Rune Witch, book 4
Note: This first chapter preview contains major spoilers for previous books in the series. Read at your own risk!
Sally used extra care when plugging in the electric hand mixer. She slipped the metal prongs into the wall outlet and lunged out of the way, but nothing happened. There were no sparks. The mixer didn’t spring to manic, whirling life. And the kitchen wall didn’t catch fire. Not this time.
The beaters were firmly in place, and the ingredients for her signature chocolate chip and butterscotch cookie-muffins had been measured into a generous mixing bowl. She’d refined the recipe in her parents’ kitchen when she was in high school and made them for school bake sales—or, more often, when she had behaved badly toward Opal and needed baked goods to back-up her apology.
This time, she was counting on the cookie-muffins could heal a much larger rift. The thought of the Lodge stirred butterflies in her stomach—butterflies which turned to lead and squeezed her chest when her thoughts turned first to Frigga, and then to Odin. She got to work.
She sank the beaters into the layered mound of flour, sugar, baking soda, eggs, vanilla, and milk and powered on the hand mixer at its lowest setting.
It spun up to a speed twice its maximum capacity and leapt out of Sally’s grip. The beaters ricocheted out of the glass mixing bowl, flinging clumps of barely mixed batter onto the walls, ceiling, and floor. Heavy glops smeared across Sally’s face as the mixer lurched across the counter and onto the linoleum, where it gyrated on the floor in angry circles.
Sally yanked the cord out of the wall in a flurry of sparks. The beaters clattered against the refrigerator as the mixer came to rest.
She surveyed the mess. It was her third attempt at baking, all with similarly chaotic results. She could try hand mixing, but first she had a lot of cleaning up to do.
She rinsed globs of batter out of her hair and mopped the floor. She was on her knees by the refrigerator, scrubbing the walls and baseboards when she heard the apartment door open and close. Opal was home. Sally scrubbed harder.
There was the rustle of paper grocery bags, followed by a sympathetic groan.
Sally finished wiping down the walls. “I was being so careful this time.”
“We’ve got a few hours still.” Opal stepped around the counter that separated the kitchen from the combined dining and living area. “Tell me what to do, then you won’t have to touch anything.”
Sally rested her hands in her lap. She wanted to protest. She wanted to say that this was her problem, not Opal’s, and that it was her responsibility to figure out how to handle it. But these niggling instances of chaos were coming stronger and faster. She worried about when they would become dangerous.
Loki had warned that this might happen as she progressed through her studies. She’d seen the accidental mayhem Loki himself was unable to avoid—some days he had no issues at all, and then half the street lights would explode as they worked in the neighborhood park.
She’d already replaced her phone battery three times—and replaced the whole phone twice—just from standing too close to him when he was showing her how to shift her consciousness to a more transcendental perspective, and she still wasn’t close to getting the hang of that particular exercise.
Now sparks of chaos were bleeding into her personal life. She had to be careful around TriMet ticket machines, lest the circuits get crossed and stop working not only for her but for everyone on public transit. At least her laptop seemed immune to magickal static after Opal covered every millimeter of the thing with rubberized casings and screen protectors.
But Sally owed Opal for a new microwave, and she was putting off asking her parents for the money. They didn’t understand a budget line item like “chaos collateral damage,” but they’d at least agreed to keep her cat Baron for her until she got her magick under control.
“Let’s get to work.” Opal unloaded the grocery bags.
Sally climbed up off the floor. She threw the dirty paper towels into the trash under the sink and picked at a film of dried vanilla and flour on her sweatshirt.
When she glanced at the counter, she saw that Opal had bought all of the ingredients for another attempt at cookie-muffins. Sally looked at her roommate with astonished dismay.
“Just had a feeling.” Opal dried the mixing bowl and placed it on the damp counter.
They made their way through Sally’s recipe, ingredient by ingredient. Opal preheated the oven; it was a gas appliance, and why take the chance on Sally accidentally blowing up the apartment building? Sally poured butterscotch and chocolate chips into the bowl, and Opal folded them into the batter.
“Is it getting any better?” Opal asked.
Sally crumpled the empty candy bags and tossed them into the trash. “The lights in all my classes stayed on today. And I bought a couple of sodas out of a machine, but the card reader stopped working. Good thing I had cash.”
