“If you were a friend of Loki’s, we would already be dead.” Sam gestured toward the windows. “The Harbor of Naglfar is close, isn’t it? I can sense my father nearby. You don’t like Loki gathering his army right on your doorstep. Let us continue our quest, and we can take my father off the board.”
Alex nodded. “Yes, we can.”
“Interesting,” Skadi mused. “Two children of Loki sit at my dinner table, and you both seem to hate Loki even more than I do. Ragnarok makes strange allies.”
T.J. clapped once, so loudly we all flinched (except for Hearth). “I knew it!” He grinned and pointed at Skadi. “I knew this lady had good taste. Hot chocolate this tasty? A hall this awesome? And her servants don’t wear thrall collars!”
Skadi curled her lip. “No, einherji. I detest the keeping of slaves.”
“See?” T.J. gave Halfborn a told-you-so look. More thunder rattled the plates and cups, as if agreeing with T.J. The berserker just rolled his eyes.
“I knew this lady hated Loki,” T.J. summed up. “She’s a natural Union supporter!”
The giantess frowned. “I am not sure what that means, my very enthusiastic guest, but you are right: I am no friend of Loki’s. There was a time when he didn’t seem so bad. He could make me laugh. He was charming. Then, during the flyting in Aegir’s hall…Loki insinuated that—that he had shared my bed.”
Skadi shuddered at the memory. “In front of all the other gods, he slighted my honor. He said horrible things. And so, when the gods bound him in that cave, I was the one who found the serpent and set it over Loki’s head.” She smiled coldly. “The Aesir and Vanir were satisfied just to bind him for eternity, but that wasn’t enough for me. I wanted him to experience the drip, drip, drip of poison in his face for the rest of time, just the way his words had made me feel.”
I decided I would not be slighting Skadi’s honor anytime soon.
“Well, ma’am…” Blitz tugged at his wool tunic. He was the only one of us who didn’t look comfortable in his new threads, probably because the outfit did not allow him to wear an ascot. “Sounds like you gave the villain just what he deserved. Will you help us, then?”
Skadi set her bow across the table. “Let me understand this: you, Magnus Chase, plan to defeat Loki, the silver-tongued master of insults, in a verbal duel.”
She looked like she was waiting for me to wax poetic about my prowess with verbs and adjectives and whatnot. Honestly, that one-word answer was all I could manage.
“Well, then,” Skadi said, “it’s a very good thing you have Kvasir’s Mead.”
My friends all nodded. Thanks a lot, friends.
“You were also wise not to drink it yet,” Skadi continued. “You have such a small amount, there is no telling how long its effect will last. You should drink it in the morning, just before you leave. That should allow enough time for the mead to take effect before you face Loki.”
“Then you know where he is?” I asked. “He’s that close?”
I wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or petrified.
Skadi nodded. “Beyond my mountain there lies a frozen bay where Naglfar sits at her moorings. In giant terms, it is only a few good strides away.”
“What is that in human terms?” asked Mallory.
“It won’t matter,” Skadi assured her. “I will give you skis to speed you on your way.”
Hearth signed, Skis?
“I’m not so good on skis,” Blitz muttered.
Skadi smiled. “Fear not, Blitzen, son of Freya. My skis will look good on you. You will have to reach the ship before midday tomorrow. By then, the ice blocking the bay will be sufficiently melted for Loki to sail into open waters. If that happens, nothing will be able to stop Ragnarok.”
I met Mallory’s eyes across the hearth fire. Her mom, Frigg, had been right. By the time we set foot on Naglfar, if we reached it, forty-eight hours would have passed since Fläm.
“If you manage to board the ship,” Skadi said, “you will somehow have to make your way through legions of giants and undead. They will, of course, try to kill you. But if you succeed in getting face-to-face with Loki and issuing your challenge, he will be honor-bound to accept. The fighting will stop long enough for the flyting.”
“So,” Alex said, “it’ll be cake, then.”
Skadi’s cat-o’-nine-tails hair slithered across her shoulders as she regarded Alex. “You have an interesting definition of cake. Assuming Magnus somehow defeats Loki in a flyting, and weakens him enough to capture…how will you imprison him?”
“Um,” Mallory said. “We have a walnut shell.”
Skadi nodded. “That is good. A walnut shell might do it.”
“So, if I defeat Loki in the flyting,” I said, “and we do the walnut shell, et cetera…then we shake hands with Loki’s crew, everybody says ‘good game,’ and they let us go, right?”
Skadi snorted. “Hardly. The cease-fire will end as soon as the contest is over. Then, one way or another, the crew will kill you.”
“Well, then,” Halfborn said. “Why don’t you come with us, Skadi? We could use an archer in our group.”
