Instead of answering, he waded into the crowd.
We hadn’t gone twenty feet before a guy on a nearby picnic blanket called, ‘Hey, Blitzen! What’s up, dude?’
Blitzen ground his teeth so hard I could hear them popping. ‘Hello, Miles.’
‘Yeah, I’m good!’ Miles raised his sword absently as another guy in beach trunks and a vest charged towards him with a battleaxe.
The attacker screamed, ‘DIE! Ha, ha, just kidding.’ Then he walked away eating a chocolate bar.
‘So, Blitz,’ Miles said, ‘what brings you to Casa de Awesome?’
‘Nice seeing you, Miles.’ Blitzen grabbed my arm and led me onward.
‘Okay, cool!’ Miles called after us. ‘Keep in touch!’
‘Who was that?’ I asked.
‘How do you know him?’
As we made our way towards the upside-down ark mansion, more people stopped and said hello to Blitzen. A few greeted me and complimented me on my sword, or my hair, or my shoes. One girl said, ‘Oh, nice ears!’ Which didn’t even make sense.
‘Everybody is so –’
‘Stupid?’ Blitzen offered.
‘I was going to say mellow.’
He grunted. ‘This is Folkvanger, the Field of the Army … or you could translate it as the People’s Battlefield.’
‘So this is Volkswagen.’ I scanned the crowds, wondering if I would spot my mother, but I couldn’t imagine her in a place like this. There was too much lounging around, not enough action. My mom would’ve rousted these warriors to their feet, led them on a ten-mile hike, then insisted they set up their own campsites if they wanted any dinner. ‘They don’t seem like much of an army.’
‘Yeah, well,’ Blitz said, ‘these fallen are just as powerful as the einherjar, but they have a different attitude. This realm is one little subsection of Vanaheim – sort of the Vanir gods’ flipside version of Valhalla.’
I tried to picture myself spending eternity here. Valhalla had its good points, but as far as I’d seen it didn’t have picnics or beach balls, and I definitely wouldn’t describe it as mellow. Still … I wasn’t sure I liked Folkvanger any better.
‘So half the worthy dead go here,’ I remembered, ‘half go to Valhalla. How do they pick who goes where? Is it a coin toss?’
‘That would make more sense, actually.’
‘But I was trying to get us to Nidavellir. Why did we come here?’
Blitzen stared at the mansion atop the hill. ‘You were looking for the path we needed for our quest. That path led us through Folkvanger. Unfortunately, I think I know why. Let’s go pay our respects before I lose my nerve.’
As we approached the gates, I realized Sessrumnir wasn’t just built to look like an upside-down ship. It actually was an upside-down ship. The rows of tall windows were oar slots. The sloping walls of the hull were made from clinkered gold planks riveted with silver nails. The main entrance had a long awning that would’ve served as a gangplank.
‘Why is it a boat?’ I asked.
‘What?’ Blitzen fiddled nervously with his carnation. ‘Not so unusual. Your Norse ancestors made lots of buildings by turning their ships upside down. In the case of Sessrumnir, when the Day of Doom comes around, they’ll just flip the palace over and voilà, it’s a vessel big enough for all the warriors of Folkvanger to sail nobly to their deaths. Sort of like we’re doing now.’
He led me inside.
I’d been expecting a gloomy interior like the hold of a ship, but the Hall of Many Seats was more like a cathedral. The ceiling rose all the way to the keel. The oar-hole windows crosshatched the air with bars of light. The entire space was open, no separate rooms or partitions – just clusters of sofas, comfy chairs, throw pillows and freestanding hammocks, most of which were occupied by snoring warriors. I hoped the half million inhabitants of Folkvanger liked one another’s company, because there was no privacy. Me being me, the main thing I wondered was where they all went to the bathroom.
Down the centre of the hall ran an aisle of Persian carpets, flanked by braziers with glowing spheres of gold light. At the far end stood a throne on a raised dais.
Blitz marched in that direction, ignoring the warriors who greeted him with ‘Dude!’ and ‘Sup, Dwarf Man!’ and ‘Welcome home!’
In front of the dais, a cosy fire crackled in the hearth. Piles of jewellery and precious gems glittered here and there as if somebody had swept them up just to get them off the floor. On either side of the steps lounged a calico house cat the size of a sabre-toothed tiger.
The throne was carved from wood as soft and buttery as the light – linden wood, maybe. The back was draped with a cloak of downy feathers like on the underside of a falcon. In the throne itself sat the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.
She looked maybe twenty years old, surrounded by an aura of golden radiance that made me realize what Blitzen meant earlier when he’d said the daylight here wasn’t normal. The entire realm of Folkvanger was warm and bright, not because of the sun, but because it basked in this woman’s power.
