Rune Witch, book 4
Note: This first chapter preview contains major spoilers for previous books in the series. Read at your own risk!
Thor’s wet face burned. His entire body dripped with sweat. He tried to rub the salt out of his eyes, but that just made the stinging worse and he still couldn’t see worth a kerling’s tongue through the thick, fragrant steam. He shifted on the rough, wooden bench and tried to keep his towel from bunching up in uncomfortable places.
But he didn’t complain.
Tim Wallulatum tossed another handful of dried herbs and leaves onto the rocks beneath the dome of deerskin. The sweat lodge guide hadn’t said much before Thor and his kin entered the cramped, dark space, and once the hide covering the narrow opening was pulled into place, he’d said even less.
Flickering light from the heated rocks played over Tim’s features. Seated on the ground, the man appeared ethereal and almost angelic one moment, then dark and demonic the next. The rocks’ red-orange glow was the only light in the steamy lodge, save for a bit of sunlight peeking between the deerskins and the dirt floor.
Thor squirmed, still trying to find a tolerable sitting position. Benches weren’t customary to the sweat lodge experience, it had been explained to him, but were added for the Norsemen’s comfort. He thought he’d prefer the dirt, where he wouldn’t have to worry about getting splinters in his butt. Probably.
He breathed in the heady smoke of sage and sweetgrass. His nasal passages burned. Thor didn’t know much about herbs, but he did know this particular smoke wasn’t nearly as pleasant as Frigga’s apple and sage sausages. He was beginning to feel a bit like a smoked sausage himself.
There were other scents and tastes in the air Thor couldn’t identify. Freya had assured him there wouldn’t be anything hallucinogenic in the mix, but he wasn’t so sure.
Tim poured another ladle of herbed water over the rocks. A fresh cloud of steam hissed upward, and Thor’s skin took painful exception to the new wave of heat hitting him full in the face and chest. Thor’s lungs were getting seared from the inside out. He pulled at a corner of his towel to wipe his drenched face, but the cloth was already saturated. He balled the material in his fist and squeezed a few teaspoons of salty moisture onto the dirt floor.
Heimdall leaned forward and rested his hands on his knees. His back, chest, and legs glistened rosy pink. He sat next to Thor, but not too close. The lodge was sticky enough without shared body heat.
“Not exactly the hot springs of the Old Country.” Heimdall’s voice was rough with smoke.
“Our people have always enjoyed a good sauna.” Two yards away on the opposite side of the hearth of hot rocks, Odin and his leather eye-patch were slick with sweat.
Sitting next to Odin, Rod chuckled and coughed. Frigga’s human handyman was always well-dressed and expertly groomed and even in the active sweat lodge, he was the prettiest man Thor had ever seen. But he was also a warrior of Odin’s Lodge and a worthy companion in this bit of male bonding prior to Thor’s impending quest.
The smoke was getting to everyone but Tim, whose silver hair gleamed against his leathery skin in the orange glow of the lodge. Thor choked back a cough, and he could have sworn he saw Tim smile.
“You get a lot of newbies?” Thor asked.
“Plenty of city folks want an authentic native experience,” Tim answered with a smirk. “They come to sweat, to chant, whatever. Then they drive their hybrid cars back to their condos and flat-screen TVs and congratulate themselves on their spiritual adventures.”
Tim tossed another handful of mystery herbs onto the hot rocks. Heimdall knocked Thor with his elbow as he tried to rub the stinging smoke out of his eyes.
“But this is the first time I’ve had Old Ones in my lodge.” Tim ladled more water over the rocks, and his face disappeared behind a thick cloud of steam.
“We are grateful for your hospitality,” Odin replied. “You honor us by allowing my kin to participate in your traditions and pay our respects to your gods.”
Thor sat up straight and his scalp scraped against the wood lattice of the dome. No one had said anything to him about interacting with Native American gods. He’d had no real dealings with the local spirits in his many years in the Pacific Northwest. He told himself he was embarking on just a couple of days in the woods, but he knew things could go unimaginably badly in less time and in less fertile settings.
“Same here.” Rod smiled and leaned forward with a subtle flex of his perfect pectorals. “I’m honored to be included.”
