‘That way if we fall,’ Sam said, ‘we’ll fall together.’
‘Sold,’ I said, trying to tamp down my anxiety. ‘I love dying with friends.’
We got hitched (so to speak) and followed our intrepid rock-shaping, fashion-conscious guide up the side of Mount You-Gotta-Be-Kidding-Me.
I’d heard homeless military veterans describe war as ninety-five per cent boredom and five per cent terror. Climbing the cliff was more like five per cent terror and ninety-five per cent excruciating pain. My arms shook. My legs wobbled. Every time I looked down I wanted to cry or throw up.
Despite the handholds and footholds Blitzen made, the wind almost knocked me off several times. There was nothing I could do except keep going.
I knew for certain that my Valhalla-enhanced strength was the only thing keeping me alive. Magnus 1.0 would have fallen to his death. I didn’t understand how Hearthstone could manage, bringing up the end of the rope, but he did. And Sam … demigod or not, she didn’t have the advantage of being an einherji. Yet she didn’t complain, didn’t waver, didn’t slip – which was good, since she was climbing right above me.
Finally, as the sky began to darken, we reached the top. Down in the canyon we’d come from, the body of the giantess was so small it looked like a normal-size body. The river glittered in the gloom. If Thor’s camp was still there, I saw no sign of it.
In the other direction, Jotunheim spread out like an electron-microscope landscape – impossibly jagged peaks, crystalline cliffs, ravines filled with ovoid clouds like floating bacteria.
The good news: I could see the giant’s fortress. Across a mile-wide chasm, windows glowed red in the side of a mountain. Towers rose from the summit as if they’d been shaped from the rock dwarven-style rather than built.
The bad news: did I mention the mile-wide chasm? The clifftop where we were standing was no more than a narrow plateau. The drop on the other side was just as precipitous as the one we’d climbed.
Considering it had taken us all day to get this far, I figured we’d reach the castle in another six months, easy. Unfortunately, it was Monday evening and the Wolf’s island was supposed to rise on Wednesday.
‘Let’s camp here tonight,’ Blitzen said. ‘Maybe in the morning we’ll see a better way across.’
Despite our time crunch, nobody argued. We were all so tired we collapsed.
As is so often the case, in the fresh light of morning our situation looked much worse.
There were no stairs, no convenient zip lines, no direct commuter flights to Geirrod’s fortress. I was about to risk an axe in the face by suggesting that Sam shape-shift – maybe change into a giant sugar glider and carry us across – when Hearthstone signed, Have an idea.
He pulled out a runestone:
‘M,’ I said.
He shook his head then spelled out the name: E-H-W-A-Z.
‘Right,’ I said. ‘Because calling it M would be too easy.’
Sam plucked the stone from Hearth’s palm. ‘I know this one. It symbolizes a horse, right? The shape is like a saddle.’
I squinted at the rune. The wind was so cold and harsh that I had a hard time thinking imaginatively, but the symbol still looked like an M to me. ‘How does this help us?’
Hearthstone signed, Means horse, transportation. Maybe a way to go – he pointed to the castle.
Blitzen tugged his beard. ‘Sounds like powerful magic. Have you tried it before?’
Hearthstone shook his head. Don’t worry. I can do it.
‘I know you can,’ said Blitz. ‘But you’ve already taxed yourself to the limit several times.’
Be fine, Hearth insisted.
‘I don’t see that we have much choice,’ I said, ‘since we don’t have anyone who can grow wings.’
‘I will push you off this mountain,’ Sam warned.
‘All right,’ Blitzen decided, ‘let’s try it. I mean the rune, not pushing Magnus off the mountain. Maybe Hearth can summon a helicopter.’
‘Geirrod would hear a helicopter,’ I said. ‘And probably throw rocks at us. And kill us.’
‘Well, then,’ Blitzen said, ‘perhaps a stealth helicopter. Hearthstone, do your stuff!’
Sam returned the stone. Hearth passed his hand over it, moving his lips as if imagining how the syllables might sound.
The runestone burst into dust. Hearthstone stared at the white powder trickling through his fingers.
‘I’m guessing it wasn’t supposed to do that?’ I asked.