Her blonde hair fell across one shoulder in a single long plait. Her white halter top showed off her tanned shoulders and smooth midriff. Her knee-length skirt was belted with a gold braid holding a sheathed knife and a ring of keys. Around her neck was a dazzling piece of jewellery – a lacework collar of gold and gems, like Ran’s net in miniature, except with rubies and diamonds instead of sailors’ souls and hubcaps.
The woman fixed me with her sky-blue eyes. When she smiled, heat travelled from the tips of my ears right down to my toes. I would have done anything to make her keep smiling at me. If she’d told me to jump off the World Tree into oblivion, I would’ve done it in a second.
I remembered her picture from my old children’s mythology book and realized how ridiculously it undersold her beauty.
The goddess of love was very pretty! She had cats!
I knelt before my aunt, the twin sister of my father. ‘Freya.’
‘My dear Magnus,’ she said, ‘how nice to meet you in person!’ She turned to Blitzen, who was glowering at his boots.
‘And how are you, Blitzen?’ asked the goddess.
Blitzen sighed. ‘I’m fine, Mom.’
Freya Is Pretty! She Has Cats!
‘Mom?’ I was so startled I wasn’t sure I’d said it aloud. ‘Wait … You, Blitzen. Mom?’
Blitzen kicked me in the shin.
Freya continued smiling. ‘I suppose my son didn’t tell you? He’s quite modest. Blitzen dear, you look very nice, but could you straighten your collar?’
Blitzen did, muttering under his breath, ‘Been a little busy running for my life.’
‘And, dear,’ Freya said, ‘are you sure about the waistcoat?’
‘Yes, Mom,’ Blitz grumbled, ‘I’m sure about the waistcoat. Waistcoats are making a comeback.’
‘Well, I suppose you know best.’ Freya winked at me. ‘Blitzen is a genius with fabrics and fashion. The other dwarves don’t appreciate his expertise, but I think it’s marvellous. He wants to open his own –’
‘Anyway,’ Blitzen said, a little too loudly, ‘we’re on this quest …’
Freya clapped. ‘I know! It’s very exciting. You’re trying to get to Nidavellir to find out more about the rope Gleipnir. And so, naturally, the World Tree directed you first to me.’
One of her cats clawed at a Persian rug, ripping several thousand dollars of weaving into fluff. I tried not to imagine what the cat could do to me.
‘So, Lady Freya,’ I said, ‘can you help us?’
‘Of course!’ said the goddess. ‘More importantly, you can help me.’
‘Here we go,’ said Blitzen.
‘Son, be polite. First, Magnus, how are you faring with your sword?’
I missed a beat.
I guess I still didn’t think of the Sword
of Summer as mine. I pulled off the pendant and the blade took shape in my hand. In Freya’s presence, it was silent and still like it was playing dead. Maybe it was afraid of cats.
‘I haven’t had much time to use it,’ I said. ‘Just got it back from Ran.’
‘Yes, I know.’ Freya’s nose wrinkled with the slightest hint of distaste. ‘And you delivered an apple to Utgard-Loki in exchange. Perhaps not the wisest move, but I won’t criticize your choices.’
‘You just did,’ Blitzen said.
The goddess ignored his comment. ‘At least you didn’t promise me to Utgard-Loki. Usually when giants make demands, they want apples and my hand in marriage.’ She flipped her braid over her shoulder. ‘It gets very tiresome.’
I had a hard time looking at Freya without staring. There really wasn’t anything safe to focus on – her eyes, her lips, her belly button. I silently scolded myself, This is Blitzen’s mom! This is my aunt!
I decided to focus on her left eyebrow. There was nothing entrancing about a left eyebrow.
‘So anyway,’ I said, ‘I haven’t really killed anything yet with the eyebrow – I mean the sword.’
Freya sat forward. ‘Killed anything with it? Oh, dear, that’s the least of its powers. Your first task is to befriend the sword. Have you done this?’
I imagined the sword and me sitting side by side in a movie theatre, a tub of popcorn between us. I imagined dragging the sword on a leash, taking it for a walk through the park. ‘How do I befriend a sword?’
‘Ah … well, if you have to ask –’
‘Look, Aunt Freya,’ I said, ‘couldn’t I just give the sword to you for safekeeping? It’s a Vanir weapon. You’re Frey’s sister. You’ve got a few hundred thousand well-armed, laid-back warriors to guard it from Surt –’
‘Oh, no,’ she said sadly. ‘The sword is already in your hands, Magnus. You summoned it from the river. You have laid claim to it. The best we can hope for is that Sumarbrander, the Sword of Summer, will allow you to use it. Keeping it from Surt is your job now, as long as you manage to stay alive.’
