landscape. She was ten feet tall, dressed in white and gray furs, her brown eyes cold and angry, her dark hair braided in multiple strands like a cat-o’-nine-tails whip.
“Who dares rock-shape my front door?” she asked.
Blitz gulped. “Uh, I—”
“Why should I not kill you all?” the giantess demanded. “Or perhaps, since you look half-dead already, I’ll just close my door and let you freeze!”
“W-wait!” I croaked. “Sk-skadi…You’re Skadi, right?”
Gods of Asgard, I thought, please let this be Skadi and not some random giantess named Gertrude the Unfriendly.
“I—I’m M-magnus Chase,” I continued. “Njord is my grandfather. H-he sent me to f-find you.”
A variety of emotions rippled across Skadi’s face: irritation, resentment, and maybe just a hint of curiosity.
“All right, frozen boy,” she growled. “That gets you in the door. Once you’ve all thawed out and explained yourselves, I’ll decide whether or not to use you for archery targets.”
I DIDN’T WANT to let go of Alex. Or maybe I just physically couldn’t.
Two of Skadi’s jotun servants literally had to pull us apart. One of them carried me up a winding set of stairs into the fortress, my body still hunched in hobbling-old-man position.
Compared to outside, Skadi’s hall felt like a sauna, though the thermostat probably wasn’t set much higher than freezing. I was carried through high stone corridors with vaulted ceilings that reminded me of the big old churches in Back Bay (great places to warm up in when you’re homeless in winter). Occasionally a booming sound echoed through the fortress, like someone was shooting cannons in the distance. Skadi barked orders to her servants, and we were all taken to separate rooms to get cleaned up.
A jotun manservant (giantservant?) lowered me into a bath so hot I hit a high note I hadn’t been able to sing since fourth grade. While I soaked, he gave me something to drink—a vile herbal concoction that burned my throat and made my fingers and toes spasm. He hauled me out of the bath, and by the time he got me dressed in a white wool tunic and breeches, I had to admit I felt almost okay again, even with Jack now hanging back on my neck chain as a runestone. The color of my toes and fingers had returned to pink. I could feel my face. My nose had not fallen off from frostbite, and my lips were right where Alex had left them.
“You’ll live,” the jotun grumbled, like this was a personal failure on his part. He gave me comfortable fur shoes and a thick warm cloak, then led me out to the main hall, where my friends were waiting.
The hall was standard Viking for the most part: a rough-hewn stone floor covered with straw, a ceiling made from spears and shields, three tables in a U shape around a central fire, though Skadi’s flames burned white and blue and seemed to give off no heat.
Along one side of the hall, a row of cathedral-size windows opened onto a blizzard-blurred vista. I saw no glass in the windows, but the wind and snow didn’t trespass inside.
At the center table, Skadi sat on a throne carved from yew wood and overlaid with furs. Her servants bustled around, putting out platters of fresh bread and roasted meat, along with steaming mugs that smelled like…hot chocolate? Suddenly I liked Skadi a lot more.
My friends were all dressed like me, in white wool, so we looked like a secret society of very clean monks—the Fellowship of the Bleach. I’ll admit I scanned for Alex first, hoping to sit next to her, but she was on the far bench, wedged between Mallory and Halfborn with T.J. at the end.
Alex caught me. She mimicked my gawping face like What are you looking at?
So, it was back to normal, then. One life-and-death kiss, and we returned to our regularly scheduled snark. Great.
I sat next to Blitzen, Hearthstone, and Sam, which was just fine.
We all dug into our dinner, except for Sam. She hadn’t bathed—since that was also against Ramadan rules—but she’d changed clothes. Her hijab had shifted color to match her white outfit. Somehow, she managed not to stare longingly at everyone else’s food, which convinced me beyond a doubt that she had superhuman endurance.
Skadi lounged on her throne, her cat-o’-nine-tails hair draped over her shoulders, her fur cloak making her look even larger than she was. She spun an arrow on top of her knee. Behind her, the wall was lined with racks of equipment: skis, bows, quivers of arrows. I guessed she was a fan of cross-country archery.
“Welcome, travelers,” said our host, “to Thrymheimr—in your language, Thunder Home.”
As if on cue, a rumble shook the room—the same boom I’d heard when deeper in the fortress. Now I knew what it was: snow thunder. You heard it in Boston sometimes when a snowstorm mixed with a thunderstorm. It sounded like firecrackers going off inside a cotton pillow, if you magnified that sound by a million.
“Thunder Home.” Halfborn nodded gravely. “A good name, considering, you know, the constant—”
Thunder boomed again, rattling the plates on the table.
Mallory leaned over to Alex. “I can’t reach Gunderson. Hit him for me, will you?”
Despite the huge size of the hall, the acoustics were perfect. I could hear every whisper. I wondered if Skadi had designed the place with that in mind.