“Well, that’s something.”
“So I thought I’d be able to do this baking thing without incident, you know?” Sally huffed and tucked a strand of sticky, damp hair behind her ear. She spooned the batter into silicone cups and imagined her life as a magickal outcast, alone on a mountaintop, far from electrical appliances and innocent bystanders. Just like Loki.
Loki wasn’t a recluse because he didn’t like his kin or didn’t want to be around people; he sequestered himself to keep everyone else safe—at least safely away from spontaneously shorting fuses and exploding hand mixers. And every day, Sally was more like him.
“Maybe things will settle once you hit your stride,” Opal said. “I had trouble adapting to the way Maggie wanted to do everything, after Frigga died . . .”
Opal’s voice trailed off, and Sally kept ladling batter into cups.
Opal cleared her throat. “I had to get used to a new way of doing things. It took some time, and some mishaps, but eventually everything just kind of settled.”
Sally laughed, and she didn’t like the bitter sound of it. Opal’s version of a magickal mishap usually involved an accidental substitution of rosemary for lavender in a hearth blessing—whereas the previous week, Sally had nearly set fire to the Life Sciences building at Portland State University when she tried to charge her phone.
“I know it’s not the same.” Opal indicated their surroundings with a simple lift of her hands, reminding Sally of all the appliances, dishes, and various and sundry kitchenware they’d had to replace in the two months they’d been sharing an apartment. “And I know you’re not doing it on purpose.”
Sally scraped the bowl to fill the last baking cup and wiped up the splotches of batter on the counter.
Opal considered the dozens of cups arrayed on four baking sheets. It was to be a small gathering at the Lodge, but even small gatherings had big appetites. “Do you think this will be enough?”
“I hoped if I could get one batch right, then I could make more.” Sally checked the clock. To make it to the Lodge for the Winter Nights celebration, they’d have to leave in an hour. Not enough time for another batch.
Sally rummaged through the refrigerator, looking for anything that could be whipped up into a conciliatory dish. She grabbed a half-empty jar of salsa, a dwindling block of cheese, and a bag of shredded lettuce. “Maybe nachos? Do you think they’d like that?”
“We’re covered.” Opal slid the baking sheets into the oven and set the timer. “We’ve got cakes and rolls and two cases of that ginger beer Thor likes.”
Sally dumped her refrigerator findings onto the counter. “What? Where?”
“In the car.” Opal rinsed her hands in the sink. “I picked up a couple of extra things at the store.”
Sally wasn’t sure if she should be grateful or annoyed. “I guess it was pretty obvious I couldn’t pull this off.”
“But you did pull this off. The rest is just the supporting cast to your muffins, which are the star of the show.”
Sally tried to smile. “But will it be enough?”
It had been months since Sally was last at the Lodge. She’d made herself scarce since the summer when a volcano god had nearly blown Oregon off the map, resulting in too much sacrifice: the last siatco, the second loss of Freyr, and the final departures of both Frigga and Odin, with Sally as their only witness.
Sally couldn’t blame anyone for holding a grudge. None of it had been her fault. But, as usual, she’d been at the center of the maelstrom.
Tonight, she’d be judged by the dwindling Lodge community on everything from her attitude and appearance to the consistency of her cookie-muffins. It was her own stubbornness that kept her from giving up and staying home.
“There’s only one way to find out.” Opal brushed back her dark hair. She’d cut it shorter, just below her shoulders, and added a pink streak. Sally thought it was because of the new girl Opal was seeing. Opal looked Sally up and down. “But I don’t think you’ll be winning over anybody with batter on your pants.”
Heimdall had to remind himself to start breathing again.
The combination of flavors and textures in his mouth was truly like nothing he’d ever experienced. The gelatin and Spam he’d been prepared for, but there were chunks of eggs and peppers and corn, maybe some cabbage, something he thought might be a green pea and . . . Sweet pickle relish? He chewed carefully and caught himself before he started gagging.
He smiled, even though the forkful of Maggie’s latest culinary production currently sitting on his tongue very nearly shocked him into an out of body experience. He forced himself to swallow as he wondered if being out of his body might be a better alternative.
