‘I’m suggesting that you hear the story from my point of view. It has always been our tradition to tell of the hero’s deeds.’
Gunilla stood. ‘Pardon me, my lords, but Samirah is correct. Perhaps we should let the daughter of Loki speak.’
The crowd booed and hissed. Some called, ‘No! No!’
Helgi gestured for silence. ‘Gunilla, you do your sisterhood credit by defending a fellow Valkyrie, but Loki has always been a master of smooth, honeyed words. Personally, I would rather trust what I see than have it spun for me in some clever explanation.’
Gunilla shrugged like, Oh, well, I tried! and sank back into her chair.
‘Magnus Chase!’ Helgi called. ‘Do you know your parentage?’
I counted to five. My first inclination was to yell, No, but your dad was apparently a jackass!
‘I don’t know my father,’ I admitted. ‘But, look, about that video –’
‘Perhaps you have potential we do not recognize,’ Helgi said. ‘Perhaps you are a son of Odin or Thor or some other noble war god, and your presence brings us honour. We will seek wisdom from the runes, unless the All-Father would intercede?’
He glanced at the throne, which remained empty. The ravens studied me with dark hungry eyes.
‘Very well,’ Helgi said. ‘Bring forth the vala and –’
Between the roots of the tree, where the waterfall hit the dark lake, a massive bubble erupted. BLOOP! On the surface of the water stood three women shrouded in white.
Except for the crackle of cooking fire and the sound of the waterfall, the hall was silent. Thousands of warriors watched, frozen in amazement, as the three white women glided across the floor, heading towards me.
‘Sam?’ I whispered. ‘Sam, what’s going on?’
Her hand fell from her axe.
‘The Norns,’ she said. ‘The Norns themselves have come to read your fate.’
Norns. Why Did It Have to Be Norns?
I really wished someone had warned me I was going to die. Like, Hey, you’re diving off a bridge tomorrow and becoming an undead Viking, so go read up on Valhalla.
I felt seriously unprepared.
I remembered hearing about Norns, the ladies who controlled mortal destinies, but I didn’t know their names or their motivation or the proper etiquette for meeting them. Was I supposed to bow? Offer them gifts? Run away screaming?
Next to me, Sam muttered, ‘This is bad. The Norns only show up in extreme cases.’
I didn’t want to be an extreme case. I wanted to be an easy case: Hey, good job. You’re a hero. Have a cookie.
Or even better: Oops. This was all a mistake. You can go back to your regularly scheduled life.
Not that my regularly scheduled life was so great, but it beat getting judged unworthy by twelve bearded guys named Erik.
As the Norns got closer, I realized how big they were – at least nine feet tall each. Under their hoods, their faces were beautiful but unnerving – blank white, even their eyes. Trailing behind them came a sheet of fog like a bridal train. They stopped twenty feet in front of my table and turned up their palms. Their skin was like sculpted snow.
Magnus Chase. I couldn’t tell which Norn had spoken. The soft disembodied voice resonated through the hall, seeping into my head, turning my skull into an icebox. Harbinger of the Wolf.
The crowd stirred uneasily. I’d seen the word harbinger somewhere before, maybe in a fantasy novel, but I couldn’t remember what it meant. I didn’t like the sound of it. I liked the sound of wolf even less.
I’d just about decided that running away screaming was my smartest option. Then, in the hands of the middle Norn, fog collected, solidifying into half a dozen runestones. She threw them into the air. They floated above her, each rune expanding into a luminous white symbol as big as a poster board.
I couldn’t read runes, but I recognized the one in the centre. It was the same symbol I’d picked from the pouch in Uncle Randolph’s office:
Fehu, announced the cold voice. The rune of Frey.
Thousands of warriors shifted in their seats, clanking restlessly in their armour.
Frey … Who was Frey? My mind felt coated with frost. My thoughts were sluggish.
The Norns spoke together, three ghostly voices chanting in unison, shaking leaves from the giant tree:
Wrongly chosen, wrongly slain,
A hero Valhalla cannot contain.
Nine days hence the sun must go east,
Ere Sword of Summer unbinds the beast.
