‘Why were you bound?’ The question forced itself out before I realized I was thinking it. ‘I remember you killed somebody …’
His smile hardened. The angry lines around his eyes made him look ten years older.
‘You know how to ruin a conversation,’ Loki said. ‘I killed Balder, the god of light – the handsome, perfect, incredibly annoying son of Odin and Frigg.’ He stepped towards me and poked my chest, emphasizing each word. ‘And – I’d – do – it – again.’
In the back of my brain, my common sense yelled, DROP IT! But, as you have probably figured out by now, I don’t listen to my common sense much.
‘Why did you kill him?’
Loki barked a laugh. His breath smelled of almonds, like cyanide. ‘Did I mention he was annoying? Frigg was so worried about him. The poor baby had been having bad dreams about his own doom. Welcome to reality, Balder! We all have bad dreams. But Frigg couldn’t stand the idea that her precious angel might bruise his little foot. She exacted promises from everything in creation that nothing would hurt her beautiful son – people, gods, trees, rocks … Can you imagine exacting a promise from a rock? Frigg managed it. Afterwards, the gods had a party to celebrate. They started throwing things at Balder just for laughs. Arrows, swords, boulders, each other … nothing would hurt him. It was as if the idiot was surrounded by a force field. Well … I’m sorry. The thought of Mr Perfect also being Mr Invulnerable made me sick.’
I blinked, trying to get the sting out of my eyes. Loki’s voice was so full of hatred it seemed to make the air burn. ‘You found a way to kill him.’
‘Mistletoe!’ Loki’s smile brightened. ‘Can you imagine? Frigg forgot one tiny little plant. I fashioned a dart from the stuff, gave it to Balder’s blind brother, a god named Hod. I didn’t want him to miss the fun of chucking deadly objects at Balder, so I guided Hod’s hand and … well, Frigg’s worst fears came true. Balder deserved it.’
‘For being too handsome and popular.’
‘For being loved.’
‘Exactly!’ Loki leaned forward until we were almost nose-to-nose. ‘Don’t tell me you haven’t done the same kinds of things. Those cars you broke into, those people you stole from … you picked people you didn’t like, eh? You picked the rich, handsome, stuck-up snobs who annoyed you.’
My teeth chattered harder. ‘I never killed anyone.’
‘Oh, please.’ Loki stepped back, examining me with a look of disappointment. ‘It’s only a matter of degree. So I killed a god. Big deal! He went to Helheim and became an honoured guest in my daughter’s palace. And my punishment? You want to know my punishment?’
‘You were tied on a stone slab,’ I said. ‘With poison from a snake dripping on your face. I know.’
‘Do you?’ Loki pulled back his cuffs, showing me the raw scars on his wrists. ‘The gods were not content to punish me with eternal torture. They took out their wrath upon my two favourite sons – Vali and Narvi. They turned Vali into a wolf and watched with amusement while he disembowelled his brother Narvi. Then they shot and gutted the wolf. The gods took my innocent sons’ own entrails …’ Loki’s voice cracked with grief. ‘Well, Magnus Chase, let’s just say I was not bound with ropes.’
Something in my chest curled up and died – possibly my hope that there was any kind of justice in the universe. ‘Gods.’
Loki nodded. ‘Yes, Magnus. The gods. Think about that when you meet Thor.’
‘I’m meeting Thor?’
‘I’m afraid so. The gods don’t even pretend to deal in good and evil, Magnus. It’s not the Aesir way. Might makes right. So tell me … do you really want to charge into battle on their behalf?’
The ship trembled under my feet. Fog rolled across the deck.
‘Time for you to go,’ Loki said. ‘Remember what I said. Oh, and have fun getting mouth-to-mouth from a goat.’
‘Wait … what?’
Loki wiggled his fingers, his eyes full of malicious glee. Then the ship dissolved into grey nothingness.
I Psychoanalyse a Goat
As Loki had promised, I woke up with a goat in my face.
Confession time: my only previous experience with kissing had been with Jackie Molotov in seventh grade, behind the bleachers at a school dance. Yes, I know that’s lame, seeing as how I was now sixteen. But during the past few years I’d been a little busy, living on the street and whatnot. Anyway, with apologies to Jackie, getting mouth-to-mouth from a goat reminded me of her.
