You Keep Using the Word Help. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means
UTGARD-LOKI ESCORTED us around the back of the bowling alley. He led us down an icy path into a wide expanse of forest while I peppered him with questions like “Chase us? Kill us? What?” He just patted me on the shoulder and chuckled as if we were sharing a joke.
“You all did well!” he said as we walked. “Normally we have boring guests like Thor. I tell him, ‘Thor, drink this mead.’ He just tries and tries! It doesn’t even occur to him that the mead cup is connected to the ocean and he can’t possibly drain it.”
“How do you connect a mead cup to the ocean?” Sam asked. “Wait, never mind. We have more important matters.”
“Five minutes?” I demanded again.
The giant pounded me on the back like he was trying to dislodge something—perhaps my throat or my heart. “Ah, Magnus! I have to confess, when you threw that first frame, I got nervous. Then the second frame…well, sheer force never would have worked, but nice try. Alex, your ball almost reached the Taco Bell on I-93 south of Manchester.”
“Thanks,” said Alex. “That’s what I was going for.”
“But then you two broke the illusion!” Utgard-Loki beamed. “That was first-rate thinking. And of course, the elf’s pinball skills, the dwarf’s accessorizing, Sam hitting Fear in the face with an ax—well done, all around! It’s going to be an honor slaughtering the four of you at Ragnarok.”
Blitzen snorted. “The feeling is mutual. Now I think you owe us some information.”
“Yes, of course.” Utgard-Loki changed form. Suddenly the goat-killer stood before us in his black furs, soot-smeared chain mail, and iron helm, his face covered by a sneering wolf faceplate.
“Could you lose the mask?” I asked. “Please?”
Utgard-Loki flipped up his visor. Underneath, his face looked the same as before, his dark eyes gleaming murderously. “Tell me, my friends, have you figured out Loki’s true goal?”
Hearthstone crossed one palm over the other, made his hands into fists, then pulled them apart as if ripping a sheet: Destroy.
Utgard-Loki chuckled. “Even I understood that sign. Yes, my pinball wizard, Loki wants to destroy his enemies. But that is not his primary concern at the moment.” He turned to Sam and Alex. “You two are his children. Surely you know.”
Samirah and Alex exchanged an uncomfortable look. They had a silent, very sibling-like conversation: Do you know? No, I thought you knew! I don’t know; I thought you knew!
“He led you to the wight’s barrow,” Utgard-Loki prompted. “Despite my best efforts, you went there. And?”
“There was no hammer,” Blitzen said. “Just a sword. A sword I hate very much.”
“Exactly…” The giant waited for us to put the pieces together. I always hated it when teachers did that. I wanted to scream: I don’t like puzzles!
Nevertheless, I saw where he was going. The idea had been forming in my head for a long time, I guess, but my subconscious had been trying to suppress it. I remembered my vision of Loki lying in his cave, tied to pillars of rock with the hardened guts of his own murdered children. I remembered the serpent dripping poison in his face, and the way Loki had vowed: Soon enough, Magnus!
“Loki wants his freedom,” I said.
Utgard-Loki threw back his head and laughed. “We have a winner! Of course, Magnus Chase. That’s what Loki has wanted for a thousand years.”
Samirah raised her palm to push the thought away. “No, that can’t happen.”
“And yet,” Utgard-Loki said, “strapped to your back is the very weapon that could free him—the Skofnung Sword!”
My necklace started to choke me, the pendant tugging its way across my collarbone as if trying to get closer to Sam. Jack must have woken up when he heard Skofnung. I yanked him back, which probably made me look like I had a flea in my shirt.
“This has never been about Thor’s hammer,” I realized. “Loki is after the sword.”
Utgard-Loki shrugged. “Well, the theft of the hammer was a good catalyst. I imagine Loki whispered in Thrym’s ear, giving him the idea. After all, Thrym’s grandfather once stole Thor’s hammer and it didn’t go so well. Thrym and his sister have been aching for revenge against the thunder god their entire lives.”
“Thrym’s grandfather?” I remembered the wording on the wedding invitation: Thrym, son of Thrym, son of Thrym.
Utgard-Loki waved aside my question. “You can ask Thor about it when you see him, which I’m sure will be very soon. The point is, Loki advised Thrym on the theft and set up a scenario in which a group of champions such as yourselves would have no choice but to try retrieving the hammer…and in the process, you might bring Loki what he really wants.”
“Wait.” Alex cupped her hands as if wrestling a lump of clay on the wheel. “We’re bringing the sword to give to Thrym. How does that—?”
“The bride-price.” Sam suddenly looked sick. “Oh, I’m such a fool.”
Blitz scowled. “Uh…granted, I’m a dwarf. I don’t understand your patriarchal traditions, but isn’t the bride-price something you give to the groom?”
