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HAMMERED

Chapter 1

According to popular imagination, squirrels are supposed to be adorable. As they scurry about on this tree branch or that trunk, people point at them and say, “A www, how cuuuuute!” with their voices turning sugary and spiraling up into falsetto ecstasy. But I’m here to tell you that they’re cute only so long as they’re small enough to step on. Once you’re facing a giant bloody squirrel the size of a cement truck, they lose the majority of their charm.

I wasn’t especially surprised to be staring up at a set of choppers as tall as my fridge, twitching whiskers like bullwhips, and tractor-tire eyes staring me down like volcanic bubbles of India ink: I was simply horrified at being proven so spectacularly right.

My apprentice, Granuaile, had argued I was imagining the impossible before I left her back in Arizona. “No, Atticus,” she’d said, “all the literature says the only way you can get into Asgard is the Bifrost Bridge. The Eddas, the skaldic poems, everything agrees that Bifrost is it.”

“Of course that’s what the literature says, ” I replied,“but that’s just the propaganda of the gods. The Eddas also tell you the truth of the matter if you read carefully. Ratatosk is the key to the back door of Asgard.”

Granuaile gazed at me, bemused, unsure that she’d heard me correctly. “The squirrel that lives on the World Tree?” she asked.

“Precisely. He manically scrambles back and forth between the eagle in the canopy and the great wyrm at the roots, ferrying messages of slander and vitriol between them, yadda yadda yadda. Now ask yourself how it is that he manages to do that.”

Granuaile took a moment to think it through. “Well, according to what the literature says, there are two roots of Yggdrasil that drop below Asgard: One rests in the Well of Mimir in Jötunheim, and one falls to the Spring of Hvergelmir in Niflheim, beneath which the wyrm Nidhogg lies. So I assume he’s got himself a little squirrelly hole in there somewhere that he uses.” She shook her head, dismissing the point. “But you won’t be able to use that.”

“I’ll bet you dinner I can. A nice homemade dinner, with wine and candles and fancy modern things like Caesar salad.”

“Salad isn’t modern.”

“It is on my personal time scale. Caesar salad was invented in 1924.”

Granuaile’s eyes bugged. “How do you know these things?” She waved off the question as soon as she asked it. “No, you’re not going to distract me this time. You’re on; I bet you dinner. Now prove it or start cooking.”

“The proof will have to come when I climb Yggdrasil’s root, but,” I said, raising a finger to forestall her objections, “I’ll dazzle you now with what I think so that I’ll seem fantastically prescient later. The way I figure it, Ratatosk has to be an utter badass. Consider: Eagles normally eat squirrels, and malevolent wyrms named Nidhogg are generally expected to eat anything—yet neither of them ever tries to take a bite of Ratatosk. They just talk to him, never give him any guff at all, but ask him nicely if he’d be so kind as to tell their enemy far, far away such-and-such. And they say, ‘Hey, Ratatosk, you don’t have to hurry. Take your time. Please.’ ”

“Okay, so you’re saying he’s a burly squirrel.”

“No, I’m saying he’s turbo-burly. Paul Bunyan proportions, because his size is proportionate to the World Tree. He’s bigger than you and I put together, big enough that Nidhogg thinks of him as an equal instead of as a snack. The only reason we’ve never heard of anyone climbing Yggdrasil’s roots to get to Asgard is because you’d have to be nuts to try it.”

“Right,” she said with a smirk. “And Ratatosk eats nuts.”

“That’s right.” I bobbed my head once with a sardonic grin of my own.

“Well then,” Granuaile wondered aloud, “exactly where are the roots of Yggdrasil, anyway? I assume they’re somewhere in Scandinavia, but you’d think they would have shown up on satellite by now.”

“The roots of Yggdrasil are on an entirely different plane, and that’s really why no one has tried to climb them. But they’re tethered to the earth, just like Tír na nÓg is, or the Elysian Fields, or Tartarus, or what have you. And, coincidentally, a certain Druid you know is also tethered to the earth, through his tattoos,” I said, holding up my inked right arm.

Granuaile’s mouth opened in astonishment as the import of my words sank in, quick to follow the implication to its logical conclusion. “So you’re saying you can go anywhere.”