I rolled over and puked into the river conveniently located right next to me. My bones felt as if they’d been broken and mended with duct tape. My mouth tasted like chewed grass and old nickels.
‘Oh, you’re alive,’ said the goat. He sounded mildly disappointed.
I sat up and groaned. The goat’s horns curved outward like the top half of an hourglass. Sticker burrs matted his shaggy brown fur.
A lot of questions crowded into my head: Where am I? Why are you a talking goat? Why does your breath smell so bad? Have you been eating spare change?
The first question that came out was: ‘Where are my friends?’
‘The elf and girl?’ asked the goat. ‘Oh, they’re dead.’
My heart threatened to exit via my throat. ‘What? No!’
The goat gestured with his horns. A few yards to my right, Hearthstone and Sam lay crumpled on the rocky beach.
I scrambled over. I placed my hands on their throats and almost passed out again, from relief this time.
‘They’re not dead,’ I told the goat. ‘They both have pulses.’
‘Oh.’ The goat sighed. ‘Well, give them a few more hours and they’ll probably be dead.’
‘What is wrong with you?’
‘Everything,’ said the goat. ‘My whole life is one big –’
‘Never mind,’ I said. ‘Just be quiet.’
The goat brayed. ‘Sure, I understand. You don’t want to know my problems. No one does. I’ll be over here, weeping or whatever. Just ignore me.’
Keeping my hands against Sam’s and Hearthstone’s carotid arteries, I sent warmth through my fingertips into their circulatory systems.
Sam was easy to heal. Her heart was strong. She responded almost immediately, her eyes fluttering open, her lungs gasping for air. She curled sideways and began vomiting, which I took as a good sign.
Hearthstone, though … something was wrong beyond the water in his lungs and the cold in his limbs. Right at his core, a dense knot of dark emotion sapped his will to live. The pain was so intense it threw me back to the night of my mother’s death. I remembered my hands slipping from the fire escape, the windows of our apartment exploding above me.
Hearthstone’s grief was even worse than that. I didn’t know exactly what he had suffered, but his despair almost overwhelmed me. I grasped for a happy memory – my mom and me picking wild blueberries on Hancock Hill, the air so clear I could see Quincy Bay glittering on the horizon. I sent a flood of warmth into Hearthstone’s chest.
His eyes flew open.
He stared at me, uncomprehending. Then he pointed at my face and gestured weakly – the sign for light.
‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
Sam groaned. She rose on one arm and squinted at me. ‘Magnus … why are you glowing?’
I looked at my hands. Sure enough, I seemed to have been dipped in Folkvanger light. The warm buttery aura was starting to fade, but I could feel residual power tingling along my arm hairs.
‘Apparently,’ I said, ‘if I heal too much at once, I glow.’
Sam winced. ‘Well, thanks for healing us. But try not to self-combust. How is Hearth?’
I helped him sit up. ‘How you feeling, buddy?’
He made a circle with his thumb and middle finger, then flicked it upward, the sign for terrible.
No surprise. Given the depth of pain I’d felt within him, I was surprised he wasn’t constantly screaming.
…’ I started to say, ‘when I healed you, I –’
He put his hands over mine – a sign-language version of hush.
Maybe we had some residual connection from the healing magic, but when I met Hearthstone’s eyes I could tell what he was thinking. His message was an almost audible voice in my head – like when Jack the sword had started to speak.
Later, Hearth told me. Thank you … brother.
I was too startled to reply.
The goat plodded over. ‘You really should take better care of your elf. They need lots of sunshine – not this weak Jotunheim light. And you can’t overwater them by drowning them in rivers.’
Hearthstone frowned. He signed, The goat is speaking?
I tried to clear my head. ‘Uh, yeah, he is.’
‘I also read sign language,’ said the goat. ‘My name is Tanngnjóstr, which means Teeth Grinder, because … well, it’s a nervous habit of mine. But nobody calls me Tanngnjóstr. It’s a horrible name. Just call me Otis.’
Sam struggled to her feet. Her hijab had come undone and now hung around her neck like a gunslinger’s bandanna. ‘So, Otis, what brings you here to this place that is … wherever we are?’
Otis sighed. ‘I got lost. Which is typical. I was trying to find my way back to camp when I found you all instead. I suppose you’ll kill me and eat me for dinner now.’
I frowned at Sam. ‘Were you planning to kill the goat?’
‘No. Were you?’