“Well?” Maggie asked.
Heimdall took a very long drink of water, as much to buy time as to wash the taste out of his mouth. It didn’t work. “What did you say this is called?”
“It’s Granny Jan’s Spam Jelly.”
“And you used to eat this? Voluntarily?”
“It was a holiday treat.” Maggie positioned a massive, jiggling loaf of Spam jelly on Frigga’s favorite ceramic platter and surrounded it with alternating peperoncini and pastel-colored marshmallows. “Granny Jan was my great-grandmother. We’ve assumed all these years that the recipe originated with her, but no one really knows. It’s kind of rite of passage, when the recipe gets handed down to you on your nineteenth birthday.”
Heimdall was curious what a person’s nineteenth birthday had to do with the gelatinous monstrosity quivering on the platter—maybe to force reluctant offspring to leave the nest? But he was afraid that asking would encourage Maggie to bring out even worse recipes.
He poured himself another glass of water and wondered if rinsing his mouth out with spent olive juice would do a better job of dispelling the residue sticking to his teeth. He also wondered if the Spam jelly could be weaponized. He couldn’t imagine a single enemy who would see that stuff coming.
Maggie carried the platter to the heavy table that had supported countless feasts over the years. Heimdall and Thor had felled the tree from which the table and several chairs were made. That had to have been at least a century earlier. Long before Rod was on the scene, building and making repairs at Frigga’s request, and long before Maggie was born.
Maggie rested the platter on the table with care and made small adjustments to the other bowls, tureens, and trays. Despite the fact that Heimdall feared most of the food on the feast table would be deemed entirely inedible by his kin, it had been a long time since he’d seen Maggie so happy. These early years of unwanted immortality had been rough on her, and harder on their relationship.
But with Odin and Frigga gone to the Halls of Valhalla, Maggie warmed to him again. His parents had seemed content enough together over the millennia, though they spent long periods apart. Perhaps that was a cycle Heimdall and Maggie would be wise to follow.
Heimdall surveyed the fare Maggie had prepared for the Winter Nights feast. He recognized a few dishes from his mother’s traditional spreads—roasted root vegetables and a platter of spiced honey oatcakes—but most everything else was new to him. In addition to the mutant jelly loaf, he noted prominent marshmallows in three other casseroles. Two different fondues warmed over low burners, which would please Thor—the thunder god had gone mad for the stuff after a dalliance with a Swiss alpinist in the 1930s.
The rest of the table was covered with tins of ginger cookies, take-out dishes of ravioli and pasta primavera, and a vat of sticky orange chicken.
With a horde of hungry Vikings about to descend on the Lodge, Heimdall knew he should have pushed harder for wild game and hearty stews. How had Maggie lived most of her adult life in Portland and still was clinging to bad food?
Heimdall appreciated that she was trying to blend her mortal life with her not-quite-defined role in the Lodge. She’d reached into her childhood to create a new tradition with her new family, but he wished she’d done it without quite so much processed cheese and mayonnaise.
He really hoped she was punking them all. Either way, it was going to be a memorable Winter Nights.
“I’ve got bread in the oven and Rod is bringing more ice, about a dozen veggie pizzas, and a big load of hot wings. And a couple of kegs of that house brew from Whispertree you like so much.”
Heimdall didn’t know what beer she was talking about. Chances were good they’d been out to dinner one night and when she’d asked how he liked his pale ale, he’d said it was fine. She wanted so much to please him and his kin. He may as well have said it was the fullest-bodied, most spiritually satisfying beer he’d ever tasted in all his years on this green Earth.
Maggie was back in the kitchen, pulling a dozen loaves of store-bought garlic bread out of the oven. She dropped a block of cream cheese on a glass plate and poured a jar of cocktail sauce over it, then surrounded it with a ring of Triscuits. If this was a charade, she was pushing it pretty hard.
Heimdall pulled out his phone and texted his siblings for help. Then he’d have a talk with Maggie. He wasn’t any kind of chef, but he was confident that if they worked together they could salvage the feast without hurt feelings, and without Spam jelly.
But he’d scarcely hit “send” on his third message to Saga when the first guests arrived. Heimdall sighed. It was going to be a long and interesting night.
