“Where is she?” Mallory muttered.
“Who is she?” asked Sam.
“There!” Mallory pointed to the last car, where the cotton candy grandma was just getting on board.
“We need tickets,” Mallory barked. “Quickly.”
“We should get the others,” Sam said. “We told them we’d rendezvous—”
Mallory nearly mugged Sam for her Norwegian kroner. (Currency provided, of course, by the ever-resourceful Alex.) With much cursing and hand-waving, Mallory managed to purchase three tickets from the station attendant, then we bolted through the turnstile and made it aboard the last car just as the doors were closing.
The cabin was hot, stuffy, and packed with tourists. As the train rattled up the hillside, I felt queasier than I had since…well, the day before, roasting that dragon heart in Alfheim. It didn’t help that I would occasionally catch snippets of bird chatter from outside—conversations I could still understand, mostly about where one could find the juiciest worms and bugs.
“Okay, Mallory, explain,” Sam demanded. “Why are we following this old lady?”
Mallory slowly made her way up the aisle, checking the faces of the passengers. “She’s the woman who got me killed. She’s Loki.”
Sam almost fell into an old man’s lap. “What?”
Mallory gave her the quick version of what she’d told me a few days ago: how she’d set a car bomb, then regretted it, then gotten a visit from an old woman who convinced her to go back and disarm the bomb using a couple of super-useful daggers that turned out to be super-useless. And then ka-boom.
“But Loki?” Sam asked. “Are you sure?”
I understood the anxiety in Sam’s voice. She’d been training to fight her dad, but she hadn’t expected it to happen here, today. Fighting Loki was not a class in which you wanted a pop quiz.
“Who else could it be?” Mallory scowled. “She’s not here. Let’s try the next car.”
“And if we catch him?” I asked. “Or her?”
Mallory unsheathed one of her knives. “I told you. That lady got me killed. I intend to return her daggers, points-first.”
In the next car, tourists pressed against the windows, taking pictures of ravines, waterfalls, and quaint villages. Squares of farmland quilted the valley floor. Mountains cast shadows as sharp as sundial needles. Every time the train rounded a bend, the view seemed more scenic than before.
Samirah and I kept stopping, dumbfounded by the scenery outside, but Mallory had no interest in pretty stuff. The old lady wasn’t in the second car, so we moved on.
In the next car, halfway up the aisle, Mallory froze. The last two rows on the right were arranged in a sort of conversation nook, with three backward-facing seats and three that faced forward. The rest of the cabin was jammed with people, but that little nook was empty except for the old lady. She sat facing our direction, humming as she knit, paying no attention to the scenery or to us.
A low growl started in Mallory’s throat.
“Hold on.” Sam grabbed her wrist. “There are a lot of mortals on this train. Can we at least confirm that this lady is Loki before we start killing and destroying?”
If I had tried to make that argument, I imagined Mallory would’ve hilt-bashed me in the groin. Since it was Sam asking, Mallory sheathed her dagger.
“Fine,” she snapped. “We’ll try to talk to her first. Then I’ll kill her. Happy?”
“Delirious,” Sam said.
That didn’t describe my mood. Jumpy and confuzzled came closer. But I followed the girls as they approached the old lady in white.
Without looking up from her knitting, she said, “Hello, my dears! Please, sit.”
Her voice surprised me. It sounded young and beautiful, like a radio announcer on a wartime propaganda station trying to convince enemy soldiers she was on their side. Norway Nancy, maybe. Or Fläm Flo.
Her face was hard to see—and not just because of the floppy hat. Her features glowed with a white light as fuzzy as her sweater. She seemed to be every age at once: a little girl, a teenager, a young lady, an old grandmother, all the faces existing in the present like the layers of a transparent onion. Maybe she hadn’t been able to decide which glamour to wear today, so she’d just worn them all.
I glanced at my friends. We took a silent vote.
Sit? I asked.
Kill? Mallory asked.
Sit, Sam ordered.
We edged into the three seats across from the old lady. I kept one eye on her knitting needles, waiting for her to bust out some dual-wielding moves, but she just kept working on her fuzzy white yarn, making what looked like a cotton candy scarf.
“Well?” Mallory snapped. “What do you want?”
The old lady clucked disapprovingly. “My dear, is that any way to treat me?”
“I should treat you worse, Loki,” Mallory growled. “You got me killed!”
“Mallory,” Sam said. “This isn’t Loki.”
The relief was obvious in her voice. I wasn’t sure how Sam knew, but I hoped she was right. There wasn’t room in this train car to wield a blazing spear of light or a singing broadsword.