“Happy to have you here, Rod.” Thor’s eyes widened when he realized he’d been the one speaking. He thought about his own belly—solid and strong, but big—as Rod ran his hands over his chiseled face, shook the sweat from his fingers, and then pulled his white smile and tanned muscles back into the shadows.
Tim produced a large plastic jug, swirled its contents, and unscrewed the lid. He took a long swig, then passed the jug to Thor. Thor peered warily into the open container.
Tim laughed. “It’s just tea.”
“Yeah, but what kind of tea?”
“Just drink it,” Heimdall said.
Thor took a large gulp and was relieved by the sweet taste of honeyed herbs mixed with black tea. It was hot, like everything else inside the sweat lodge, but the infusion of fluids was welcome. He gulped greedily until Heimdall elbowed him in the ribs.
“There are other people.”
With a grunt, Thor passed the jug.
“How much longer?” Heimdall took a few smaller slurps and passed the jug to Rod.
“As long as it takes.” Again, Thor was surprised by his own reply.
It wasn’t that he was enjoying the sweat—he absolutely was not. He was sticky and hot. His scalp itched and he was having trouble catching his breath in the humid smoke. With all of his wriggling on the bench, his towel was sticking to him in a suggestive and unattractive fashion, and he was pretty sure he had splinters in his butt after all. But this infernal sweat and the trials to follow got him that much closer to Sunday afternoon with Bonnie.
Heimdall looked at his brother with weary, red-faced admiration. “You’re really committed to this.”
“It’s important to Bonnie.” Thor sniffed the hot, herb-smoked air and wondered if he might have third-degree burns inside his nostrils. “At least, it’s important to her grandmother, and her grandmother’s blessing is important to Bonnie.” He massaged his face with his thick fingers, trying to work the smoke out of his sinuses. “So. Here we are.”
Odin finished off the tea and handed the empty jug to Tim. “You can’t blame the old woman for wanting to keep her people’s ways alive into the next generation.”
Heimdall cleared his throat. “No, but you have to admit this whole thing is pretty hardcore.”
“Hardcore, and all kinds of awesome,” Rod said. He seemed to be the only one enjoying himself. Thor made a deliberate effort not to entertain any prejudiced thoughts about gay men and saunas.
Odin tipped his head back. “We all have to make decisions about what we wish to survive us.”
“So, next you go out in the woods, right? By yourself?” Rod asked.
Thor sniffed hard and immediately regretted it as the sage steam burned his sinuses anew and clung to his mucous membranes. “My vision quest. But I’ll have a guide.”
“And the goal of this quest?” Heimdall asked.
“I’m not as clear on that part.”
Rod laughed. “I think the old lady is messing with you.”
Odin straightened his spine. He had impressive muscle definition in his chest and abdomen for an old god, though his body hair was a distinct mix of gray and silver. “The goal is for Thor to undertake some of the rituals of Grace Red Cliff’s people. To have these experiences become a part of who he is, and part of the family Thor and Bonnie will build together.”
Thor frowned at Grace’s surname. Bonnie had told him how her grandmother left the reservation with her husband when they were newlyweds. How the young Red Cliff family became the Radcliffes to get better jobs. How Grace’s son—Bonnie’s father—married the granddaughter of Italian immigrants and built a comfortable, middle-class life in Portland. How Grace’s grandchildren grew up knowing barely anything of their Indian ancestry.
Thor tried to imagine his own children not knowing a broadsword from a bowie knife. An unpleasant shiver tickled his shoulders, even in the humid lodge.
Grace’s children had left home. Her parents and then her husband died, and Grace returned to the reservation to care for an elderly aunt. Bonnie didn’t have the details, but Thor had it on good authority from Odin that Grace’s extended visit had left her shaken. The sharp contrast between big city necessities and the meager amenities and rhythms of her old family home nearly incapacitated her. Then frustrated access to medical and dental care and the bone-numbing aimlessness of so many unemployed and drug-addicted souls had her crying into her pillow at night.
So Grace moved onto the reservation permanently and embraced her family’s heritage. And she was none too happy about her granddaughter marrying into a family of Norsemen, immortal or not.
“It still sounds pretty extreme,” Rod continued. “But, I mean, this sweat isn’t so bad. With the herbs and rite of passage stuff, this part is actually kind of nice.” He glanced across the rock pit to Tim and shrugged.
Tim dipped his chin but remained silent.