“Uh-huh,” I confirmed. “But it’s not something I brag about”—I pointed a finger at her—“nor should you, once you’re bound the same way. Plenty of gods are already worried about me because of what happened to Aenghus Óg and Bres. But since I killed them on this plane, and since Aenghus Óg started it, they don’t figure I’ve turned into a deicidal maniac. In their minds, I’m highly skilled in self-defense but not a mortal threat to them, as long as they don’t pick a fight. And they still believe that merely because they’ve never seen a Druid in their territory before, they never will. But if the gods knew I could get to anyone, anywhere, my perceived threat level would go through the roof.”

“Can’t the gods go anywhere?”

“Uh-uh,” I said, shaking my head. “Most gods can go only two places: their own domain and earth. That’s why you’ll never see Kali in Olympus, or Ishtar in Abhassara. I haven’t visited even a quarter of the places I could go. Never been to any of the heavens. Went to Nirvana once, but it was kind of boring—don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful plane, but the complete absence of desire meant nobody wanted to talk to me. Mag Mell is truly gorgeous; you’ve gotta go there. And you’ve gotta go to Middle Earth to see the Shire.”

“Shut up!” She punched me in the arm. “You haven’t been to Middle Earth!”

“Sure, why not? It’s bound to our world like all the other planes. Elrond is still in Rivendell, because that’s where people think of him being, not the Gray Havens—and I’m telling you right now he looks nothing like Hugo Weaving. I also went to Hades once so I could ask Odysseus what the sirens had to say, and that was a mindblower. Can’t tell you what they said, though.”

“You’re going to tell me I’m too young again, aren’t you?”

“No. You simply have to hear it for yourself to properly appreciate it. It involves hasenpfeffer and sea serpents and the end of the world.”

Granuaile narrowed her eyes at me and said, “Fine, don’t tell me. So what’s your plan for Asgard?”

“Well, first I have to choose a root to climb, but that’s easy: I’d rather avoid Ratatosk, so I’m going up the one from Jötunheim. Not only does Ratatosk rarely travel it, but it’s a far shorter climb from there than from Niflheim. Now, since you seem to have been reading up on this, tell me what direction I must go to find where the Well of Mimir would be bound to this plane.”

“East,” Granuaile said immediately. “Jötunheim is always to the east.”

“That’s right. To the east of Scandinavia. The Well of Mimir is tethered to a sub-arctic lake some distancefrom the small Russian town of Nadym. That’s where I’m going.”

“I’m not up-to-date on my small Russian towns. Where exactly is Nadym?”

“It’s in western Siberia.”

“All right, you go to this particular lake, then what?”

“There will be a tree root drinking from the lake. It will not be an ash tree, more of a stunted evergreen, because it’s essentially tundra up there. Once I find this root, I touch it, bind myself to it, pull my center along the tether, and then I’m hugging the root of Yggdrasil on the Norse plane, and the lake will be the Well of Mimir.”

Granuaile’s eyes shone. “I can’t wait until I can do this. And from there you just climb it, right? Because the root of the World Tree has to be huge.”

“Yes, that’s the plan.”

“So how far from the trunk of Yggdrasil is it to Idunn’s place?”

I shrugged. “Never been there before, so I’m going to have to wing it. I’ve never found any maps of it; you’d think someone would have made an atlas of the planes by now, but noooo.”

Granuaile frowned. “Do you even know where Idunn is?”

“Nope,” I said, a rueful smile on my face.

“It’s going to be tough to steal an apple for Laksha, then.” Yes, the prospect was daunting, but a deal was a deal: I had promised to steal a golden apple from Asgard in return for twelve dead Bacchants in Scottsdale. Laksha Kulasekaran, the Indian witch, had held up her end of the bargain, and now it was my turn. There was a chance I’d be able to pull off the theft without consequences, but there was no chance that I could renege on the deal and not face repercussions from Laksha.

“It’ll be an adventure, for sure,” I told Granuaile.

An adventure in squirrels, apparently. As I faced the stark reality of being so stunningly correct, gaping slackjawed at the colossal size of the rodent above me on the trunk of the World Tree, an old candy bar jingle softly escaped my lips: “ ‘Sometimes you feel like a nut,’ ” I crooned, “ ‘sometimes you don’t.’ ”

I’d really hoped Ratatosk would be on the other root, or even hibernating by this time. It was November 25, Thanksgiving back in America, and Ratatosk looked like he’d already eaten Rhode Island’s share of turkeys. He was properly stuffed and ready to sleep until spring. But now that he’d seen me, even if he didn’t bite off my head with those choppers, he’d go tell somebody there was a man climbing up the root from Midgard, and then all of Asgard would know I was coming. It wouldn’t be much of a stealth mission after that.

