Mallory caught it in her fingertips. “Bit small for a god, isn’t it?”
“It won’t be if Magnus succeeds,” Frigg said. “The ship Naglfar has not yet sailed. You have at least twenty-four hours. Perhaps even forty-eight. After that…”
Blood roared in my ears. I didn’t see how we could do everything we needed to do in a day—or even two. I definitely didn’t see how I could insult Loki down to the size of a walnut.
The train’s whistle blew—a plaintive sound like a bird calling for its dead mate. (And you can trust me on that, because I understood birdcalls.) Tourists began piling back onto the train.
“I must go,” Frigg said. “And so must you.”
“You just got here.” Mallory’s scowl deepened. Her expression hardened. “But fine. Whatever. Leave.”
“Oh, my dear.” Frigg’s eyes misted over, the light dimming in her golden pupils. “I am never far, even if you do not see me. We will meet again….” A new tear trickled down the scarred path of her left cheek. “Until then, trust your friends. You are right: they are more important than any magic items. And whatever happens, whether you choose to believe me or not, I love you.”
The goddess dissolved, knitting bag and all, leaving a sheen of condensation on the seat.
The tourists piled back into the train car. Mallory stared at the moist impression left by her godly mother, as if hoping the water droplets might reconstitute into something that made sense: a target, an enemy, even a bomb. A mother who showed up out of nowhere and proclaimed I love you—that was something no knives, no wits, no walnut shell could help her conquer.
I wondered if I could say anything to make her feel better. I doubted it. Mallory was about action, not talk.
Apparently, Sam reached the same conclusion. “We should go,” she said, “before—”
The train lurched into motion. Unfortunately, tourists were still shuffling to their seats, blocking the aisles. We’d never be able to muscle our way to the door before the train got back up to full speed and left the mountainside trail far behind.
Sam glanced at the open window on our right. “Another exit?”
“That’s suicidal,” I said.
“That’s typical,” Mallory corrected.
She led the way, leaping out the window of the moving train.
DON’T GET me wrong.
If you’re going to fall down the side of a mountain, Norway is a beautiful place to do it. We skidded past lovely creeks, bounced off majestic trees, fell from imposing cliffs, and tumbled through fields of fragrant wildflowers. Somewhere off to my left, Mallory Keen cursed in Gaelic. Somewhere behind me, Samirah kept yelling, “Magnus, take my hand! Magnus!”
I couldn’t see her, so I couldn’t comply. Nor did I understand why she wanted to hold hands as we fell to our demise.
I shot from the side of a ridge, pinballed off a spruce, and finally rolled to a stop on a more level slope, my head coming to rest against something fuzzy and warm. Through a haze of pain, I found myself staring up at the brown-and-white face of a goat.
“Otis?” I mumbled.
Baaaaaa, said the goat.
I could understand his meaning, not because he was Thor’s talking goat Otis, but because regular goat bleats now made as much sense to me as bird chirps. He’d said No, stupid. I’m Theodore. And my belly is not a pillow.
“Sorry,” I mumbled.
The goat got to his feet and capered off, depriving me of my comfy headrest.
I sat up, groaning. I did a self-check and found nothing broken. Amazing. Frigg really knew how to suggest the safest trails to hurtle down at life-threatening speeds.
Samirah swooped down from the sky, her green hijab rippling around her face. “Magnus, didn’t you hear me calling? You didn’t have to fall! I was going to fly you both down here.”
“Ah.” That awkward moment when you jump out a window because your friend jumped out a window, then you remember that your other friend can fly. “When you say it like that, it does make more sense. Where’s Mallory?”
“Cailleach!” she shouted from somewhere nearby.
I recognized the word: Gaelic for witch or hag, which I assumed Mallory was using as a term of endearment for her newly discovered maternal unit. In case you’re curious, the word is pronounced: Ki—followed by clearing a large amount of mucus from your throat. Try it at home, kids! It’s fun!
Finally, I spotted Mallory. She had fused herself with a blackberry bush, her head wedged firmly between its two largest boughs, its thorny branches woven into her clothes. She was hanging upside down with her left arm bent at a strange angle.
“Hold on!” I yelled, which in retrospect was dumb, since she obviously wasn’t going anywhere.
Sam and I managed to extricate her from her new fruit-bearing friend. Then I summoned the power of Frey and healed a thousand small cuts and a fractured bone, though I couldn’t do much about her wounded pride or her foul mood.
“Better?” I asked.
She spat a leaf from her mouth. “Compared to five minutes ago? Yeah. Compared to this morning, when I didn’t know that cailleach was my ma? Not so much.”
She pulled the walnut from her pocket. It had left quite a bruise against her hip during her tumble down the mountain, but the shell itself was undamaged. Mallory seemed to take this as a personal affront. She stuck the nut in her jacket along with the whetstone, muttering various insults about the walnut’s parentage.
Sam reached out to pat Mallory’s shoulder, then clearly thought better of it. “I—I know you’re angry.”
“Yeah?” Mallory snapped. “What gave it away?”