‘Guys.’ Sam’s voice was so small it was almost lost in the wind.
She pointed up, where a grey shape was hurtling out of the clouds. It moved so fast and blended with the sky so well that I didn’t realize what the creature was until it was almost on top of us – a stallion twice the size of a normal horse, his coat rippling like liquid steel, his white mane billowing, his eyes glittering black.
The stallion had no wings, but he galloped through the air as easily as if he were running down a gentle slope. Only when he landed next to us did I notice he had four, five, six … eight legs – a pair in each place where a normal horse would have one, kind of like dual wheels on a pickup truck.
I turned to Hearthstone. ‘Dude, when you summon a horse, you don’t mess around.’
Hearthstone grinned. Then his eyes rolled up in his head and he fell forward. I managed to catch him and ease him to the ground while Blitzen and Sam moved warily around the stallion.
‘It – it c-can’t be,’ Blitzen stammered.
‘One of Sleipnir’s offspring?’ Sam wondered. ‘Gods, what a magnificent animal.’
The horse nuzzled her hand, clearly pleased with the compliment.
I moved towards him, fascinated by his intelligent eyes and his regal stance. The stallion gave the word horsepower a new meaning. He radiated strength.
‘Is somebody going to introduce me?’ I asked.
Sam shook herself out of her reverie. ‘I … I don’t know who he is. He looks like Sleipnir, Odin’s steed, but this can’t be him. Only Odin can summon him. I’m guessing this is one of Sleipnir’s sons.’
‘Well, he’s amazing.’ I extended my hand. The horse brushed his lips against my fingers. ‘He’s friendly. And he’s definitely big enough to carry us all across the chasm. Would you be okay with that, buddy?’
The horse nickered, like, Uh, duh, that’s why I’m here.
‘The eight legs are –’ I was about to say weird but changed my mind – ‘awesome. How did that happen?’
Blitzen glanced at Sam. ‘Sleipnir was one of Loki’s children. They tend to come out … interesting.’
I smiled. ‘So this horse is your nephew, Sam?’
She glared at me. ‘Let’s not go there.’
‘How did your dad father a horse?’
Blitzen coughed. ‘Actually, Loki was Sleipnir’s mother.’
‘Let’s definitely not go there,’ Sam warned.
I filed that away for later research. ‘Okay, Mr Horse, since we don’t know your name, I’m going to call you Stanley, because you look like a Stanley. That okay with you?’
The horse seemed to shrug, which was good enough for me.
We draped Hearthstone over Stanley’s extra-long back like a sack of elfish potatoes. The rest of us climbed on.
‘We’re going to that castle over there, Stanley,’ I told the stallion. ‘Looking for a quiet entrance. That work for you?’
The horse whinnied. I was pretty sure he was warning me to hold on.
I wondered what exactly I should hold on to, since there were no reins and no saddle. Then the stallion pawed the rocks with his front four hooves, leaped off the side of the cliff and plummeted straight down.
And we all died.
How to Kill Giants Politely
Just kidding this time.
It only felt like we were going to die.
The horse must have enjoyed the feeling of free fall. I didn’t.
I grabbed his neck and screamed in terror (which was not very stealthy). Meanwhile, Blitzen grabbed my waist, and behind him Sam somehow stayed on board while managing to keep Hearthstone from slipping into oblivion.
The fall felt like hours, though it probably lasted only a second or two. During that time I thought of several more colourful names for Stanley. Finally he churned his eight legs like locomotive wheels. We levelled out and began to climb.
Stanley punched through a cloud, zigzagged along the face of the mountain and landed on a window ledge near the top of the fortress. I dismounted, my legs shaking, then helped the others with Hearthstone.
The ledge was so wide that the four of us plus the horse could stand in one corner and seem no bigger than mice. The window had no glass (probably because there wasn’t that much glass in the world), but Stanley had landed us behind a panel of gathered curtain, so nobody inside could’ve seen us, even if they were randomly scanning the window for mice.
‘Thanks, buddy,’ I told Stanley. ‘That was horrifying. I mean, great.’