The giantess wasn’t eating from the plate in front of her. Best-case scenario: she was fasting for Ramadan. Worst-case scenario: she was waiting until we were sufficiently fattened up so she could enjoy us as her main course.
She tapped her arrow on her knee while studying me intently.
“So, you’re one of Njord’s, eh?” she mused. “Child of Frey, I suppose.”
“Yes, uh, ma’am.” I wasn’t sure if Lady or Miss or Huge Scary Person was the appropriate title, but Skadi didn’t kill me, so I figured I hadn’t offended her. Yet.
“I can see the resemblance.” She wrinkled her nose, as if the similarity was not a point in my favor. “Njord wasn’t the worst husband. He was kind. He had beautiful feet.”
“Outstanding feet,” Blitz agreed, wagging a pork rib for emphasis.
“But we just couldn’t get along,” Skadi continued. “Irreconcilable differences. He didn’t like my hall. Can you believe it?”
Hearthstone signed, You have a beautiful hall.
The gesture for beautiful was circling your hand in front of your face, then spreading your fingertips apart like poof! The first few times I saw it, I thought Hearth was saying This thing makes my face explode.
“Thank you, elf,” said Skadi (because all the best jotuns understand ASL). “Certainly, Thunder Home is better than Njord’s seaside palace. All those gulls constantly screeching—I couldn’t stand the noise!”
Snow thunder shook the room again.
“Yes,” Alex said, “no peace and quiet, like here.”
“Exactly,” said Skadi. “My father built this fortress, may his soul rest with Ymir, the first giant. Now Thrymheimr is mine, and I don’t intend to leave it. I’ve had my fill of the Aesir!” She leaned forward, still holding that wicked barbed arrow. “Now tell me, Magnus Chase, why did Njord send you to me? Please tell me he doesn’t still harbor illusions about us getting back together.”
Why me? I thought.
Skadi seemed okay. I’d met enough giants to know they weren’t all bad, any more than all gods were good. But if Skadi was done with the Aesir, I wasn’t sure she’d welcome us going after Loki, who was, of course, the Aesir’s main enemy. I definitely didn’t want to tell her that my grandfather, the god of seaside pedicures, still pined for her.
On the other hand, some gut instinct told me Skadi would see through any lies or omissions as easily as she heard every whisper in this hall. Thrymheimr was not a place for hiding secrets.
“Njord wanted me to see how you felt about him,” I admitted.
She sighed. “I don’t believe this. He didn’t send you with flowers, did he? I told him to stop it with the bouquets.”
“No flowers,” I promised, suddenly sympathizing with all the innocent Niflheim del
ivery people she had probably shot dead. “And Njord’s feelings aren’t the main reason we’re here. We’ve come to stop Loki.”
The servants all stopped what they were doing. They glanced at me, then at their mistress, as if thinking Well, this should be interesting. My friends watched me with expressions that ranged from You got this! (Blitzen) to Please don’t screw up as much as usual (Alex).
Skadi’s dark eyes glittered. “Go on.”
“Loki is getting his ship Naglfar ready to sail,” I said. “We’re here to stop him, recapture him, and bring him back to the Aesir so we’d don’t have to fight Ragnarok, like, tomorrow.”
Another peal of thunder shook the mountain.
The giantess’s face was impossible to read. I imagined her sending her arrow across the room and embedding it in my chest like a mistletoe dart.
Instead, she threw back her head and laughed. “Is that why you’re carrying Kvasir’s Mead? You intend to challenge Loki to a flyting?”
I gulped. “Uh…yeah. How do you know we have Kvasir’s Mead?”
My second, unspoken, question was: And are you going to take it away from us?
The giantess leaned forward. “I am fully aware of everything that happens in my hall, Magnus Chase, and everyone who passes through it. I have taken inventory of your weapons, your supplies, your powers, your scars.” She scanned the room, her eyes resting on each of us—not with sympathy, more like she was picking targets. “I also would have known if you’d lied to me. Be glad you did not. So, tell me: Why should I let you continue your quest? Persuade me not to kill you.”
Halfborn Gunderson wiped his beard. “Well, for one thing, Lady Skadi, killing us would be a lot of trouble. If you know our abilities, you know we’re excellent fighters. We’d give you quite a challenge—”
An arrow thudded into the table an inch from Halfborn’s hand. I didn’t even see how it happened. I looked back at Skadi—she suddenly had a bow in her hand, a second arrow already nocked and ready to fly.
Halfborn didn’t flinch. He set down his hot chocolate and belched. “Lucky shot.”
“Ha!” Skadi lowered her bow, and my heart started pumping blood again. “So you have bravery. Or foolhardiness, at least. What else can you tell me?”
“That we’re no friends of Loki’s,” Samirah volunteered. “And neither are you.”
Skadi raised an eyebrow. “What makes you say so?”