“But then you’re supposed to hike into the forest to, I don’t know, find your spirit guide or forage for some enchanted tree moss or something?”
“It’s not like that,” Thor replied.
“No?” Heimdall jumped in with a smile. “You’re going to hunt down a, what? Sitco?”
“Siatco,” Thor said.
“What’s that? Like some kind of otter?” Rod asked.
“More like a sasquatch,” Odin said.
Rod laughed. “You have to go looking for Bigfoot?”
Thor glared at Rod over the hot rocks. Tim kept his head down and his mouth shut, but Thor could easily spot the smirk on the man’s face.
Heimdall patted Thor on the back. “I admire the way you’ve embraced this quest. Even the old spirits approve.”
Thor’s mood lightened. He thought back on the dozen ravens perched in the high branches over the deerskin lodge and calling down as Thor and the others had entered the sweat.
Odin nodded. “An auspicious sign.”
It was rare for Odin to speak of ravens, ever since Huginn and Muninn had abandoned him for the native woods as soon as the Norsemen arrived in the Pacific Northwest. While Heimdall had smiled at the common ravens outside the sweat lodge and clapped Thor on the back in encouragement, Thor watched a dark quiet settle over Odin as he turned his one-eyed gaze to the cloudless summer sky and followed a pair of birds taking flight.
Heimdall wiped a river of sweat from his brow. “But I agree with Rod. The old lady is messing with you.”
Thor kept quiet.
“Okay, last round.” Tim poured another ladle of water over the steaming rocks, tossed a few handfuls of dried herbs into the hearth, and started to chant.
Sally emerged from the hot spring flushed and a little dizzy. The shock of the cool morning air had her breaking out in head-to-toe goosebumps. She’d spent only about twenty minutes in the steaming outdoor pool, sheltered beneath evergreen branches and surrounded by moss-covered rocks, but it had felt like at least an hour of brewing in hot water that stank of rotten eggs and felt slick on her bare skin.
She stumbled through the process of drying herself off and putting on her clothes. Then she had to sit on her backpack to rest. Her head was reeling from the vapors coming from the pool a few yards away.
But Opal, who had spent just as much time in the sulfur pool, looked positively radiant as she pulled on her jeans and a green Portland State University sweatshirt. Kneeling to lace up her hiking boots, she smiled across the pine-needle carpet at Sally.
“That, I must say, was absolute heaven,” Opal sighed. “It seems a shame to leave the water at all. I could have spent all day luxuriating in there.”
Sally closed her eyes as a wave of nausea hit her. She took a deep breath and swallowed hard. “It was a bit warm for me.”
Opal handed her a water bottle. “You’re probably dehydrated.”
Sally fumbled with the twist-off cap until Opal took pity and opened it for her. Sally whispered her thanks and then sucked down half the bottle’s contents.
Looking perfectly content, Opal sat cross-legged in the dirt. “If this is what it feels like just to soak in that water, imagine what it must be like to drink from the well.”
Sally didn’t respond. She concentrated on drinking down the rest of the water, and on not throwing up.
Frigga had said the hot spring pool was fed by the same water source as the sacred well Maggie and Rod had dug. Sally found it hard to believe that the same water could be hot and smelly in one place and cool and refreshing in another. But there was a lot she didn’t understand about the wilderness magick of the Pacific Northwest—which was precisely why she and Opal now sat at the edge of the forest with their backpacks.
“Not that they’re offering us a taste or anything,” Opal added.
Sally slipped her socks over her heat-flushed feet. “I don’t imagine they would.”
Maggie’s well was supposed to be the next incarnation of Mímir’s Well back in Scandinavia. Assuming Iduna’s mantle as the Goddess of the Grove, Maggie had elected to dig the well after she established a new orchard of immortality-granting apples in Oregon.
Would the new well grant the same mystical knowledge that Odin had gained from Mímir’s Well? Would Maggie’s Well be a source of shamanic wisdom, since the aquifer spanned the boundary between Odin’s property and the Warm Springs Indian Reservation? Maggie wouldn’t say, even when Sally wondered aloud if the well might accord her some greater measure of confidence before she marched into the forest for an extended nature hike with Opal.
Sally had at least resisted the temptation to simply sneak out to the well and taste the water for herself.