Stanley nickered. He gave me an affectionate nip, then disappeared in a burst of dust. On the windowsill where he’d been standing was the ehwaz runestone.
‘He seemed to like me,’ I noted.
Blitzen slid down next to Hearthstone and said, ‘Eep.’
Only Sam didn’t seem ruffled. In fact, she seemed exhilarated. Her eyes sparkled and she couldn’t stop smiling. I guess she really did love flying, even if it was a near-death free fall on an eight-legged horse.
‘Of course Stanley liked you.’ She picked up the runestone. ‘Horses are one of Frey’s sacred animals.’
‘Huh.’ I thought about my experiences with the Boston mounted police that patrolled the Public Garden. The horses always seemed friendly, even if their riders weren’t. One time, when a mounted officer had started to question me, his horse had suddenly taken off, galloping towards the nearest low-hanging tree branch.
‘I’ve always liked horses,’ I said.
‘Frey’s temples kept their own herds,’ Sam told me. ‘No mortal was allowed to ride them without the god’s permission.’
‘Well, I wish Stanley had asked my permission before leaving,’ I said. ‘We have no exit strategy, and Hearthstone doesn’t look like he’s going to be casting more spells anytime soon.’
The elf had regained consciousness … sort of. He leaned against Blitz, giggling silently and making random signs like, Butterfly. Pop. Yippee. Blitzen clutched his stomach and stared into space as if he were thinking of interesting ways to die.
Sam and I crept to the edge of the curtain. We peeked around it and found we were at ceiling level of a stadium-size room. In the hearth burned a fire as big as an urban riot. The only exit was a closed wooden door on the far wall. In the centre of the room, seated at a stone table, two giantesses were having dinner, ripping into a carcass that reminded me of the roast beast in Valhalla’s dining hall.
The giantesses didn’t look as tall as the dead one back in the river, though it was hard to be sure. In Jotunheim, proportions made no sense. My eyes felt like they were constantly adjusting to different funhouse mirrors.
Sam nudged my arm. ‘Look.’
She pointed to a birdcage suspended from the ceiling, hanging just about eye-level to us. Inside the cage, waddling around on a bed of straw and looking miserable, was a white swan.
‘That’s a Valkyrie,’ Sam said.
‘How can you be sure?’
‘I just am. Not only that … I’m pretty sure it’s Gunilla.’
I shuddered. ‘What would she be doing here?’
‘Looking for us. Valkyries are excellent trackers. I imagine she got here before we did and …’ Sam mimed a hand snatching something out of the air.
‘So … do we leave her?’
‘For the giants to eat? Of course not.’
‘She set you up. She got you kicked out of the Valkyries.’
‘She’s still my captain,’ Sam said. ‘She … well, she has her reasons for mistrusting me. A few centuries ago, there was a son of Loki who made it into Valhalla.’
‘He and Gunilla fell in love,’ I guessed. ‘I kind of got that impression when she was taking me on a tour of the hotel.’
Sam nodded. ‘The son of Loki betrayed her. Turned out he was a spy for my dad. Broke her heart. Well … you get the picture. Anyway, I’m not going to leave her to die.’
I sighed. ‘Okay.’
I pulled off my pendant.
Jack the sword hummed to life.
‘About time,’ he said. ‘What did I miss yesterday?’
‘Bunch of climbing,’ I told him. ‘Now we’re looking at two more giantesses. How do you feel about flying up their nostrils?’
The sword tugged at my hand, his blade peeking around the corner of the curtain. ‘Dude, we’re on their windowsill. We’ve technically crossed the threshold of the giants’ home.’
‘So you have to follow the rules! Killing them in their home without provocation would be rude!’
‘Right,’ I said. ‘We wouldn’t want to kill them rudely.’
‘Hey, señor, guest rights and host rights are important magic protocols. They keep situations from escalating.’
Blitzen groaned in the corner. ‘The sword has a point, kid. And, no, that wasn’t a joke. We should go in, claim guest rights and barter for what we need. If the giants try to kill us, then we can attack.’
Hearthstone hiccupped, grinned and signed, Washing machine.