The glowing runes dissolved. The three Norns bowed to me. They melted into the fog and disappeared.
I glanced at Sam. ‘How often does that happen?’
She looked like she’d been smacked between the eyes with one of Gunilla’s hammers. ‘No. Choosing you couldn’t have been a mistake. I was told … I was promised –’
‘Someone told you to pick me up?’
Instead of answering, she murmured under her breath – as if running calculations for a rocket that had gone off course.
At the thanes’ table, the lords conferred. All around the hall, thousands of einherjar studied me. My stomach folded itself into various origami shapes.
Finally, Helgi faced me. ‘Magnus Chase, son of Frey, your destiny is troubling. The lords of Valhalla must think on this further. For the time being, you shall be welcomed as a comrade. You are one of the einherjar now. That cannot be reversed, even if it was a mistake.’
He scowled at Sam. ‘Samirah al-Abbas, the Norns themselves have pronounced your judgement in error. Do you have any defence?’
Sam’s eyes widened as if she’d just realized something. ‘The son of Frey …’ She looked around the room desperately. ‘Einherjar, don’t you see? This is the son of Frey! Surt himself was on that bridge! That means the sword …’ She turned to the thanes’ table. ‘Gunilla, you must see what that means. We have to find that sword! A quest, immediately –’
Helgi banged his fist on the table. ‘Enough! Samirah, you stand in judgement for a grave mistake. It is not your place to tell us what to do. It is definitely not your place to order a quest!’
‘I did not make a mistake,’ Sam said. ‘I did as I was ordered! I –’
‘Ordered?’ Helgi narrowed his eyes. ‘Ordered by whom?’
Sam’s mouth shut. She seemed to deflate.
Helgi nodded grimly. ‘I see. Captain Gunilla, before I announce the thanes’ judgement on this Valkyrie, do you wish to speak?’
Gunilla stirred. The gleam in her eyes was gone. She looked like someone who’d got in line for the merry-go-round and unexpectedly found herself trapped on a roller coaster.
‘I –’ She shook her head. ‘No, my lord. I – I have nothing to add.’
‘Very well,’ said Helgi. ‘Samirah al-Abbas, for your poor judgement with this einherji Magnus Chase, and for your past mistakes, the thanes rule that you be expelled from the sisterhood of Valkyries. You are hereby stripped of your powers and privileges. Return to Midgard in disgrace!’
Sam grabbed my arm. ‘Magnus, listen to me. You have to find the sword. You have to stop them –’
Like a camera flash, there was a burst of light, and Sam was gone. Her half-eaten meal and the breadcrumbs around her seat were the only signs she’d ever existed.
‘So concludes our feast,’ Helgi announced. ‘I will see you all tomorrow on the field of battle! Sleep well and dream of glorious death!’
I Did Not Ask for Biceps
I didn’t sleep much. I definitely didn’t dream of glorious death. Been there, done that, got the afterlife.
While I was at dinner, my sofa had been put back and repaired. I sat on it and thumbed through my old children’s book of Norse mythology, but it didn’t have much about Frey. One tiny picture showed a blond guy in a tunic frolicking in the woods, a blonde lady at his side, a couple of cats playing at their feet.
Frey was t
he god of spring and summer! read the caption. He was the god of wealth, abundance and fertility. His twin sister, Freya, the goddess of love, was very pretty! She had cats!
I tossed the book aside. Great. My dad was a D-list god who frolicked in the woods. He was probably eliminated early last season on Dancing with the Asgardians.
Did it crush me to learn this? Not really. You might not believe it, but my dad’s identity had never been a big deal to me. It wasn’t like I ever felt incomplete – like, if only I knew my dad, my life would make sense. I knew who I was. I was Natalie Chase’s son. As for life making sense … I’d seen too much weirdness to expect that.
Still, I had a lot of items on my I-don’t-get-it list. At the very top: how could a homeless kid have a dad who was the god of abundance and wealth? Talk about a cruel joke.