She slipped her feet into her brand new hiking boots and tied the laces. She wasn’t feeling quite as dizzy now. She focused on her breathing, inhaling through her nostrils and pushing the air out through her mouth, and that helped.
Opal was still beaming. “Aren’t you excited? I barely slept last night.”
Sally managed a small grin. As soon as their Indian guide arrived, Sally and Opal would hike into the forest for four days. Far away from parents and research papers, they would get hands-on with native plants, connect with indigenous spirits, and maybe even build relationships with an elemental or two. It was no wonder that Opal was nearly jumping out of her skin with anticipation.
Still, Sally was curious why neither Frigga nor Freya had pushed her in this direction before. It would have been simple enough to drag her into the forest and insist she become acquainted with the magick of her home turf.
In Ireland, Sally had learned the hard way how very much can go explosively wrong when local energies are ignored. Her roommate had paid the price of her own ignorance and hubris, in blood. And all the time Sally had been practicing magick in Oregon, she’d ignored the native energies running beneath her feet. She hadn’t even thought about it. It was nothing short of stupid.
Maybe, despite all the show Frigga made of training and grooming Sally, the truth was that her role as the Rune Witch wasn’t all that important.
Sally shook the thought away. She was here now. She remembered what Niall had taught her about working with the land: Soil is soil, no matter where it comes from. It might have a different flavor, but earth elements the world over served much the same purpose.
She got up from her pack and unzipped the main compartment to confirm that her two bottles of soil were in place and sealed tight. One tiny jar was filled with dirt from the base of the White Oak Yggdrasil that sat on Odin’s property. The other held the rich earth Sally had scooped up from outside the Oweynagat cave in Ireland, where Sally had last seen Freyr’s shade. Both were secure.
“Good idea to double-check.” Opal unzipped her own lightweight hiking pack and checked its contents. Her pack was full of empty bottles held in place by strips of black elastic sewn onto felt-covered boards. Side pockets were stuffed with plastic bags and a few grease pencils. Opal was stocked for an extended sampling spree.
“You know we don’t have to bring everything back with us.” Sally nodded toward Opal’s impeccably organized mobile laboratory. “We can always come back later, if you need something.”
“Or find another source closer to home,” Opal recited with a familiar edge to her voice. “Yeah, I know. Frigga’s been saying the same thing. But I can’t help it.” Opal checked the batteries in her handheld GPS device—so she could log the location of every plant they were to learn about.
Sally scanned her own supplies—flashlight, water bottles, sleeping bag, knife, Book of Shadows, clean underwear. Her parents had insisted on helping her pack. It had taken a few years, but Sally had finally told them the truth about her magick and her role as the Rune Witch—first, attempting the revelation on her own, and then with backup from Freya and Frigga.
To say that her parents had been stunned would have been an understatement. At first, they gave Sally a wide berth when she was home in Portland, especially at night; Sally hadn’t yet told them that a witch is just as strong in the light as in the dark. She’d overheard their whispered conversations about whether she might need rehab—or worse, a psychiatrist. And then they’d peppered her with questions.
Did being a Rune Witch mean that Sally was going to Hell, to Heaven, or to Valhalla? What exactly was a rune? Could she turn the chairman of the rotary club into a toad? Was Odin running a Viking biker cult? Did Sally go flying around on a broomstick on Halloween? If Sally was the Rune Witch, did that mean that somewhere there was a Candle Witch or a Wand Witch or a Crystal Witch, too?
Sally was curious about that last question herself, but she hadn’t yet gotten a straight answer from anyone at the Lodge.
It had been exhausting. Sally was relieved when it had come time to return to Dublin for her spring term. And a few months into Sally’s second semester abroad, her parents stopped texting, emailing, and Skyping at all hours to ask about magick wands and inquire after her safety.
It was a sudden shift, and Sally puzzled over what had finally gotten her parents to relax: An invitation to Odin’s Lodge for the nine-day festival of Walpurgis and Thrimilci—complete with bonfires, feasts from Frigga’s hearth, and endless steins of spiked mead—had done wonders to bring her parents into the outer circle of the Norse fold.
Now the Dahls—buttoned-down, proper citizens of Portland’s conservative minority—sported bumper stickers like “Keep Portland Weird,” “Odin For President!” and “My Other Car is a Broom” on their vehicles. And they’d combed through the Portland State University course catalog to highlight classes they thought would support Sally in her training. At the top of their list were Scandinavian Myths and Legends, Ancient Norwegian 101, Modern American Alternative Religions, and an environmental protection seminar series.