I looked at Otis. ‘We weren’t planning to kill you.’
‘It’s okay if you want to,’ Otis said. ‘I’m used to it. My master kills me all the time.’
‘He … does?’ I asked.
‘Oh, sure. I’m basically a talking meal on four hooves. My therapist says that’s why I’m so down all the time, but I don’t know. I think it goes way back to when I was a kid –’
‘Sorry. Wait. Who is your master?’
Hearthstone spelled out: T-H-O-R. D-U-H.
‘That’s right,’ said the goat. ‘Although his last name is not Duh. You haven’t seen him, have you?’
‘No …’ I thought about my dream. I could still smell the bitter almonds on Loki’s breath. The gods don’t even pretend to deal in good and evil, Magnus. Think about that when you meet Thor.
Junior had told us to seek out Thor. The river had somehow brought us to where we needed to be. Only now, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be here.
Sam readjusted her headscarf. ‘I’m not a big fan of Thor, but if he can give us directions to Lyngvi we need to talk to him.’
‘Except the goat is lost,’ I said. ‘So how do we find Thor?’
Hearthstone pointed to my pendant. Ask Jack.
Instead of spelling the name, he made the sign for jack-in-the-box, which looked like a finger rabbit popping up from behind his hand. Sometimes sign language can be a little too literal.
I pulled off the pendant. The sword grew to full length and began to hum.
‘Hey,’ said Jack, the runes glowing along his blade, ‘glad you survived! Oh, is that Otis? Cool! Thor must be around here somewhere.’
Otis bleated. ‘You have a talking sword? I’ve never been killed by a talking sword before. That’s fine. If you could just make a clean cut right across the throat –’
‘Otis!’ Jack said. ‘Don’t you know me? I’m Frey’s sword, Sumarbrander. We met at that party at Bilskirner – the one where you were playing tug-of-war with Loki?’
‘Oh …’ Otis shook his horns. ‘Yes. That was embarrassing.’
‘Jack,’ I said, ‘we’re looking for Thor. Any chance you can point us in the right direction?’
‘Easy McSqueezy.’ The sword tugged at my arm. ‘I’m reading a big concentration of hot air and thunder that way!’
Sam and I helped Hearthstone to his feet. He wasn’t looking too good. His lips were pale green. He wobbled like he’d just got off a Tilt-a-Whirl.
‘Otis,’ Sam said, ‘can our friend ride you? It might be quicker.’
‘Sure,’ the goat said. ‘Ride me, kill me, whatever. But I should warn you, this is Jotunheim. If we go the wrong way, we’ll run across giants. Then we’ll all be butchered and put in a stew pot.’
‘We won’t go the wrong way,’ I promised. ‘Will we, Jack?’
‘Hmm?’ said the sword. ‘Oh, no. Probably not. Like, a sixty per cent chance we’ll live.’
‘Kidding,’ he said. ‘Jeez, so uptight.’
He pointed upstream and led us through the foggy morning, with spotty snow flurries and a forty per cent chance of death.
Hearthstone Passes Out Even More than Jason Grace (Though I Have No Idea Who That Is)
Jotunheim looked a lot like Vermont, just with fewer signs offering maple-syrup products. Snow dusted the dark mountains. Waist-high drifts choked the valleys. Pine trees bristled with icicles. Jack hovered in front, guiding us along the river as it zigzagged through canyons blanketed in sub-zero shadows. We climbed trails next to half-frozen waterfalls, my sweat chilling instantly against my skin.
In other words, it was a huge amount of fun.
Sam and I stayed close to Hearthstone. I hoped my residual aura of Frey-glow might do him some good, but he still looked pretty weak. The best we could do was keep him from sliding off the goat.
‘Hang in there,’ I told him.
He signed something – maybe sorry – but his gesture was so listless I wasn’t sure.
‘Just rest,’ I said.
He grunted in frustration. He groped through his bag of runes, pulled one out and placed it in my hands. He pointed to the stone, then to himself, as if to say, This is me.
The rune was one I didn’t know:
Sam frowned when she saw it. ‘That’s perthro.’
‘What does it mean?’ I asked.
She glanced cautiously at Hearth. ‘Are you trying to explain what happened to you? You want Magnus to know?’
Hearthstone took a deep breath, like he was preparing for a sprint. He signed, Magnus – felt – pain.