Also, why would I get targeted by a big bad dude like Surt? If he was the lord of Muspellheim, High King Roasty Toasty, shouldn’t he pick on more interesting heroes, like the children of Thor? At least their dad had a movie franchise. Frey didn’t even have his own cats. He had to borrow his sister’s.
And the Sword of Summer … assuming that was the blade I had pulled from the Charles River, how had it ended up there? Why was it so important? Uncle Randolph had been searching for it for years. Sam’s last words to me were about finding the sword again. If it had belonged to my dad, and my dad was an immortal god, why had he allowed his weapon to sit at the bottom of a river for a thousand years?
I stared at the empty fireplace. The Norns’ words kept playing in my head, though I wanted to forget them.
Harbinger of the Wolf. I remembered what a harbinger was now: something that signalled the arrival of a powerful force, like a doorman announcing the president, or a red sky before a hurricane. I did not want to be the harbinger of the wolf. I’d seen enough wolves to last me an eternal lifetime. I wanted to be the harbinger of ice cream, or falafel.
Wrongly chosen, wrongly slain.
A little late to announce that now. I was a freaking einherji. My name was on the door. I had a key to the minibar.
A hero Valhalla cannot contain.
I liked this line better. Maybe it meant I could bust out of here. Or I guessed it could mean that the thanes would vaporize me in a burst of light or feed me to their magical goat.
Nine days hence the sun must go east,
Ere Sword of Summer unbinds the beast.
Those lines bothered me the most. Last I checked, the sun moved east to west. And who was the beast? I was betting a wolf, because it’s always a stinking wolf. If the sword was supposed to let loose a wolf, the sword should’ve stayed lost.
Some memory nagged at me … a bound wolf. I stared at the children’s book of mythology, half tempted to pick it up again. But I was already unsettled enough.
Magnus, listen to me, Sam had said. You have to find the sword. You have to stop them.
I felt bad about Samirah al-Abbas. I was still miffed at her for bringing me here, especially if it had been a mistake, but I didn’t want to see her kicked out of the Valkyries because some doctored video made me look like a doofus. (Okay, more of a doofus than usual.)
I decided I should sleep. I didn’t feel tired, but if I stayed awake thinking any longer my brain would overheat.
I tried the bed. Too soft. I ended up in the atrium, sprawled on the grass, gazing at the stars through the tree branches.
At some point, I must have fallen asleep.
A sharp sound startled me awake – a branch cracking. Someone cursed.
Above me, the sky was turning grey in the predawn light. A few leaves helicoptered through the air. Branches bobbed as if something heavy had just scrambled through them.
I lay still, listening, watching. Nothing. Had I imagined that voice?
Over by the entrance, a piece of paper slid under my door.
I sat up groggily.
Maybe the management was giving me the bill and letting me check out. I staggered towards the door.
My hand trembled as I picked up the paper, but it wasn’t a bill. It was a handwritten note in really nice cursive:
Join us in lounge 19 for breakfast. Down the hall to the left. Bring your weapons and armour.
T.J.… Thomas Jefferson Jr, the guy across the hall.
After the fiasco last night, I didn’t know why he’d want to invite me to breakfast. I also didn’t understand why I needed weapons and armour. Maybe Viking bagels fought back.
I was tempted to barricade my door and hide in my room. Perhaps everyone would leave me alone. Maybe, once all the warriors were busy with their Bikram yoga to the death, I could sneak out and find an exit to Boston.
On the other hand, I wanted answers. I couldn’t shake the idea that, if this was a place for the brave dead, my mom might be here somewhere. Or someone might know which afterlife she had gone to. At least this guy T.J. seemed friendly. I could hang with him for a while and see what he could tell me.
I trudged to the bathroom.
I was afraid the toilet would be some Viking death machine with axe blades and a flush-operated crossbow, but it worked like a normal one. It definitely wasn’t any scarier than the public restrooms in the Common.
The medicine cabinet was stocked with all my usual toiletries … or at least the toiletries I used to like when I had a home.
And the shower … I tried to remember the last time I’d had a leisurely hot shower. Sure, I’d arrived in Valhalla feeling magically dry-cleaned, but, after a bad night’s sleep in the atrium, I was ready for a good old-fashioned scrub down.