But Sally had an entire summer to get through before she would start at PSU as a sophomore. She zipped up her pack.
“What do you think our guide will be like?” Opal asked. “Obviously, someone knowledgeable, a master of herbs and traditional lore.” Opal touched each of her empty bottles before closing up her pack. Sally had no doubt Opal would be the star student of the expedition.
Sally was nervous about being led into the woods by someone she didn’t know—even a guide hand-picked by Freya. She’d need time on her own to complete her private memorial for Freyr, and she didn’t like the idea of a stranger watching over her shoulder while she honored her fallen friend.
“I just hope it’s someone who isn’t too strict,” Sally said.
Opal laughed. “You make it sound like we’ve been sent to see the principal. I think we’ll be put through our paces, though.”
Sally frowned. Was their guide going to demand that they make—and eat—an indigenous salad to prove they’d been paying attention to what was poisonous and what wasn’t?
Opal pulled her long, dark hair back into a ponytail and secured it with an elastic tie. She made the unconscious motion of pushing her glasses up her nose—an old habit that remained even after her laser eye surgery six months earlier. Opal’s face brightened as she looked over Sally’s shoulder, and Sally glanced back to find Frigga approaching.
“How was your soak, then?” the goddess asked.
“It was awesome!” Opal tugged at her sagging socks. “I’d love to come back and do it again.”
Frigga nodded. “That might be arranged. What about you, Sally dear?”
Sally shrugged. Most of the nausea had passed, but she was still feeling uncomfortably warm. “It was good,” she said.
Frigga’s smile faded at Sally’s flat tone. “I take it the hot spring didn’t agree with you.” She rested a hand on Sally’s shoulder. “The waters seep into your skin to rid you of impurities as you embark on your journey, and to prepare you for new wisdom. Not everyone will have the same reaction, of course.” Frigga knelt in the dirt next to Sally. “What are your symptoms?”
Sally forced a smile. “Maybe I just didn’t sleep too well last night.” She gestured toward Opal. “You know how excited we are.”
Frigga studied Sally’s face, and the Rune Witch tried not to squirm under the goddess’s intense gaze. Finally, Frigga rose to her feet.
“This is an important next step in your training.”
Opal nodded with enthusiasm. She was three years older than Sally, and she’d benefited from Frigga’s tutelage while Sally was in Ireland. She’d stood bravely against Managarm at the Battle of the White Oak Yggdrasil to protect both Odin’s Lodge and the World Tree. Long before that, when Sally was a fledgling witch who hadn’t even dreamed of meeting a Norse immortal in the flesh, Opal had proven herself a dedicated witch, and a good friend.
But seeing Opal bask in Frigga’s favor rubbed Sally the wrong way. Sally was the Rune Witch, not Opal. Shouldn’t Sally be the sole focus of Frigga’s attention? Or was Opal being groomed as Sally’s replacement? The Rune Witch was born, not appointed, and it supposedly wasn’t unusual for the mantle to skip many generations before landing again on a young witch’s shoulders. Sally didn’t think she could just be replaced. But Sally was still in the doghouse for her rebellions along the way—like smuggling Køjer Devils scales out of Norway, and for not asking for help sooner when things started going wrong in Dublin.
“Before you head off into the forest today,” Frigga continued, now resting her hands on her generous hips. “I think the time has come to officially install Opal as the Assistant Rune Witch.”
Opal’s face fell. “Assistant Rune Witch? What does that even mean?”
Frigga reached up and patted her short, black hair. She turned to Sally. “Opal will assist you in your magickal work. It’s an unorthodox approach, you might say, as there’s never been such an office before. But you can’t argue that Opal doesn’t deserve it. She can help you by doing research, preparing your more basic oils and brews, fetching your supplies. That sort of thing.”
Opal rose slowly to her feet. “Fetching her supplies?” she asked in disbelief. “Preparing her more basic brews?”
Sally’s stomach twisted, and she shook her head. “Yeah, I don’t think that’s the kind of help I need.”
Opal’s mouth fell open as her eyes shot hot daggers at Sally. “So I’m not good enough to even be your servant?”
“You know that’s not what I meant,” Sally said.