Sam shook her head. “I was so busy denying that this wedding would ever happen, pushing it out of my head, I didn’t think about…about the Old Norse wedding traditions.”
“Which are also jotun traditions,” Utgard-Loki agreed.
Hearthstone sniffed like he was dispelling something unpleasant from his nose. He spelled out: m-u-n-d-r?
“Yes, the mundr,” Sam said, “the Old Norse term for bride-price. It doesn’t go to the groom. It goes to the father of the bride.”
We stopped in the middle of the woods. Behind us, Utgard Lanes was barely visible, its neon sign washing the trunks of the trees with red-and-gold light.
“You mean all this time,” I said, “with the Skofnung Sword and the Skofnung Stone, we’ve been running around collecting gifts for Loki?”
The giant king chuckled. “It is pretty funny, except for the fact that Loki wants to get free so he can kill everyone.”
Sam leaned against the nearest tree. “And the hammer…that’s the morning gift?”
“Exactly!” the giant agreed. “The morgen-gifu.”
Alex tilted her head. “The what-tofu?”
Hearthstone signed: Gift to bride from groom. Only given after wedding is…His fingers failed him. Complete. Morning after.
“I’m going to throw up,” Samirah said.
I translated Hearth’s words for Alex.
“So, the hammer goes to you…” Alex pointed to Sam. “Hypothetically, if you were the bride, which you won’t be. But only after the wedding night, and…Yeah, I’m going to be sick, too.”
“Oh, it gets worse!” the giant said with a little too much glee. “The morning gift belongs to the bride, but it’s held in trust by the groom’s family. Therefore, even if you go through with the marriage and get Thor’s hammer back—”
“It just stays with Thrym,” I said. “The giants get a marriage alliance and the hammer.”
“And Loki gets the Skofnung Sword.” Sam swallowed hard. “No, this still doesn’t make sense. Loki can’t attend the wedding in the flesh. The best he can do is send a manifestation. His physical body will still be stuck in the cavern where he’s imprisoned.”
“Which is impossible to find,” Blitzen said. “Impossible to access.”
Utgard-Loki gave us a twisted smile. “Like the island of Lyngvi?”
Unfortunately, Utgard-Loki had a point, and that made me want to join Sam at the throw-up tree. Fenris Wolf’s place of imprisonment was supposed to be a closely kept secret among the gods, but that hadn’t stopped us from having a small convention there back in January.
“And the sword,” Blitzen continued. “Why Skofnung? Why not Sumarbrander or some other magic weapon?”
“I’m not entirely sure,” Utgard-Loki admitted. “Nor am I sure how Loki would get the sword to his true location or use it. But I’ve
heard Loki’s bonds are quite hard to break, being iron-hardened guts—strong, sticky, and corrosive. They will dull any sword, even the sharpest. You could perhaps cut one bond with Sumarbrander, but after that the blade would be useless.”
Jack’s pendant buzzed unhappily.
Calm down, buddy, I thought. Nobody’s going to make you cut iron-hardened guts.
“Same with Skofnung…” Blitzen cursed. “Of course! The blade has a magical whetstone. It can be sharpened as many times as necessary. That’s why Loki needed both sword and stone.”
The giant king slow-clapped. “Ah, with only a little help, you put it together. Well done!”
Blitz and Hearth glanced at each other like, Now that we’ve put it together, can we please take it apart again?
“So we find another way to get the hammer,” I said.
The giant snickered. “Good luck. It’s buried somewhere eight miles under the earth, where even Thor can’t reach it. The only way to retrieve it is to convince Thrym to do so.”
Alex crossed her arms. “I’ve heard a lot of bad news from you, giant. I still haven’t heard anything I would call helpful.”
“Knowledge is always helpful!” Utgard-Loki said. “But as I see it, there are two options going forward to thwart Loki. First option: I kill you all and take the Skofnung Sword, thus preventing it from falling into Loki’s hands.”
Sam’s hand crept to her ax. “I’m not liking option one.”
The giant shrugged. “Well, it’s simple, effective, and relatively foolproof. It doesn’t get you the hammer back, but as I said, I don’t care about that. My main concern is keeping Loki in captivity. If he gets free, he starts Ragnarok right now, and I, for one, am not ready. We have ladies’ night at the bowling alley on Friday. Doomsday would completely mess that up.”
“If you wanted to kill us,” I said, “you could’ve done it already.”
Utgard-Loki grinned. “I know! I’ve been on pins and needles! But, my tiny friends, there’s a riskier option with a higher payoff. I was waiting to see if you were capable of pulling it off. After your performance in the contests, I think you are.”
“All those challenges,” Sam said. “You were testing us to see whether or not we were worth keeping alive?”
Hearthstone made a few hand signs I decided not to translate, though the meaning seemed clear enough to Utgard-Loki.