupting my scavenging, and you won’t even agree to a reasonable offer? The Sword of Summer is the greatest artefact to come into my nets in ages. Your soul is a small price to pay in exchange!’
‘Lady Ran.’ Sam took back her axe and slipped down from the fishing chair. ‘Magnus has already been claimed by Odin. He is einherji. That cannot be changed.’
‘Besides,’ I said, ‘you don’t want my soul. It’s really small. I don’t use it much. I doubt it even works any more.’
The goddess’s watery skirts swirled. Trapped souls clawed for the surface. Plastic garbage bags popped like bubble wrap. The smell of dead fish almost made me nostalgic for the bull’s head.
‘What do you offer me, then?’ Ran demanded. ‘What could possibly be worth that sword?’
Good question, I thought.
I stared into the goddess’s nets and an idea began to form.
‘You said you were scavenging,’ I recalled. ‘What for?’
The goddess’s expression softened. Her eyes shone a greedier shade of green. ‘Many things. Coins. Souls. Lost valuables of every description. Just before you woke the serpent, I had my eye on a Chevy Malibu radial hubcap that was worth forty dollars easy. Just sitting there at the bottom of the harbour. But now –’ she threw up her hands – ‘gone.’
‘You collect stuff.’ I corrected myself: ‘I mean … wonderful treasures.’
Sam squinted at me, clearly wondering if I’d lost my mind, but I was starting to understand what made Ran tick – what she cared about most.
The goddess stretched her fingers towards the horizon. ‘Have you heard of the Pacific garbage patch?’
‘I have, Lady Ran,’ Sam said. ‘It’s a floating collection of rubbish the size of Texas. It sounds terrible.’
‘It is amazing,’ said the goddess. ‘The first time I saw it, I was overwhelmed! It put my own collection to shame. For centuries, all shipwrecks of the northern seas have been mine to claim. Anything lost in the depths comes to me. But when I saw the wonders of the garbage patch I realized how puny my efforts had been. Ever since, I’ve spent all my time scavenging the seafloor, looking for additions to my net. I would not have found your sword if I hadn’t been so quick!’
I nodded with sympathy. Now I could fit this Norse goddess into the Magnus Chase world view. Ran was a bag lady. I could work with a bag lady.
I peered overboard at the floating junk. A silver teaspoon balanced on an island of styrofoam. A bicycle wheel spun past, shredding the ghostly head of a lost soul.
‘Lady Ran,’ I said, ‘your husband, Aegir, is the lord of the sea, right? You share a golden palace with him at the bottom of the ocean?’
The goddess scowled. ‘What is your point?’
‘Well … what does your husband think of your collection?’
‘Aegir.’ Ran spat. ‘The great stirrer of sea storms! These days the only thing he wants to do is brew his mead. He’s always been a brewer, but lately it’s ridiculous. He spends all his time at the hops shop, or going on brewery tours with his buddies. And don’t get me started on the flannel shirt, rolled-up skinny jeans, glasses and the way he trims his beard. He’s always talking about microbrews. He has a cauldron a mile wide! How can he microbrew?’
‘Right,’ I said. ‘That must be annoying. He doesn’t appreciate how important your treasures are.’
‘He has his lifestyle,’ Ran said. ‘I have mine!’
Sam looked bewildered, but all of this made total sense to me. I knew a bag lady in Charlestown whose husband had left her a six-million-dollar mansion on Beacon Hill, but sitting at home alone had made her feel suffocated, lonely and unhappy. So instead she lived out on the streets, pushing her shopping cart, collecting plastic lawn ornaments and aluminium cans. That made her feel complete.
Ran frowned. ‘What were we talking about again?’
‘The Sword of Summer,’ I said. ‘And what I could offer you in return.’
‘What I’m offering,’ I said, ‘is to let you keep your collection.’
Frost spread down the ropes of the net. Ran’s tone turned dangerous. ‘Are you threatening to take my stuff?’
‘Oh, no. I would never do that. I understand how valuable –’
‘Because this whirling plastic sunflower ornament right here? They don’t make these any more! It’s easily worth ten dollars.’
‘Right. But, if you don’t give me the Sword of Summer, Surt and his fire giants will come looking for it. And they won’t show you such respect.’