“Assistant, dear.” In a distinctly maternal gesture, Frigga ran her fingers over Opal’s long ponytail. “It’s an honored position, created specifically for you. You are in no way indentured to Sally. Not really. The two of you will figure it out. In time. Now, best finish up your preparations. I imagine you’ll be leaving shortly.”
Frigga left the two young witches staring uneasily at each other.
Opal crossed her arms tightly over her chest. “I’m older than you are. I’m more experienced.”
“I don’t know about that last part,” Sally retorted. “I mean, I have battled Køjer Devils. I’ve faced Frost Giants and ancient Irish deities.”
Opal scoffed. “You faced one Irish deity, and she backed down before anything happened. And you said yourself that the Frost Giants turned out to be harmless. Or practically harmless.”
Sally stood up. “I faced all three of the sisters of The Morrigan, Opal.” She felt the heat rising in her cheeks and worried that the nausea from the hot mineral soak might return. “And there’s plenty that happened. My roommate died.”
Opal dropped her gaze but kept her arms crossed. “Okay. I’m sorry. But still. You know what I mean.”
Sally exhaled in a short huff and looked away into the trees. She did know. None of this was Opal’s fault. “For what it’s worth, I didn’t know Frigga was going to do that.”
Opal’s mouth was hard. “No?”
“Sometimes I think it would better if I weren’t the Rune Witch at all.” Sally sniffed back quick, unexpected tears.
Opal kicked at the dirt with the toe of her hiking boot. “That’s ridiculous, Sally.”
“So is you being my assistant!” Sally threw her hands in the air. “You’re a grad student. You’ve done way more stuff that matters, like cleaning up the rivers. You could probably lead this plant hike without any guide at all, where I can barely tell the difference between clover and poison ivy.”
The corners of Opal’s mouth sagged. “Which makes me the perfect choice to be your freaking magickal sidekick.” She hoisted her pack over her shoulders, buckled the hip belt, and adjusted her shoulder straps. “It’s no big deal, Sally. Like Frigga said, we’ll figure it out.”
She stepped past Sally and headed toward the sweat lodge, following the open path through the trees that Frigga had taken.
Sally sighed heavily and looked down at her pack. “This is just great,” she muttered to the dirt. “My one real friend, and Frigga has to go and ruin it.”
Sally kicked the side of her backpack and heard the jars inside clink against each other.
When Sally approached the stark border where the dust and dry grass of the open field met the cool humidity of the woods, she found Frigga chatting with the newly arrived guides. Opal, still wearing her overstuffed backpack, leaned against a tree and laughed at a joke Sally had missed.
Their guides were a tall, skinny man and a short, rounded woman, both sporting long, black hair and deeply tanned skin. Looking them over, Sally wondered if faded blue jeans, flannel work shirts, and beat-up boots were some kind of native guide dress code. Freya was nowhere in sight.
Sally glanced at the sweat lodge a few yards away. Wisps of smoke rose from beneath the layered deerskins. She was curious about what was going on inside, and she pondered whether she might have enjoyed the sweat more than the hot spring soak and subsequent witch spat. A bunch of sweaty men probably smelled better than the mineral pool, too.
Frigga was suddenly at Sally’s side, gesturing her toward the edge of the forest where Opal stood with the guides. “You go get acquainted. I’ll fetch the boys.”
Sally made her way toward the others but kept her eyes on the lodge. When Frigga threw open the animal-skin covering, a thick cloud of smoky steam and a ruckus of surprised shouts issued from within. Frigga coughed and waved the steam out of her face. “Just thought you’d like to know that your guide has arrived, dear. So, whenever you’re ready . . .”
Frigga dropped the skin back into place and wrinkled her nose. “Awfully fragrant in there.”
The guides mirrored the goddess’s smile. Sally thought the effect was kind of creepy, like those ghost girls from The Shining.
“Wouldn’t be a proper sweat otherwise,” the woman chuckled.
Thor emerged from the deerskin dome and pulled his damp towel tighter around his thick waist when he spotted Opal and Sally. In all the varied rages Sally had seen the thunder god fly into, she had never seen his skin quite the same shade of burning pink his entire body was flushing now. But instead of his usual growl, Thor offered a respectful nod to the group beneath the trees and then strode purposefully to the back of Heimdall’s pick-up truck to retrieve his clothes.
