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, “Awww, 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 objection, “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 distance from 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.
Copyright © 2011 by Kevin Hearne. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.