‘I hate my job.’
Blitz elbowed me. ‘Don’t say that, kid. You’ll offend the blade.’
I looked down at the gleaming runes on the blade. ‘I’m sorry, long sharp piece of metal. Did that hurt your feelings? Also, if you allow people to wield you, why would you allow an evil fire giant to do so? Why wouldn’t you want to go back to Frey, or at least his lovely sister here?’
The sword did not reply.
‘Magnus,’ said the goddess, ‘this is no jesting matter. The sword is fated to belong to Surt, sooner or later. You know this. The sword cannot escape its destiny any more than you can escape yours.’
I envisioned Loki chuckling as he lounged on the High Seat of Odin. Our choices can alter the details. That’s how we rebel against destiny.
‘Besides,’ Freya said, ‘the sword would never allow me to use it. Sumarbrander holds me partially responsible for its loss … It resents me almost as much as it resents Frey.’
Maybe it was my imagination, but the sword seemed to become colder and heavier.
‘But it’s Frey’s sword,’ I protested.
Blitzen grunted. ‘It was. I told you, kid, he gave it away for love.’
The calico cat on Freya’s right rolled over and stretched. Its spotted tummy was pretty cute, except for the fact that I kept imagining how many warriors it could comfortably digest.
‘When Frey sat on Odin’s throne,’ continued the goddess, ‘he did so for my sake. It was a dark time for me. I was wandering the Nine Worlds, grieving and bereft. Frey hoped that by sitting in the throne he might find me. Instead, the throne showed him his heart’s desire – a frost giantess, Gerd. He fell madly in love with her.’
I stared at Freya’s eyebrow. Her story wasn’t helping my opinion of my dad.
‘He fell in love at first sight … with a frost giantess.’
‘Oh, she was beautiful,’ Freya said. ‘Silver to Frey’s gold, cold to his warmth, winter to his summer. You’ve heard that opposites attract? She was his perfect match. But she was a giant. She would never agree to marry a Vanir. Her family would not allow it. Knowing this, Frey fell into despair. Crops stopped growing. Summer lost its warmth. Finally, Frey’s servant and best friend came to ask him what was wrong.’
‘Skirnir,’ I said. ‘The dude who got the sword.’
Freya frowned. ‘Yes. Him.’
Blitzen took a step back, like he was afraid his mom might explode. For the first time, I realized how scary the goddess could look – beautiful, yes, but also terrifying and powerful. I imagined her armed with a shield and spear, riding with the Valkyries. If I saw her on the battlefield, I would run in the other direction.
‘Skirnir promised he could deliver Gerd within nine days,’ said the goddess. ‘All he required was a small fee for his services – the Sword of Summer. Frey was so love-stricken that he asked no questions. The sword … I can only imagine how it felt when it was betrayed by its master. It allowed Skirnir to wield it, though not happily.’
Freya sighed. ‘That is why the sword will never allow Frey to use it again. And that is why, at Ragnarok, Frey is fated to die because he does not have his weapon.’
I wasn’t sure what to say. Bummer didn’t seem to cover it. I remembered Loki’s warning about sitting on Odin’s throne, looking for my heart’s desire. What would I look for? My mother’s whereabouts. Would I give up a sword to find her? Of course. Would I risk getting killed or even hastening Doomsday? Yes. So maybe I couldn’t judge my father.
Blitz gripped my arm. ‘Don’t look so glum, kid. I have faith in you.’
Freya’s expression softened. ‘Yes, Magnus. You will learn to use the sword – and I don’t mean just swinging it like a brute. Once you discover its full abilities, you will be formidable indeed.’
‘I don’t suppose it comes with a user’s manual?’
Freya laughed gently. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t get you in Folkvanger, Magnus. You would’ve been a good addition to my followers. But Valhalla called you first. It was meant to be.’
I wanted to argue that the Norns, the einherjar and the captain of the Valkyries didn’t seem to think so.
Thinking about Gunilla made me remember our flight into the World Tree, and Sam and Hearthstone hiding under a veil from a murderous squirrel. ‘Our friends … we got separated from them on Yggdrasil. Freya, do you know if they made it here safely?’
Freya peered into the distance. ‘They are not in Folkvanger. I see them … Yes. Wait. Lost them again. Ah!’ She winced. ‘That was a close call, but they’re fine for the moment. A resourceful pair. I sense they will not come here. You must continue on and meet them in Nidavellir. Which brings us to your quest.’
‘And how we can help you,’ Blitz said.
‘Exactly, darling. Your need brought you here. Need speaks strongly when you travel the World Tree. After all, that’s how my poor son found himself being a bondservant to Mimir.’
‘We’re not having this discussion again,’ Blitz said.