Ran scoffed. ‘The sons of Muspell cannot touch me. My realm is deadly to them.’
‘But Surt has many allies,’ Sam said, picking up on the idea. ‘They would annoy you, harass you, take your … treasures. They’ll do anything to retrieve that sword. Once they have it, they’ll start Ragnarok. Then there will be no more scavenging. The oceans will boil. Your collection will be destroyed.’
‘No!’ shrieked the goddess.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘But if you give us the sword Surt won’t have any reason to bother you. We’ll keep it safe.’
Ran scowled at her nets, studying the patterns of glittering trash. ‘And how, son of Frey, will the sword be safer with you than with me? You cannot return it to your father. Frey gave up his rights to use the weapon when he gifted it to Skirnir.’
For the millionth time, I wanted to find my frolicking summer-god dad and smack him. Why had he given away hi
s weapon in the first place? For love? Weren’t gods supposed to be smarter than that? Then again, Ran collected hubcaps, and Aegir was into microbrewing.
‘I’ll wield it myself,’ I said. ‘Or I’ll take it back to Valhalla for safekeeping.’
‘In other words, you don’t know.’ The goddess arched her kelpy eyebrows at Sam. ‘And you, daughter of Loki, why are you siding with the gods of Asgard? Your father is no friend of theirs – not any more.’
‘I’m not my father,’ Sam said. ‘I’m a – I was a Valkyrie.’
‘Ah, yes. The girl who dreamed of flying. But the thanes of Valhalla expelled you. Why do you still try to earn their favour? You don’t need them to fly. You know very well that with your father’s blood –’
‘Give us the sword, Lady Ran.’ Sam’s voice hardened. ‘It’s the only way to delay Ragnarok.’
The goddess smiled sourly. ‘You even sound like Loki. He was such a persuasive speaker – one moment flattering, the next moment threatening. Once, he actually convinced me to lend him my net! That led to all sorts of trouble. Loki figured out the secrets of net weaving. The gods learned how, then the humans. Pretty soon everyone had nets. My trademark item! I won’t be so easily convinced again. I’ll keep the sword and take my chances with Surt.’
I unstrapped myself from the fishing chair. I moved to the tip of the bow and locked eyes with the goddess. I didn’t normally shake down bag ladies, but I had to make Ran take me seriously. I lifted the chain from my belt. The silver links glinted in the fading light.
‘This chain is also a sword,’ I said. ‘An authentic blade from Valhalla. How many of those do you have in your net?’
Ran started to reach for the chain, then caught herself. ‘Yes … I can see the sword through the glamour. But why would I trade –’
‘A new sword for an old one,’ I offered. ‘This blade is shinier, only used once in combat. You could get twenty bucks for it, no problem. The Sword of Summer, however, has no resale value.’
‘Mmm, true, but –’
‘The other option,’ I said, ‘is I take the Sword of Summer. It belongs to me.’
Ran growled. Her fingernails stretched into jagged points like sharks’ teeth. ‘You dare threaten me, mortal?’
‘Just telling the truth,’ I said, trying to stay calm. ‘I can sense the sword within your nets.’ (Total lie.) ‘I pulled it from the depths once before. I can do it again. The sword is the sharpest weapon in the Nine Worlds. Do you really want it cutting through your net, spilling all your stuff and freeing all those trapped souls? If they got away, do you think they’d fight for you or against you?’
Her gaze wavered. ‘You would not dare.’
‘Trade me a sword for a sword,’ I said. ‘And throw in one of Idun’s apples for our trouble.’
Ran hissed. ‘You said nothing about an apple!’
‘That’s an easy request,’ I said. ‘I know you’ve got an extra apple of immortality swirling around in there somewhere. Then we’ll go in peace. We’ll stop Ragnarok and let you go back to your scavenging. Otherwise –’ I shrugged – ‘you’ll find out what the son of Frey can do with his father’s sword.’
I was pretty sure the goddess would laugh in my face, capsize the boat and add our drowned souls to her collection. But I stared her down like I had nothing to lose.
After a count of twenty – long enough for a bead of sweat to trickle down my neck and freeze at my collar – Ran snarled, ‘Very well.’
She flicked her hand. The Sword of Summer came flying out of the water and landed in my grip. Immediately it began to hum, agitating every molecule in my body.