The Winter Nights crowd was small and curiously sedate when Loki walked into the Lodge’s great room. Clad in leather and jeans, the members of the Valkyries biker gang made up the majority of the party, with several Einherjar from the Battle of the White Oak Yggdrasil milling about. Maggie was hurrying to and from the kitchen with more platters for her already crowded feast table. Rod was kept busy as bartender.
A glance into the kitchen revealed Opal whipping up a dessert topping. And Heimdall stood on the other side of a glass door with his wolf-dog, Laika, on the outside deck. Heimdall’s back was to the party. It looked to Loki like he’d lost weight.
Loki paused at the feast table. Seeking something edible, he fixed a plate of barbecued chicken wings, celery sticks, a glop of ranch dressing, and a wedge of painfully orange cheese. This was Maggie’s first turn as hostess for the pantheon. He didn’t want to be rude, but he had no intention of putting any of the food into his mouth.
He found Sally sitting alone in a corner of the great room. She hunched toward the hearth fire, her hands wrapped around a ceramic stein. A harsh, empty boundary of two or three meters surrounded her.
The Rune Witch could have given herself the wide berth, but in Loki’s experience it was more likely everyone chose to avoid her. There had long since been a similar perimeter around him.
He sat down next to Sally. She took a sip of beer and drew further into herself.
“Not what you expected,” he said.
Sally took another sip and hid a tiny belch behind her hand. “I didn’t think they would all be so . . . cold, I guess.”
Loki watched her for brimming tears or other signs of distress. Her face was blank, but he could feel her agitation. The calm before the storm.
“But you’re used to it,” she said. “Being treated like this.”
“Your circumstances are rather different than mine.”
She tipped her stein toward the overflowing feast table. “I made cookie-muffins. The ones I made for you that time?”
“I recall they were quite good.”
“No one’s touched them.”
Loki offered her his untouched plate. “You should eat something.”
With little enthusiasm, she dunked a celery stick in the white glop of dressing that was bleeding onto the chicken wings. She popped it into her mouth and chewed, then washed it down with beer.
“I thought there would be a memorial or remembrance or something,” she said. “This is the time for it, right?”
“They’ll each honor Odin and Frigga privately,” Loki replied. “In their own way and their own time. These modern Winter Nights gatherings are usually an excuse for a leisurely party.”
Sally took another celery stick from his plate. “I blew up the kitchen again.”
Loki tried not to laugh. Sally was prone to the same side effects of chaos that had plagued him, though his problems didn’t start until he was deep into his decline. Why would Sally share his symptoms of fading magick when she was just getting started?
“Opal had to help with the baking.” Sally stared into the dregs of her stein. “She has to help me with everything. Frigga knew what she was doing, making Opal the Assistant Rune Witch.”
Loki knew he should pat her shoulder and offer a few banal words of comfort. But unless he had practical advice or a cryptic comment to share, he had a deeply ingrained tendency to keep quiet.
Sally was unlike any Rune Witch in recent memory, and she was Sally. She’d trusted Loki from the start, even when the rest of the Lodge held him at arm’s length. She’d turned to him for guidance, despite the rankling that inevitably followed. If not for what happened in the Three Sisters Wilderness, the two of them might now be as thick as thieves, as the expression went. Sally might not be so sullen or so intent on winning her way back into the embrace of the Lodge, even in its current fractious state.
Maggie watched them from the feast table. She pretended to adjust the flame beneath one of the fondue pots, but she had her eyes fixed on Loki and Sally. Maggie was glaring. It was almost enough to make the old god giggle.
“Perhaps we don’t need to be here,” Loki said. “There is always more training to be done.”
“Right.” Sally’s voice was sharp. “There’s always more training.”
She drank down the last of her beer and grabbed a greasy chicken wing from Loki’s plate. She bit into the meat and chewed as she spoke.
“Because that’s what I need, right? More training so I can have even more problems just trying to interact with the world. So I can fry another phone or blow up a few more kitchen appliances or maybe garble a couple of traffic lights. Because that’s fun, yeah? Destroying things and putting other people in danger? At least I’m inconveniencing everybody and making my own life hell in the process. What’s not fun about that? So, sure! Let’s dig in deeper. Why even leave the party? We can do some magickal training right here—take a gamble on incinerating the Lodge. That would make for a great party. Memorable. Sally and her chaos party tricks.”