Skadi laughed. “This one amuses me.”
“Yeah, that feeling wears off quickly,” Mallory muttered.
The giantess rose. “Tonight you will stay in my hall, little mortals. You can sleep peacefully knowing that there is nothing to fear in Thunder Home. But in the morning”—she pointed to the white abyss beyond her windows—“out you go. The last thing I want is to get Njord’s hopes up by pampering his grandson.”
DESPITE SKADI’S PROMISE, I didn’t sleep peacefully.
The coldness of the chamber and the constant booming didn’t help. Nor did the knowledge that in the morning Skadi was apparently going to fit us with skis and throw us out a window.
Also, I kept thinking about Alex Fierro. You know, maybe just a little. Alex was a force of nature, like the snow thunder. She struck when she felt like it, depending on temperature differentials and storm patterns I couldn’t possibly predict. She shook my foundations in a way that was powerful but also weirdly soft and constrained, veiled in blizzard. I couldn’t assign any motives to her. She just did what she wanted. At least, that’s how it felt to me.
I stared at the ceiling for a long time. Finally, I got out of bed, used the washbasin, and changed into new wool clothes—white and gray, the colors of snow and ice. My runestone pendant hung cold and heavy on my neck, like Jack was catching some winks. I gathered my few supplies, then wandered into the corridors of Thunder Home, hoping I didn’t get killed by a startled servant or a random arrow.
In the great hall, I found Sam at prayer. Jack hummed against my collarbone, informing me in a sleepy, irritated tone that it was four in the morning, Niflheim Standard Time.
Sam had laid her prayer rug facing the huge open windows. I guessed the blur of white outside made a good blank screen to stare at while you meditated on God or whatever. I waited until she finished. I’d come to recognize her routine by now. A moment of silence at the end—a sort of peaceful settling that even the thunder couldn’t disturb—then she turned and smiled.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Hey. You’re up early.”
I realized that was a stupid thing to say to a Muslim. If you’re observant, you never sleep late, because you have to be up for prayers before first light. Being around Sam, I’d started to pay more attention to the timing of dawn and dusk, even when we were in other worlds.
“I didn’t sleep much,” she said. “I figured I would get in a good meal or two.” She patted her stomach.
“How do you know prayer times in Jotunheim?” I asked. “Or where Mecca is?”
“Heh. I take my best guess. That’s allowed. It’s the intention that counts.”
I wondered if the same would be true of my coming challenge. Maybe Loki would say, Well, Magnus, you really sucked at flyting, but you did your best and it’s the intention that counts, so you win!
“Hey.” Sam’s voice jarred me out of my thoughts. “You’ll do fine.”
“You’re awfully calm,” I noted. “Considering…you know, today’s the day.”
Sam adjusted her hijab, which was still white to match her outfit. “Last night was the twenty-seventh night of Ramadan. Traditionally, that’s the Night of Power.”
I waited. “Is that when you get supercharged?”
She laughed. “Sort of. It commemorates Muhammad receiving his first revelation from the angel Gabriel. Nobody knows exactly which night it is, but it’s the holiest of the year—”
“Wait, it’s your holiest night, and you don’t know when it is?”
Sam shrugged. “Most people go with the twenty-seventh, but yeah. It’s one of the nights of the last ten days of Ramadan. Not knowing keeps you on your toes. Anyway, last night it just felt right. I stayed up praying and thinking, and I just felt…confirmed. Like there is something bigger than all this: Loki, Ragnarok, the Ship of the Dead. My dad may have power over me because he’s my dad. But he’s not the biggest power. Allahu akbar.”
I knew that term, but I’d never heard Sam use it before. I’ll admit it gave me an instinctive jolt in the gut. The news media loved to talk about how terrorists would say that right before they did something horrible and blew people up.
I wasn’t going to mention that to Sam. I imagined she was painfully aware. She couldn’t walk the streets of Boston in her hijab most days without somebody screaming at her to go home, and (if she was in a bad mood) she’d scream back, “I’m from Dorchester!”
“Yeah,” I said. “That means God is great, right?”
Sam shook her head. “That’s a slightly inaccurate translation. It means God is greater.”
“Everything. The whole point of saying it is to remind yourself that God is greater than whatever you are facing—your fears, your problems, your thirst, your hunger, your anger. Even your issues with a parent like Loki.” She shook her head. “Sorry, that must sound really hokey to an atheist.”
I shrugged, feeling awkward. I wished I could have Sam’s level of faith. I didn’t, but it clearly worked for her, and I needed her to be confident, especially today. “Well, you sound supercharged. That’s what counts. Ready to kick some undead butt?”
“Yep.” She smirked. “What about you? Are you ready to face Alex?”