Sam shook her head. ‘You two are in no condition to go anywhere. Blitz, stay here and watch Hearthstone. Magnus and I will go in, find Thor’s hammer and free Gunilla. If things go wrong, it’ll be up to you two to figure out how to rescue us.’
‘But –’ Blitzen put his fist over his mouth and stifled an urp. ‘Yeah … okay. How are you guys going to get down there?’
Sam peered over the ledge. ‘We’ll use your magic rope to reach the floor. Then we’ll walk up to the giants and introduce ourselves.’
‘I hate this plan,’ I said. ‘Let’s do it.’
Why You Should Not Use a Steak Knife as a Diving Board
Rappelling down the wall was the easy part.
When we reached the bottom, I started having serious doubts. The giantesses were definitely smaller than their dead sister – maybe fifty feet tall. If I’d been asked to wrestle one of their big toes, I could’ve won no problem. Other than that, I didn’t like my chances.
‘I feel like Jack up the beanstalk,’ I muttered.
Sam laughed under her breath. ‘Where do you think that story comes from? It’s a cultural memory – a watered-down account of what happens when humans blunder into Jotunheim.’
The sword buzzed in my hand. ‘Besides, you can’t be Jack. I’m Jack.’
I couldn’t argue with that logic.
We navigated across the stone floor, through a wasteland of dust balls, food scraps and grease puddles.
The fireplace was so hot my clothes steamed. My hair crackled. The smell of the giants’ body odour – a combination of wet clay and sour meat – was almost as deadly as a sword flying up my nose.
We got within shouting distance of the dining table, but the two giantesses still hadn’t noticed us. They both wore sandals, size-120 leather dresses and Flintstones-style necklaces made from polished boulders. Their stringy black hair was woven into pigtails. Their grey faces were hideously painted with rouge and lipstick. I didn’t have my fashion advisor Blitzen with me, but I guessed the giant sisters were dolled up for a girls’ night out, even though it was barely lunchtime.
‘Ready?’ Sam asked me.
The answer was no, but I took a deep breath and yelled, ‘Hello!’
The giantesses kept chatting, banging their cups and chomping their meat.
I tried again. ‘YO!’
The big ladies froze. They scanned the room. Finally the one on
the left spotted us. She burst out laughing, spraying bits of mead and meat. ‘More humans! I don’t believe it!’
The other giantess leaned over. ‘Is that another Valkyrie? And …’ She sniffed the air. ‘The boy is an einherji. Perfect! I was just wondering what we’d have for dessert.’
‘We claim guest rights!’ I yelled.
The giantess on the left made a sour face. ‘Now, why did you have to go and do that?’
‘We want to barter.’ I pointed to the birdcage, now so far above us I could only see its rusted base hovering like a moon. ‘For that swan’s freedom. And also … possibly, you know, if you have any stolen weapons lying around. Like, I don’t know, a hammer or something.’
‘Smooth,’ Sam muttered.
The giantesses looked at each other like they were trying not to giggle. They’d obviously been hitting the mead pretty hard.
‘Very well,’ said the giantess on the left. ‘I am Gjalp. This is my sister Greip. We agree to host you while we barter. What are your names?’
‘I am Magnus, son of Natalie,’ I said. ‘And this is –’
‘Samirah, daughter of Ayesha,’ said Sam.
‘You are welcome in the house of our father, Geirrod,’ said Gjalp. ‘But I can barely hear you down there. Do you mind if I put you in a chair?’
‘Uh, okay,’ I said.
The other sister, Griep, snatched us up like toys. She set us on an empty chair, its seat the size of a living room. The tabletop was still a good five feet above my head.
‘Oh, dear,’ Griep said. ‘That’s still too low. May I raise your chair for you?’
Sam started to say, ‘Magnus –’
I blurted out, ‘Sure.’
With a shriek of glee, Griep picked up our chair and thrust it over her head. If not for the backrest, Sam and I would’ve been smashed flat against the ceiling. As it was, we got knocked off our feet and showered in plaster.
Griep put down the chair. It took a moment for my eyeballs to stop rattling. Then I saw the giantesses’ scowling faces looming over us.
‘It didn’t work,’ Griep said, with obvious disappointment.