Freya turned over her lovely hands. ‘Fine. Moving along. As you well know, the dwarves created the rope Gleipnir, which bound Fenris Wolf …’
‘Yes, Mom,’ Blitz said, rolling his eyes. ‘Everyone learns that nursery rhyme in kindergarten.’
I squinted at him. ‘Nursery rhyme?’
‘Gleipnir, Gleipnir, strong and stout, wrapped the Wolf around the snout. Humans don’t learn that one?’
‘Um … I don’t think so.’
‘At any rate,’ said the goddess, ‘the dwarves will be able to tell you more about how the rope was made and how it might be replaced.’
‘Replaced?’ I willed the sword back into pendant form. Even so, hanging around my neck, it seemed to weigh a hundred pounds. ‘I thought the idea was to keep the rope from getting cut in the first place.’
‘Ah …’ Freya tapped her lips. ‘Magnus, I don’t want to discourage you, but I’d s
ay there is a good chance, perhaps a seventy-five per cent chance, that even if you keep the sword from Surt the fire giant will still find a way to free Fenris Wolf. In such a case, you must be prepared with a replacement rope.’
My tongue felt almost as heavy as my sword pendant. ‘Yeah, that’s not at all discouraging. The last time the Wolf was free, didn’t it take all the gods working together to bind him?’
Freya nodded. ‘It took three tries and much trickery. Poor Tyr lost his hand. But don’t worry. The Wolf will never fall for the hand-in-the-mouth trick again. If it comes to that, you will have to find another way to bind him.’
I bet Miles out in the People’s Battlefield didn’t have these sorts of problems. I wondered if he’d be interested in trading places for a while, going after Fenris Wolf while I played volleyball. ‘Freya, can you at least tell us where the Wolf is?’
‘On Lyngvi – the Isle of Heather.’ The goddess tapped her chin. ‘Let’s see, today is Thor’s Day the sixteenth.’
‘You mean Thursday?’
‘That’s what I said. The island will rise on the full moon six days from now, on the twenty-second, which is Woden’s Day.’
‘Wednesday?’ I asked.
‘That’s what I said. So you should have plenty of time to get my earrings before you seek out the Wolf. Unfortunately, the island’s location shifts every year as the branches of Yggdrasil sway in the winds of the void. The dwarves should be able to help you locate it. Blitzen’s father knew the way. Others might as well.’
At the mention of his father, Blitz’s face clouded over. Very carefully, he took the carnation from his waistcoat and tossed it into the hearth fire. ‘And what do you want, Mother? What’s your part in this?’
‘Oh, my needs are simple.’ Her fingers fluttered over her golden lace collar. ‘I want you to commission some earrings to match my necklace Brisingamen. Something nice. Not too flashy, but noticeable. Blitzen, you have excellent taste. I trust you.’
Blitzen glared at the nearest pile of riches, which contained dozens, maybe hundreds of earrings. ‘You know who I have to talk to in Nidavellir. Only one dwarf has the skill to replace the rope Gleipnir.’
‘Yes,’ Freya agreed. ‘Fortunately, he’s also an excellent jeweller, so he will be able to accommodate both our requests.’
‘Unfortunately,’ said Blitzen, ‘this particular dwarf wants me dead.’
Freya waved aside his objection. ‘Oh, he can’t possibly. Not after all this time.’
‘Dwarves have very long memories, Mother.’
‘Well, generous payment will soften his attitude. I can help with that.’ She called across the hall, ‘Dmitri? I need you!’
From one of the sofa clusters, three guys scrambled to their feet, grabbed their musical instruments and hustled over. They wore matching Hawaiian shirts, Bermuda shorts and sandals. Their hair was greased back in pompadours. The first guy had a guitar. The second had bongos. The third had a triangle.
The guy with the guitar bowed to Freya. ‘At your service, my lady!’
Freya gave me a conspiratorial smile, as if she had some wonderful secret to share. ‘Magnus, meet Dmitri and the Do-Runs, the best band you’ve never heard of. They died in 1963, just as they were about to get their big break. So sad! They valiantly swerved their car off Route One to spare a busload of schoolchildren from a terrible collision. In honour of their selfless deaths, I brought them here to Folkvanger.’
‘And we’re very grateful, my lady,’ said Dmitri. ‘Being your house band has been a sweet gig!’
‘Dmitri, I need to cry,’ she said. ‘Could you please play the one about my lost husband? I love that song.’
‘I hate that song,’ Blitzen mumbled under his breath.
The trio hummed. Dmitri strummed a chord.
I whispered to Blitzen, ‘Why does your mom need to cry?’
He turned towards me and made a finger-down-the-throat gesture. ‘Just watch.