Mallory’s face mottled red. “What do you mean not Loki?”
“Mallory Audrey Keen,” the old woman chided. “Did you really think, for all these years, I was Loki? For shame. Few beings in the Nine Worlds hate Loki as much as I do.”
I considered that good news, but when I met Sam’s eyes I could tell she had the same question I did: Audrey?
Mallory shifted, her hands on the hilts of her daggers like she was a downhill skier approaching a difficult jump. “You were there in Belfast,” she insisted. “In 1972. You gave me these useless knives, said I should run back and disarm the bomb on that school bus.”
Sam caught her breath. “School bus? You targeted a school bus?”
Mallory did her best to avoid our eyes. Her face was the color of cherry juice.
“Don’t be too hard on her,” said the old lady. “She was told the bus would be full of soldiers, not children. It was July twenty-first. The Irish Republican Army was planting bombs all across Belfast against the British—retaliation for retaliation, as it usually goes. Mallory’s friends wanted in on the action.”
“Two of my friends had been shot by the police the month before,” Mallory murmured. “They were fifteen and sixteen. I wanted revenge.” She glanced up. “But Loki was one of the lads in our gang that day. He must have been. I’ve heard his voice since then, taunting me in dreams. I know how his power can tug—”
“Oh, yes.” The old lady continued to knit. “And do you hear his voice right now?”
Mallory blinked. “I…I suppose not.”
The old lady smiled. “You’re correct, my dear. Loki was there that Friday in July, disguised as one of you, egging you on to see how much mischief he could create. You were the angriest of the bunch, Mallory—the doer, not the talker. He knew just how to manipulate you.”
Mallory stared at the floorboards. She swayed with the rattling of the train. Behind us, tourists gasped with delight every time a new vista came into view.
“Uh, ma’am?” I didn’t usually insert myself into conversations with creepy godly ladies, but I felt bad for Mallory. No matter what she’d done in her past, she seemed to be shrinking under the woman’s words. I remembered that feeling well from my most recent dream about Loki.
“If you’re not Loki,” I said, “which is great, by the way, then who are you? Mallory said you were there, too, the day she died. After she set the bomb, you appeared and told her—”
The intensity of the woman’s gaze pinned me to my seat. Within her white irises, gold pupils glowed like tiny suns.
“I told Mallory what she already suspected,” the woman said. “That the bus would be full of children, and that she had been used. I encouraged her to follow her conscience.”
“You got me killed!” Mallory said.
“I urged you to become a hero,” the woman said calmly. “And you did. Around twenty other bombs went off in Belfast on July 21, 1972. It became known as Bloody Friday. How much worse would it have been if you hadn’t acted?”
Mallory scowled. “But the knives—”
“—were my gifts to you,” said the woman, “so that you would die with blades in your hands and go to Valhalla. I suspected they would be useful to you someday, but—”
“Someday?” Mallory demanded. “You might have mentioned that part before I got myself blown up trying to cut bomb wires with them!”
The woman’s frown seemed to ripple outward through her layers of ages—the little girl, the young woman, the crone. “My powers of prophecy are short-range, Mallory. I can only see what will happen within twenty-four hours, give or take. That’s why I’m here. You will need those knives. Today.”
Sam sat forward. “You mean…to help us retrieve Kvasir’s Mead?”
The woman nodded. “You have good instincts, Samirah al-Abbas. The knives—”
“Why should we listen to you?” Mallory blurted out. “Whatever you tell us to do, it’ll probably get us killed!”
The woman laid her knitting needles across her lap. “My dear, I am the goddess of foresight and the immediate future. I would never tell you what to do. I am only here to give you the information you need to make a good choice. As to why you should listen to me, I hope you would do so because I love you.”
“LOVE ME?” Mallory looked at us in disbelief, like Are you hearing this? “Old woman, I don’t even know who you are!”
“Of course you do, dear.”
The woman’s form shimmered. Before us sat a middle-aged woman of regal beauty, her long hair the same color as Mallory’s, plaited down both shoulders. Her hat became a war helm of white metal, glowing and flickering like trapped neon gas. Her white dress seemed made of the same stuff, only woven into gentle folds. In her knitting bag, her fuzzy yarn had become swirling puffs of mist. The goddess, I realized, had been knitting with clouds.
“I am Frigg,” she said, “queen of the Aesir. And I am your mother, Mallory Keen.”
YOU KNOW how it goes. You’re minding your own business, taking a train up a ravine in the middle of Norway, when an old lady with a bag of knitting supplies introduces herself as your godly mother.
If I had a krone for every time that happened…
When Frigg broke the news, the train screeched to a stop as if the locomotive