I peeled off my layers of shirts and almost screamed.
What was wrong with my chest? Why did my arms look that way? What were those weird bulgy areas?
Usually I avoided looking at my reflection. I wasn’t somebody I wanted to see on a regular basis. But now I faced the mirror.
My hair was the same, a bit less grimy and tangled, but still hanging to my jawline in a curtain of dirty blond, parted in the middle.
You look like Kurt Cobain, my mom used to tease me. I loved Kurt Cobain, except for the fact that he died.
Well, guess what, Mom? I thought. I have that in common with him, too, now!
My eyes were grey – more like my cousin Annabeth’s than my mom’s. They had a haunted, scary emptiness to them, but that was normal. The look had served me well on the streets.
My upper body, however, I hardly recognized. Ever since my bad asthma days when I was little, I’d always been on the scrawny side. Even with all the hiking and camping, I’d had a concave chest, sticking-out ribs and skin so pale you could trace the road map of blue veins.
Now … those strange new bulgy areas looked suspiciously like muscles.
Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t as dramatic as turning into Captain America. I was still lean and pale, but my arms had definition. My chest didn’t look like it would collapse in the next strong wind. My skin was smoother, less translucent. All the rashes and nicks and bites that came from living on the street had disappeared. Even the scar on my left palm, where I’d cut myself on a hunting knife at age ten, had vanished.
I remembered how strong I’d felt when I first arrived at Valhalla, how I’d tossed my sofa across the room last night. I hadn’t really stopped to think about it.
What had Hunding called Valhalla … an upgrade?
I made a fist.
I’m not sure what came over me. I guess, when I realized that even my body wasn’t my own, the anger, fear and uncertainty of the last twenty-four hours reached critical mass. I’d been plucked out of my life. I’d been threatened, humiliated and forcibly upgraded. I hadn’t asked for a suite. I hadn’t asked for biceps.
I hit the wall. Literally.
My fist went straight through the tile, the plasterboard and a two-by-four stud. I pulled out my hand. I wriggled my fingers. Nothing felt broken.
I regarded the fist-shaped hole I’d made above the
towel rail. ‘Yep,’ I grumbled. ‘Housekeeping loves me.’
The shower helped calm me down. Afterwards, wrapped in a fluffy HV-embroidered bathrobe, I padded to the closet to search for clothes. Inside were three sets of blue jeans, three green T-shirts (all marked PROPERTY OF HOTEL VALHALLA), underwear, socks, a pair of good running shoes and a sheathed sword. Leaning against the ironing board was a circular green shield with the golden rune of Frey painted in the middle.
Okay, then. I guess I knew what I was wearing today.
I spent ten minutes trying to figure out how to position the sword’s sheath on my belt. I was left-handed. Did that mean the sword went on the right? Were left-handed swords different from right-handed ones?
I attempted to draw the blade and just about ripped my jeans off. Oh, yeah, I was going to be a hit on the battlefield.
I practised swinging the sword. I wondered if it would start humming and guiding my hand, the way the sword on the bridge had done when I faced Surt. But no. This blade seemed to be a regular piece of non-humming metal with no cruise-control feature. I managed to sheathe it without losing any fingers. I slung the shield across my back, the way the warriors at dinner last night had been wearing theirs. The strap dug into my neck and made me want to gag.
I looked in the mirror again.
‘You, sir,’ I muttered, ‘look like a huge dork.’
My reflection did not argue.
I went out to find breakfast and kill it with my sword.
I Do Mighty Combat with Eggs
‘There he is.’ T.J. rose and grabbed my hand. ‘Sit. Join us. You made quite a first impression last night!’
He was dressed the same as yesterday: a blue wool army jacket over a green hotel T-shirt, jeans and leather boots.
With him sat the half-troll X, the redhead Mallory Keen and a guy I guessed was Halfborn Gunderson, who looked like Robinson Crusoe on steroids. His shirt was a patchwork of animal pelts. His hide trousers were in tatters. Even by Viking standards his beard was wild, decorated with most of a cheese omelette.