She sucked the sticky sauce off of her fingers and only then registered how the rest of the room had fallen silent. Instead of the embarrassed meekness that had characterized Sally’s early days with the Lodge, she huffed in angry defiance.
“What are you all looking at?” She stared down anyone who glanced her way. “What do you even care anyway? It’s not like I’m really welcome here. Not like you’re inviting me over for tea or football games.”
She picked up her stein again and realized it was empty.
Whispers and low chuckles swept through the room. Loki leaned toward Sally and again suggested this might be a good time to leave, but she stood up and faced the room.
“It was a joke! Jeez. I’m not really trying to burn down your house.” She headed for Rod’s bar and pulled herself another beer from one of the kegs.
Loki kept his seat. Was it his duty to corral his apprentice when she got uppity? She was entitled to her opinions and attitude. No one could argue she hadn’t earned it.
Heimdall and Laika appeared at Loki’s side.
“She’s getting worse,” Heimdall said. “I thought you were looking after her.”
“As much as anyone can look after a strong-willed nineteen-year-old who is not enamored of her life and frustrated with the world.”
Heimdall bit back a retort, Loki saw, and ruffled the fur on his wolf-dog’s head. Laika yawned and stretched her forelegs in a relaxed bow.
“She didn’t ask for any of this,” Heimdall said.
“She did not.” Loki waited for Heimdall to arrive at whatever point he wanted to make. Heimdall hadn’t crossed the room to exchange observations on the obvious.
Loki set down his plate and watched the Valkyries pick at food they didn’t want to eat. Sally looked to be having a not unpleasant conversation with Rod. Loki hoped the evening wouldn’t be a waste of effort for her.
“Maggie didn’t want her here.” Heimdall’s voice was even and calm.
Loki kept quiet.
“She didn’t want me to invite you, either.”
Loki nodded. Heimdall would reveal more if Loki held his tongue.
“I thought this would be a good opportunity for everyone to come together and make peace,” Heimdall said. “Or at least start trying.”
He patted Laika again, leaning down to scratch behind her ears. “It’s been a rough adjustment for everybody.”
Heimdall pulled up a footstool and sat. Laika lay down at his feet.
“Ted shared some disturbing news, as the Valkyries were arriving.” Heimdall leaned close. “No one’s heard from Frigga or Odin.”
Loki sat up a little straighter. This was curious. By now, one or more of the Valkyries would have had the dream of escorting the departed Odin and Frigga from the living world of Midgard through Helheim and to the Halls of Valhalla. A delay of a few weeks wasn’t unheard of, but it had been four full turnings of the moon since Odin and Frigga had shrugged off their nearly immortal bodies.
“What do you think it means?” Heimdall was petting Laika harder, sublimating his worry into comfort. Laika wasn’t at the point of protest, but Loki could see in her eyes that she wasn’t keen on Heimdall’s heavy hand.
“I can’t remember anything like this.” Heimdall ran a hand across the back of his neck, giving Laika a break. “Naturally, Thor’s bent on launching a raid on Helheim.”
“Your brother is uncomfortable with inaction.”
Heimdall’s laughter was strained. “He’s not the only one. Maggie says we should give it more time, but she doesn’t have any experience with this. She doesn’t understand the significance of pretty much everything that’s going on around here.”
“You might say the same of us all,” Loki mused. He was the oldest of them, and he had no experience with the loss of the Lodge holders, either.
Loki watched Sally. She stood at the bar and smiled, engaged in conversation with two of the younger Valkyries. He made a mental note to inquire about her personal life. He knew how pervasive any form of magick could be, but chaos in particular rarely left a single aspect of a wielder’s existence untouched.
He’d tried to warn her, but she’d already experienced it herself from the moment she cast her ill-fated spell of Odin’s Return when she was just sixteen. She’d had chaos in her even then. If she was to accept the burden now before her . . . Loki stopped his own line of thinking. He’d been around and around this spiral many times. It didn’t matter what her attitude was, or whether she liked her training. She didn’t have a choice in who and what she was.