I had been climbing Yggdrasil without tiring, binding knees, boots, and jacket to the bark all along the way and drawing power from it through my hands, because it was the World Tree, after all, and synonymous with the earth once I’d shifted planes. While I was doing fine and not in any danger of falling off, I could not hope to match Ratatosk’s speed or agility. I moved like a glacier in comparison, and Asgard was still miles away up the root.

He chattered angrily at me, and his breath blew my hair back, filling my nostrils with the scent of stale nuts. I’ve smelled far worse, but it wasn’t exactly fragrant either. There’s a reason Bath & Body Works doesn’t have a line of products called Huge Fucking Squirrel.

I triggered a charm on my necklace that I call faerie specs, which allows me to view what’s happening in the magical spectrum and see how things are bound together. It also makes creating my own bindings a bit easier, since I can see in real time the knots I’m tying with my spells.

Ratatosk, I saw, was very firmly bound to Yggdrasil. In many ways he was a branch of the tree, an extension of its identity, which I was dismayed to discover. Hurting the squirrel would hurt the tree, and I didn’t want to do that, but I didn’t see what choice I had—unless I could get him to pinky-swear he wouldn’t tell anyone I was on my way to steal one of Idunn’s golden apples.

I focused my attention on the threads that represented his consciousness and gently bound them to mine until communication was possible. I could still speak Old Norse, which was widely understood throughout Europe until the end of the thirteenth century, and I was betting Ratatosk could speak it too, since he was a creation of Old Norse minds.

I greet you, Ratatosk, I sent through the binding I’d made . He flinched at the words in his head and whirled around, the brush of his tail whipping my face as he scrambled up the root a few quick strides before whirling around again, regarding me warily. Maybe I should have moved my mouth along with the words.

<Who in Hel’s frosty realm are you?> came the reply, the squirrel’s massive whis kers all twitching in agitat

Since I was coming up the root from the middle plane, there were only three places I could possibly be coming from. I wasn’t a frost giant from Jötunheim, and he’d never believe I was an ordinary mortal climbing the root, so I had to tell a stretcher and hope he bought it. I am an envoy sent from Nidavellir, realm of the dwarfs, I explained.  I am not flesh and blood but rather a new construct. Thus my flame-red hair and the putrid stench that surrounds me. I had no idea what I smelled like to him, but since I was decked out in new leathers, with their concomitant tanning odors, I figured I smelled like a few dead cows, at least, and it was best from a personal safety perspective to frame my scent and person in terms of something inedible. The Norse dwarfs were famous for making magical constructs that walked around looking like normal critters, but often these creatures had special abilities. They’d made a boar once for the god Freyr, one that could walk on water and ride the wind, and it had a golden mane around its head that shone brightly in the night. They called it Gullinbursti, which meant “Golden Bristles.” Go figure.

My name is Eldhár, crafted by Eikinskjaldi son of Yngvi son of Fjalar, I told him. The three dwarf names were mined straight from the Poetic Edda. Tolkein found the names of all his “dwarves” in the same source, in addition to Gandalf’s, so I saw no reason why I couldn’t appropriate a few of them for my own use. Eldhár, the name I’d given for myself, meant nothing more than “Fire Hair”; I figured since I was pretending to be a construct, it would be consistent with names like Gullinbursti. I am on my way to Valhalla at the Dwarf King’s request to speak to Odin Allfather, One-Eyed Wanderer, Gray Runecrafter, Sleipnir Rider, and Gungnir Wielder. It is a matter of great importance regarding danger to the Norns.

<The Norns!> Ratatosk was so alarmed by this that he actually became still for a half second. <The Three who live by the Well of Urd?>

The same. Will you aid me in my journey and thus speed this most vital embassy, so that the World Tree may be spared any neglect? The Norns were responsible for watering the tree from the well, a sort of constant battle against rot and age.

<Gladly will I take you to Asgard!> Ratatosk said. He switched directions again and shimmied backward, courteously extending his back leg to me and carefully holding his bushy tail out of the way. <Can you climb upon my back?>

It took me longer than I might have wished, but eventually I clambered up his back, bound myself tightly to his red fur, and pronounced myself ready to ride.

<We go,> Ratatost said simply, and we shot up the trunk with a violent gait so awkward that I think I might have bruised my spleen.

Still, I could not complain. Ratatosk was even more than I had imagined: In addition to being extraordinarily large and speedy, he was perfectly gullible and willing to help strangers, so long as they spoke Old Norse. Perhaps I wouldn’t have to kill him after all.