I closed my fingers around the stone. ‘Yeah … When I healed you, there was something dark –’
Hearth pointed again at the stone. He looked at Sam.
‘You want me to tell him?’ she asked. ‘You sure?’
He nodded, then rested his head against the goat’s back and closed his eyes.
We walked for about twenty yards before Sam said anything.
‘When Hearth and I were in Alfheim,’ she started, ‘he told me part of his story. I don’t know all the details, but … his parents …’ She struggled to find words.
Otis the goat bleated. ‘Go on. I love depressing stories.’
‘Be quiet,’ Sam ordered.
‘I’ll just be quiet, then,’ the goat agreed.
I studied Hearthstone’s face. He looked so peaceful asleep. ‘Blitzen told me a little bit,’ I said. ‘Hearth’s parents never accepted him, because he was deaf.’
‘It was worse than that,’ Sam said. ‘They were … not good people.’
Some of Loki’s acidic tone crept into her voice, as if she were imagining Hearth’s parents on the receiving end of mistletoe darts. ‘Hearth had a brother – Andiron – who died very young. It wasn’t Hearthstone’s fault, but his parents took out their bitterness on him. They always told him the wrong brother had died. To them, Hearth was a disappointment, a disabled elf, a punishment from the gods. He could do no right.’
I clenched the runestone. ‘He still carries all that pain inside. Gods …’
Sam laid her hand on Hearth’s ankle. ‘He couldn’t tell me the details of how he grew up, but I – I got the feeling it was worse than you can imagine.’
I looked at the rune. ‘No wonder he daydreamed about working magic. But this symbol …?’
‘Perthro symbolizes an empty cup lying sideways,’ Sam said. ‘It could be spilled drink, or a cup waiting to be filled, or a cup for throwing dice, like fate.’
‘I don’t understand.’
Sam brushed some goat hair from Hearthstone’s trouser cuff. ‘I think … I think perthro is the rune Hearthstone personally relates to. When he went to Mimir and drank from the well, Hearthstone was offered a choice between two futures. If he took the first path, Mimir would grant him speech and hearing and send him back to Alfheim to live a normal life, but he would have to give up his dream of magic. If he chose the second path –’
‘He’d learn magic,’ I guessed, ‘but he would stay the way he is – deaf, hated by his own parents. What kind of messed-up choice is that? I should’ve stepped on Mimir’s face when I had the chance.’
Sam shook her head. ‘Mimir just presented the choices. Magic and normal life are mutually exclusive. Only people who have known great pain have the capacity to learn magic. They have to be like hollow cups. Even Odin … he gave up an eye to drink from Mimir’s well, but that was just the beginning. In order to learn the runes, Odin fashioned a noose and hanged himself from a branch of the World Tree for nine days.’
My stomach checked to see if it had anything left to retch. It settled for dry spasms. ‘That’s … not right.’
‘But it was necessary,’ Sam said. ‘Odin pierced his side with his own spear and hung there in pain, without food or water, until the runes revealed themselves. The pain made him hollow … a receptacle for magic.’
I looked at Hearthstone. I wasn’t sure whether to hug him or wake him up and scold him. How could anyone willingly choose to hold on to that much pain? What kind of magic could possibly be worth the cost?
‘I’ve done magic,’ I said. ‘Healing, walking into flames, blasting weapons out of people’s hands. But I’ve never suffered like Hearth has.’
Samirah pursed her lips. ‘That’s different, Magnus. You were born with your magic – an inheritance from your father. You can’t choose your abilities or change them. Alf seidr is innate. It’s also lesser magic compared to what the runes can do.’
‘Lesser?’ I didn’t want to argue about whose magic was more impressive, but most of the things I’d seen Hearthstone do had been pretty … subtle.
‘I told you back in Valhalla,’ Sam said, ‘the runes are the secret language of the universe. Learning them, you can recode reality. The only limits on your magic are your strength and your imagination.’
‘So why don’t more people learn runes?’
‘That’s what I’ve been telling you. It requires incredible sacrifice. Most people would die before they got as far as Hearthstone has.’
I tucked Hearthstone’s scarf around his neck. I understood now why he’d been willing to risk rune magic. To a guy with his troubled past, recoding reality must have sounded pretty good. I also thought about the message he’d whispered into my mind. He’d called me brother. After everything Hearthstone had been