“I’m trying not to rock the boat,” Heimdall said. “For anyone.”
Loki was intrigued by Heimdall’s hasty addition. He surveyed the room again and paid special attention to the generous table. Maggie was already responsible for the apple grove and the sacred well. No one expected her to duplicate Frigga’s sumptuous feasts, too, but Maggie hadn’t actually tried. Rather, she’d made a bold attempt at bending the Lodge to a new authority.
“Maggie wants to be the Goddess of the Hearth,” Loki said. “And Lady of the Lodge.”
Heimdall blew out a long breath and dug his fingers into Laika’s ruff. She let out a small whine.
“Sorry, girl.” Heimdall rested his hands in his lap. “I have no idea what to do. I don’t know what I can do.”
There was more Heimdall wanted to say but there were too many ears to overhear, too many pairs of eyes watching Heimdall consult with Loki in the first place.
But then came the blustering entrance of Thor balancing three boxes of roasted poultry in one arm and a broad metal keg in the other. Trailing behind him was his wife, Bonnie, laden with overflowing bags of vegetables and breads.
The promising aroma of turkey and spiced fruit almost made Loki forget about the casseroles of canned tuna and fried onions on the table.
A small man brought up the rear as he steered a dolly stacked high with boxes of cider, fruit, and smoked meats. Loki hadn’t seen the Pakistani groundskeeper since the epic battle with Managarm, though Tariq and his wife Afra sent the occasional greeting card. He looked even more fit now, and Loki wondered what he had been up to.
Teaching at the Raven Dojo, Loki remembered. Freyr was probably never coming back from his new home atop Mt. Bachelor, and Freya was helping him adjust to life as a volcano god.
“Heimdall!” Thor’s bellow echoed off the walls, as though his imposing frame wasn’t enough to get everyone’s attention. “I brought everything you asked for. And more! Let the feast begin!”
Loki watched with some sympathy as Heimdall’s shoulders slumped and storm clouds broke across Maggie’s face.
“What is this?!” Maggie pointed at Thor with one hand and clenched a kitchen towel in the other.
Thor was nearly twice Maggie’s weight, but he shrank back as she stalked toward him. He knocked over an empty dining chair, a side table, and a lamp until his back was flat against the wall. The boxed turkeys shook in his grasp.
“Did you think you needed to come prepared not to enjoy my cooking?” Maggie demanded.
“Uh, no? I just, I thought . . .” Thor scanned the room for help. Heimdall moved quickly to come to his brother’s defense, but Sally got there first.
Loki sat back, warmed by the fire, and watched.
Sally laid a hand on Maggie’s wrist. “I don’t think anyone means any insult to anyone else. You’ve set a generous table. Maybe Thor wanted to do his part, as a gesture of appreciation?”
Maggie considered Sally’s words, which was a feat in itself. Maggie openly preferred Opal to Sally and seemed to believe Frigga’s passing meant she could steer the direction of the Lodge and choose her own Rune Witch, too. Loki tried to remember a time he’d been so naive. It was an amusing exercise.
“That’s really what you think?” Maggie had softened her tone.
Thor took the opportunity to peel himself away from the wall and head into the kitchen with his turkeys and beer. Bonnie set down her grocery bags and moved to stand beside Sally. Loki smiled.
“It’s because no one thinks I can take Frigga’s place,” Maggie said without a trace of self-pity. “Because no one can accept that the world marches on, and maybe it’s a good thing when things change.”
There was a collective intake of breath. Loki waited to see who would take the bait first.
Maggie had challenged pretty much everyone in the room to dispute her claim to Frigga’s titles and offices. There was something pragmatic about the way she’d stepped forward to fill the gaps despite the household’s grief and resistance. But she hadn’t wasted any time pushing Sally out the door.
Bonnie placed a steadying hand on Maggie’s shoulder, and Maggie visibly calmed at her touch.
“This is hard for everyone.” Bonnie’s voice soothed the room. “No one is saying or thinking anything uncharitable. Like Sally said, we’re just trying to help. We don’t have to put out any new food if you don’t want to.”
Maggie offered no resistance as Bonnie pulled her into the kitchen. Loki wondered when Bonnie had gotten so good at lying.
