Thrym sat. The bench groaned under his weight. One of his giants placed a crown of stone on his head—a circlet carved from a single piece of dark granite.
“Girl, you stand there,” the giantess told Alex, “between your father and your husband-to-be.”
Loki made a tsk-tsk sound. “Come now, daughter. Don’t be shy. Stand next to me.”
Alex did as she was told. I wanted to believe it was because she was playing the charade and not because she was being compelled, but I remembered the way she’d been yanked around as if by a rope earlier at Loki’s command.
Sam stood to my right, her hands clasped anxiously. Randolph shuffled off to wait by Loki’s feet. He hunched there like a guilty mastiff that had come back from the hunt with no dead animal for his master.
“The cup!” Thrym ordered.
One of his men placed a jewel-encrusted goblet in his fingers. Red liquid sloshed over the brim.
Thrym took a swig. Then he offered the cup to Alex. “Samirah al-Abbas bint Loki, I give you drink, and with it the binding promise of my love. By my troth, you shall be my wife.”
Alex took the cup in her lace-covered fingers. She looked around, as if for guidance. It occurred to me that she might not be able to imitate Sam’s voice as well as her face.
“You need not speak, girl,” Thrynga said. “Just drink!”
Me, I would have been concerned about backwash, but Alex lifted the bottom of her veil and took a sip.
“Excellent.” Thrynga turned to me, her facial muscles twitching with impatience. “Now, at last, the mundr. Give me the sword, boy.”
“Sister, no,” Thrym rumbled. “It does not go to you.”
Thrynga wheeled on her brother. “What? I am your only kin! The bride-price must pass through my hands!”
“I have an arrangement with Loki.” Thrym looked more confident now, almost smug, with Alex so close at hand. I had a terrible feeling he was imagining the end of the ceremony, his chance to kiss the bride. “Boy, give the sword to your uncle. He will hold it.”
Thrynga glared at me. Looking in her eyes, I realized what she wanted. She intended to claim Skofnung for herself, and probably Mjolnir, too. She had no interest in a marriage alliance with Loki. She saw this wedding as a chance to wrest the throne from her brother. She would kill anyone who stood in her way. Maybe she didn’t know that the Skofnung Sword couldn’t be unsheathed in the presence of a woman. Maybe she thought she could use it anyway. Or maybe she was happy wielding the power of a barstool, as long as the other two weapons were safely locked up and in her possession.
Under different circumstances, I might have wished her luck assassinating her brother. Heck, I would have even given her a trophy good for half-price entrées in Asgard. Unfortunately, I got the feeling Thrynga’s plan also included killing me, Sam, Alex, and probably Uncle Randolph.
I took a step back. “I told you, Thrym. No hammer, no sword.”
Randolph shuffled toward me, his bandaged hand cradled against his cummerbund. “Magnus, you must,” he said. “This is the order of the ceremony. Mundr must be given first, and each wedding requires an ancestral sword to put the rings on. The blessing of the hammer comes afterward.”
Jack’s pendant hummed against my collarbone. Maybe he was trying to warn me. Or maybe he just wanted to get another look at Skofnung, babe among swords. Or maybe he was jealous because he wanted to be the ceremonial sword.
“What is it, boy?” Thrym grumbled. “I have already promised that the traditional rights will be observed. Do you not trust us?”
I almost laughed out loud.
I looked at Sam. As discreetly as she could, she signed, No choice. But watch him.
Suddenly I felt stupid. This whole time, we could have been using sign language to give each other secret messages.
On the other hand, Loki might be controlling Sam, making her say that. Could he get inside her mind without even saying anything, without even snapping his fingers? I remembered what Sam had told me in Sif’s atrium: You have to stop him. If we’re incapacitated, you may be the only one who can. For all I knew, I was the only one in the room not under Loki’s control.
Wow. Hello, paranoia.
Two dozen giants watched me. My uncle extended his good hand.
I happened to meet Sigyn’s blank red eyes. The goddess inclined her head ever so slightly. I don’t know why that convinced me, but I unslung the sword and put Skofnung in Randolph’s hand, the stone hanging heavily from the pommel.
“You are still a Chase,” I said quietly. “You still have living family.”
Randolph’s eye twitched. He took the sword mutely.
He knelt before the king’s bench. With some fumbling due to his bandaged hand, he held the sheath horizontally like a serving tray. Thrym placed two gold wedding rings in the center and held his hand over them like a blessing.
“Ymir, ancestor of the gods and giants, hear my words,” he said. “These rings signify our marriage.”
He slipped one ring on his own finger and one on Alex’s. Then he waved off Uncle Randolph. My uncle shuffled back with the sword, but Sam and I moved to intercept, blocking him from getting any closer to Loki.
I was about to insist on the hammer, but Thrynga beat me to it. “Brother, honor your promise.”