“But…Frigg,” Sam said, as if the name alone was an entire persuasive essay with three examples per paragraph and a conclusion. “You see the similarities, don’t you?”
Mallory flexed her healed arm. “What similarities would those be, Valkyrie? Choose your words carefully.”
Sam ignored the threat. When she spoke, her voice was full of awe. “Frigg’s the power behind the throne! Odin’s the king, but he’s always traveling. Frigg controls Asgard. She does it without anybody even noticing. You’ve heard the story about when Odin was exiled, right?”
Sam looked at me for support.
I had no clue what she was referring to, so I said, “Yep, absolutely.”
Sam pointed at me like See? M
agnus knows what’s up!
“Odin’s brothers Vili and Ve took over in his absence,” she said. “But to do so, they had to marry Frigg. Different kings. Same queen. Asgard got along just fine, because Frigg was the one in charge.”
Mallory frowned. “You’re saying I’m like my ma because I’ll hook up with anybody to get power?”
“No!” Sam blushed. “I’m saying Frigg is always below the radar, never seen, but she is the cement that holds the Aesir together.”
Mallory tapped her foot. “Now you’re comparing me to easily ignored cement.”
“I’m saying you’re like your mother because you’re the Frigg of floor nineteen. T.J. and Halfborn never would have become friends if you hadn’t goaded them into it. They used to hate each other.”
I blinked. “They did?”
“True enough,” Mallory muttered. “When I arrived—ugh. They were insufferable. I mean even more insufferable.”
“Exactly,” said Sam. “You made them a team. Then, when Odin disguised himself as an einherji, do you think it was an accident he chose to live on your floor? You’re Frigg’s chosen agent in Valhalla. The All-Father wanted to see what you were made of.”
I hadn’t thought about that for a while. When I first arrived in Valhalla, Odin had been slumming with us on floor nineteen disguised as X the half-troll. X had liked dogs, was good in battle, and never said much. I liked Odin a lot better in that form.
“Huh,” Mallory grunted. “You really believe that?”
“I do,” Sam said. “And when Magnus came along, where did he end up? On your team. Same with Alex. Same with me.” Sam spread her hands. “So, excuse me if I fangirled a little when I met Frigg, but she has always been my favorite Aesir. She’s kind of the anti-Loki. She keeps things together while Loki is trying to pick them apart. And knowing you’re her daughter…well, that makes perfect sense to me. I am even more honored to fight at your side.”
More red splotches appeared on Mallory’s face, but this time I didn’t think they were from anger. “Well, Valkyrie, you’ve got your father’s silver tongue. I don’t see any reason to kill you for what you’ve said.”
That was Mallory’s way of saying thank you.
Sam inclined her head. “Then let’s find Kvasir’s Mead, shall we?”
“One more thing,” I said, because I couldn’t help myself. “Mallory, if your middle name is Audrey, and your initials are M. A. K.—”
She raised an index finger. “Don’t say it, Beantown.”
“We are totally calling you Mack now.”
Mallory fumed. “My friends in Belfast used to call me that. Constantly.”
That wasn’t a no, so I decided we had permission.
The next hour we spent trekking across the valley floor. Sam tried to text Alex to let her know we were okay, but she couldn’t get a signal. No doubt the Norse god of cell-phone service had decreed THOU SHALT HAVE NO BARS! and was now laughing at our expense.
We walked over a creaky wooden bridge spanning white-water rapids. We navigated a pasture full of goats who were not Otis. We passed from frigid shadows into baking sunlight as we moved in and out of the woods. All the while, I did my best to tune out the voices of birds, squirrels, and goats, none of whom had anything good to say about us walking through their territory. Slowly, we made our way toward the split waterfall we’d seen from the train. Even in this colossal countryside, it was an easy landmark.
We stopped once for lunch—consisting only of some trail mix Mallory happened to have, along with a few wild blackberries we picked, and water from a stream so cold it made my teeth hurt. Sam didn’t join us, of course. She just did her noon prayers on a carpet of fluffy green grass.
I’ll say this about Ramadan: it cut down my impulse to whine. Whenever I started thinking I had it rough, I remembered that Samirah was doing everything I was doing but without food or water.
We trekked up the other side of the valley, using the twin rivers from the waterfall as our guidelines. At last, as the falls loomed close, we heard harsh rasping sounds coming from over the ridge in front of us—whisk, whisk, whisk, like metal files being scraped across bricks.
I recalled the vision Frigg had shown us of nine burly dudes with scythes. I thought, Magnus, if those guys are over that hill, you might want a plan.
“So, what exactly is a thrall?” I asked my friends.
Mallory wiped her brow. Our trip through the valley hadn’t done her fair complexion any favors. She’d be suffering a bad case of sunburn if we lived through the day. “Like I said earlier, a thrall is a slave. The ones we’re going to face—I’m pretty sure they’re giants.”
I tried to square that with what I knew about giants, which, granted, wasn’t much. “So…jotuns enslave other jotuns?”