“Like hell they’re not putting out those turkeys. I’m starving,” mumbled one of the Valkyries.
Sally glanced at Loki from across the room. She was pale and flustered and wearing plainly on her face the angry acknowledgment that he had been right—neither she nor Loki should have come to the party. Their presence was making things worse.
Saga blundered in from the main hallway. She teetered beneath a stack of sheet cakes, an equal number of pies, and at least a half-dozen fruit loaves.
“This was all they had left by the time I got to the store,” Saga announced to no one in particular. She shoved a few casseroles aside to make room on the table, and Maggie’s spam jelly hovered precariously on the edge. “If we scrape off the icing, the cakes should be okay. Maybe save all the sugary stuff and take bets on how much we can get Thor to eat before he pukes.”
Saga looked up. Her cheerful expression evaporated when she locked eyes with the Rune Witch. “Hey, Sally.”
Saga shrugged and didn’t say anything more. But Sally rolled her shoulders back and lifted her chin. Loki rose to his feet.
“Yes, Saga. I had the audacity to show my face here.” Sally took a step forward. “So here’s your big chance. There’s hell to pay, and I’ve got it coming, right? Tell me how I’m just rubbing it in. How I’m lording over the rest of you how superior and special I must think I am.”
This was why Sally had come to the Lodge for Winter Nights. Had she been so sullen in the corner because everyone was leaving her alone instead of having it out with her?
She’d mumbled to Loki about her few interactions with Heimdall and Thor after that terrible weekend in the woods, and how no one would admit to her face that they blamed her for Odin and Frigga. This was the first time she’d seen Saga since then, and she was an easier target. The expected onslaught hadn’t materialized, so now Sally was manufacturing one.
Saga made a motion to head toward the kitchen, but Sally had her cornered. “But you are special, Sally.” Saga’s arms hung loosely at her sides. “And we’ve all been in shock.”
“You can do better than that. I’m not even kin. I’m just a mortal. So why did it have to be me?” Sally was in Saga’s face now, her hair trembling and twisting with every angry breath.
No one else in the room breathed.
Saga blinked back tears. “They chose you for a reason. They wanted to die with you, alone. I’m not happy about it and I don’t understand it. But I’m not going to fight you, Sally.”
Saga slipped her hands into the back pockets of her jeans and left herself open to Sally’s fury. Loki was impressed.
“But I’m not a shaman or an elder or anything!” Sally shouted. The overhead lights flared and whined.
“Careful there,” Saga said with a gentle smile.
“Careful?” Sally spat. Two of the LED bulbs popped and electricity arced in blue lines from the broken bulbs. “How can you be so freaking detached? Do you even care about what happened? You’re just standing there like this is no big deal. Those were your parents. Your own parents didn’t want you around when they breathed their last breaths.”
Tears spilled down Saga’s cheeks, but she didn’t step away. “This isn’t you, Sally. You’re not cruel.”
“No?” Sally’s voice was hoarse, and four more LEDs sizzled out as she balled her hands into fists. “Why did it have to be me? I didn’t ask for this. I’m just a witch. I’m just a kid.”
Taking his cue, Loki walked toward her. The other guests eagerly parted to let him pass.
“We’re all grieving.” Saga wiped her cheeks, touched Sally on the shoulder, and slid past her.
Loki stood behind Sally, confident she knew he was there. The mingling conversation and tentative food tasting rose up around them again. The room was dimmer thanks to Sally’s temper, but laughter floated more easily. Sally had loosened a valve for everyone else, though the set of her shoulders told Loki that she wasn’t feeling much relief.
Frigga and Odin hadn’t been Sally’s parents by blood or circumstance, but they had been her teachers, her advisors, and her protectors. The Lodge had been a second home as she made peace with her new life. That was gone now. Everything was in flux, and she didn’t know if she was welcome anymore.
“They put you in an awful position,” Loki said quietly. “And no one blames you.”
“Maybe they should.”
“You are blameless in this.” Loki rested a hand on top of her head. “You must not hold yourself responsible for forces and decisions outside your control.”
“You, on the other hand . . .” Thor plowed toward Loki. “You dare talk of blame?”
Loki had barely enough time to step away from Sally and face the thunder god before Thor punched him square in the nose.