“Yes, yes,” Thrym agreed. “Samirah, my dear, please sit.”
Alex stepped forward, trancelike, and sat at the giant’s side. It was hard to tell under the veil, but she seemed to be staring at the ring on her hand as if it were a brown recluse spider.
“Giants, stand ready,” Thrym said. “You will surround the hammer and bring it here. You will hold it over my bride, very carefully, while we say the blessing. Then I will immediately send it back into the earth…” He turned to Alex. “Until tomorrow morning, my sweet, when it will be officially your morgen-gifu. After that, I’ll be sure to keep it safe for you.” He patted Alex’s knee, which she seemed to enjoy almost as much as the poisonous wedding ring.
Thrym extended his hand. He strained, his face turning the color of mulberry jam. The cavern rumbled. About twenty feet away, the floor cracked open, and gravel and mud pushed upward as if some huge insect were tunneling out. The hammer of Thor emerged and settled in a caldera of rubble.
It looked just as I’d seen it in my dream: a huge trapezoidal head of metal with swirling runic designs, and a thick short handle bound in leather. Its presence filled the room with a smell like thunderstorms. While the giants hurried to surround the hammer, I signed to Sam: Watch Randolph. Then I scooted in the other direction, toward our chariot.
I grabbed Otis’s snout and pressed my face against his.
“We’re a go,” I whispered. “Hammer is in the cave. I repeat: hammer is in the cave. Red October. Eagle has landed. Defense Pattern Omega!”
I’m not sure where the military code stuff came from. I just figured it was the sort of thing Thor would respond to. And, hey, I was nervous.
“You have beautiful eyes,” Otis murmured.
“Bring the hammer here!” Thrym told his giants. “Be quick about it!”
“Yes,” Loki agreed, shaking the poison-soaked hair out of his eyes. “And while you’re doing that…Randolph, cut me free.”
That’s when Alex snapped.
My Uncle Gets Some Backup Singers
ALEX RIPPED OFF her veil, whipped her new golden garrote from her waist, and looped it around Thrym’s neck. The giant king rose, bellowing in outrage, as Alex scrambled onto his back and began choking him like she’d done with the lindworm in Valhalla.
“I want a divorce!” she yelled.
Thrym’s face turned an even deeper purple. His eyes bulged. His throat should have been cut clean through, but the skin around the garrote seemed to be turning to gleaming gray rock—stupid earth giants and their stupid earth magic.
“Treachery!” Thrynga’s eyes danced with excitement, as if she fina
lly saw a chance to do some treachery of her own. “Bring me the hammer!” She lunged for Mjolnir, but Samirah’s ax hurtled across the room and embedded itself in Thrynga’s side. The giantess fell forward like she was stealing second base.
I summoned Jack. Uncle Randolph was almost at Loki’s side. Before I could reach him, giants surrounded me.
Jack and I leaped into action, working together efficiently for once, cleaving through one earth giant after another. But we were badly outnumbered and the giants (OBVIOUS FACT ALERT) were really big. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Thrynga clawing across the floor, trying to reach the now-unguarded hammer. Thrym was still staggering around the room, slamming his back against the cave wall in an attempt to dislodge Alex, but each time he tried, Alex changed into a gorilla, which just made it easier for her to strangle Thrym. The giant’s tongue was the size and color of an unripe plantain. He stretched his hand toward Thor’s hammer, probably trying to send it back into the earth, but Alex tightened her garrote and broke his concentration.
Meanwhile, Sam ripped off her own veil. Her Valkyrie spear appeared in her hand, flooding the room with white radiance. Two more giants charged toward her, blocking my line of vision.
Somewhere behind me, Loki screamed, “Now, you fool!”
“I—I can’t!” Randolph wailed. “There are women present!”
The god snarled. I suppose he could’ve forced Alex and Sam to pass out, but that wouldn’t solve the problem of Thrynga and Sigyn.
“Unsheathe it anyway,” he ordered. “Curse the consequences!”
I was too busy dodging clubs and stabbing giants to see what happened, but I heard the Skofnung Sword being drawn. It let loose an unearthly howl—an outraged chorus of twelve berserker spirits unleashed against their will and in violation of their ancient taboo.
The sound was so loud it gave me double vision. Several giants stumbled. Unfortunately, Jack had also been affected. He turned heavy and inanimate in my hands just as one of the giants backhanded me, sending me flying across the cavern.
I slammed into a stalagmite. Something in my chest went crack. That probably wasn’t good. I struggled to rise, trying to ignore the acid now sloshing around in my rib cage.
My vision swam. Uncle Randolph was screaming, his voice blending with the howl of the Skofnung spirits. Mist swirled around him, pluming from the blade as if it had turned to dry ice.
“Hurry, you fool!” Loki yelled. “Before the sword dissolves!”