Sally felt the eyes of the female guide boring into her. She turned to find the woman grinning at her in obvious expectation. Sally tried to smile back, and then looked away.
Thor stood behind Heimdall’s truck and slipped on his underwear and blue jeans beneath his sweat-drenched towel before letting the sopping terrycloth drop to the dirt.
“Was it everything you hoped it would be?” Heimdall reached into the bed of his pick-up for his clothes and pulled a t-shirt over his head.
“Am I purified now? I definitely lost a few pounds.” Thor pulled on a long-sleeved, hooded sweatshirt. After roasting alive inside the sweat lodge, he was now shivering in the early June air. He grabbed a medium-sized backpack from the truck bed and hoisted it onto one shoulder. Not sure what he was supposed to take with him on a vision quest, he’d packed a knife and a couple of water bottles. Odin had already confiscated all of the beef jerky, candy bars, and canned beans he’d stowed away. Apparently, Thor wasn’t supposed to eat anything for the next four days. He wasn’t keen on the idea.
He was already hungry—a queasy kind of hunger, thanks to overheating in the sweat lodge. He’d normally be cranky, swearing up and down, and kicking at the dirt. Actually, he was cranky, but he was making an effort to keep it under wraps.
The sweat had left him red all over, though he figured it was just as likely that he’d broken out in a head-to-toe rash from struggling with his temper. Despite his recent experiments with mindful breathing, calming mantras, and even thoughts of Bonnie in her wedding dress, he was on a perpetual medium simmer. He kept his eyes down, certain that one wrong look from his mother or Rod would send him boiling over.
If only he’d stuck one of the candy bars in his pants pocket. Thor groaned as he lifted his ridiculously light backpack. With his food supplies confiscated, he was carrying only a couple of pairs of underwear, socks, an extra shirt, a toothbrush, and a ballpoint pen and blank journal—in case he wanted to record his thoughts or compose poetry while he was exploring the wilderness. Freya’s idea. Thor thought the chances of his waxing lyrical while his belly grumbled were slim.
Thor followed Heimdall over to meet the guides, then frowned when he took stock of the company. “I thought our cousin would be here to see me off?”
The short, native woman caught his eye and smiled. “She is detained with other matters.” Her voice was rigid and her words clipped.
“But we are your appointed guides.” She held her hand out to him, and her grip was firm and warm. “Half-Moon Coppertree. You can call me Moon.”
“Moon,” Thor repeated her name as she withdrew her hand. “Nice.”
“I will lead the young ladies into the wilderness.” She nodded at Opal and Sally.
The tall, skinny man took a step toward Thor. “Hugh.”
Thor looked him up and down. A stiff breeze could have knocked the man over. “That’s it? Hugh?”
The man’s face broke into a broad, toothy grin. “Well, Hubert Black Feather, if you want to be formal.”
“Okay. Hugh.” Thor dropped his pack onto the ground. “Anything I should know before we get started?”
Hugh looked at Thor’s pack. “You got any food in there?”
“Why? You hungry?” Thor cracked a smile, but no one else seemed amused. His stomach grumbled, and he cleared his throat to cover the noise. “No food. That’s the rule, right?”
“One of ‘em, anyway.” Hugh looked Thor directly in the eye, and something cold in the man’s black-eyed stare sent a shiver down Thor’s spine. He shrugged inside his hoodie, still trying to adjust to the cool air outside the sweat lodge.
“You got a knife?” Hugh asked.
“Let’s see it.”
Thor crouched down and unzipped one of his pack’s exterior pockets. He pulled out a large knife in a simple leather sheath that was older than most of the surrounding trees. Thor held it out for Hugh’s visual inspection, and he bristled when Hugh grabbed it out of his hands.
Hugh pulled the blade out of its sheath and lifted it to the sun to judge its edge. He spun the knife in one hand and then the other.
“Nice weight.” He shoved the blade back into its sheath and handed it back to Thor.
Thor stooped to return the blade to his pack, but Hugh nudged the backpack away with the toe of one of his worn boots.
“Leave the rest,” Hugh said. “Knife’s all you need.”
Thor frowned. The man was tall, but not as tall as Thor or even Heimdall. He was wiry and looked almost fragile. Despite the broad grin, the way Hugh sucked in his cheeks had Thor wondering if he might be missing some of his back teeth.
“Not even a water bottle?” Thor asked, incredulous. “Or dry socks?”
Hugh offered a wry smile. “Everything you need’s in the woods, son. Let’s go.” Hugh turned softly on his heel and strode into the woods.
Thor stared after Hugh until he had nearly disappeared into the trees. Thor looked quickly to his parents for direction. Frigga gestured toward the forest.
“Wait!” Thor called. “I’m coming!” He gave his abandoned pack a last glance, then took off into the woods at a fast jog.
Seconds after Thor departed, Moon turned to Sally and Opal. “So, young ladies.” She nodded toward their backpacks. “I see you have prepared well for your journey.”
“I have a knife,” Sally volunteered. She was really hoping Moon wouldn’t make her leave her backpack behind.
“I do, too,” Opal added quickly. “And water bottles, and camping food, and a sleeping bag, and my journal, and—”
Moon held up a hand. “That all sounds fine.” She looked at Sally. “You’re sure you’ve packed everything you need?”
Sally stared back at her and tried to shake the eerie feeling that she was about to star in her own personalized disaster movie. She really wished Freya was there.
“Sally,” Frigga prompted.
“Uh, yeah.” Sally looked into Moon’s dark hazel eyes and tried to figure out what the guide was up to, but Moon’s expression was steady and unreadable. “I think I’ve got everything.”
“Good,” Moon announced with a satisfied nod. “Anything we don’t have already, we can find along the trail.” Moon gestured toward the forest. “Shall we begin?”
“Don’t you have a pack?” Opal asked.
Moon tapped her right temple. “Everything I need is right here,” she said with a wink, then turned and led the way into the woods. Sally and Opal fell in behind her, single-file. They entered the woods a few yards from where Thor and Hugh had started, and then turned sharply away to travel a divergent path.
Loki lowered his binoculars and smiled. He’d hidden himself well, high on a ridge overlooking the field where Tim had built the sweat lodge for Thor and his groomsmen. No one had invited Loki into the sweat lodge with the other male members of Odin’s Lodge, but he hadn’t expected to be included.
These days, he was more of an outcast than he’d been in a good while. Not even Odin had reached out to him since the trouble in Ireland. Maybe the revelation of Loki’s ancient alliance with the pookas against the Vanir was the proverbial last straw. Although Odin and the rest of the Æsir had ultimately benefitted from Loki’s actions, Odin wasn’t too happy about being kept in the dark all these centuries.
To add to his transgressions, Loki had knowingly allowed Sally to be placed in grave danger. He didn’t speak up before she went abroad. He kept it to himself that Freya and Freyr were the grandchildren of the goddess Badbh, and that the twins had a claim to the Éireann throne if they wanted it. It didn’t matter that Freyr and Freya hadn’t volunteered this information themselves.
Instead, Loki had been conveniently elsewhere, as always.
Thor had long bellowed that he’d catch Loki in a lie one of these decades. This time he’d come close enough to satisfy himself that Loki should be expelled from the Lodge once and for all. Odin didn’t agree, not entirely. Technically, Loki hadn’t lied; he never did. But this time his mischievous tendency to withhold vital information was enough to earn him Odin’s cold shoulder.
That suited Loki just fine. If Thor wanted a schism, Loki was happy to provide a long one. Maybe he’d even take the Rune Witch with him.
Loki raised his binoculars again and watched Sally disappear into the woods. She trailed behind Opal and their guide. He couldn’t help the grin on his face. The Rune Witch needed to be tested, again and again. She’d needed to get a taste of the Vanir homeland in Ireland. She’d needed to get close to the Køjer Devils in Norway. Her kind of magick would stagnate if she was always being coddled. This Rune Witch’s power thrived on danger. She should get dirty and bloody, mess with forces beyond her control, and learn from the sometimes devastating experience of trial and error.
It had been too bad about her roommate, the silly girl who called herself “Tara” and went on about how only she was a true witch. Her sacrifice wasn’t Sally’s fault. And Sally had come through unscathed, at least physically. This little nature walk was simply the necessary next step along her magickal path.
It wasn’t a secret that Loki had a soft spot for Sally. He didn’t wish her to come to any true harm. But he would sit back and watch her leap into this crucible, no matter the result.