wrestled the rudder, though I didn’t see what good that would do in a downward plunge. Belowdecks, I heard Mallory and Alex getting thrown around, KA-FLUMP, KA-FLUMP, KA-FLUMP, like a pair of human dice.
The ship spun. With a cry of despair, T.J. lost his grip and hurtled into the maelstrom. Sam zoomed after him. Thank goodness for Valkyrie powers of flight. She tackled T.J. around the waist and zigzagged back to the ship with him, dodging the grasping hands of the sea giantesses and various pieces of luggage we were shedding like ballast.
As soon as she reached the deck—BLOOOSH! Our ship splash-landed and then sank.
The biggest shock was the heat. I’d been expecting a freezing death. Instead, I felt like I’d been dunked in a scalding bathtub. My back arched. My muscles contracted. I managed not to inhale any liquid, but when I blinked, trying to see which way was up, the water was a strange cloudy golden color.
That can’t be good, I thought.
The deck surged beneath me. The Big Banana broke the surface of…wherever we were. The storm had vanished. The nine giantesses were nowhere to be seen. Our ship bobbed and creaked on the placid golden water that bubbled around the hull, exuding a smell like exotic spices, flowers, and baked goods. In every direction rose sheer brown cliffs—a perfect ring about a mile in diameter. My first thought was that we’d been dropped in the middle of a volcanic lake.
Our ship seemed to be in one piece, at least. The wet yellow sail flapped against the mast. The rigging glistened and steamed.
Samirah and T.J. got to their feet first. They slipped and staggered aft, where Halfborn Gunderson was slumped over the rudder, blood dripping from an ugly gash on his forehead.
For a moment, I thought, Eh, Halfborn gets killed that way all the time. Then I remembered we were not in Valhalla anymore. Wherever this was, if we died here, we would not get a do-over.
“He’s alive!” Sam announced. “Knocked out cold, though!”
My ears still rang from the weird music. My thoughts moved sluggishly. I wondered why T.J. and Sam were looking at me.
Then I realized, Oh, right. I’m the healer.
I ran over to help. I channeled Frey-power to heal Gunderson’s head wound as Mallory and Alex, both battered and bleeding, staggered out from belowdecks.
“What are you fools doing up here?” Mallory demanded.
As if in answer, a storm cloud rolled overhead, obscuring half the sky. A voice boomed from above:
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN MY CAULDRON?”
The storm cloud descended, and I realized it was a face—a face that did not look happy to see us.
From my previous dealings with giants, I’d learned that the only way to process their immense size was to focus on one thing at a time: a nose the size of an oil tanker, a beard as thick and vast as a redwood forest, round gold-rimmed glasses that looked like crop circles. And on the giant’s head, what I’d taken for a storm front was the rim of the universe’s largest panama hat.
The way his voice echoed in the basin, pinging off the cliffs with tinny reverberations, made me realize we were not, in fact, in a volcanic crater. Those cliffs were the metal rim of a huge pot. The steaming lake was some kind of brew. And we’d just become the secret ingredient.
My friends stood with their mouths open, trying to make sense of what they were seeing—all except for Halfborn Gunderson, who wisely remained unconscious.
I was the first to regain my wits. I hate it when that happens.
“Hello,” I said to the giant.
I’m diplomatic that way, always knowing the right greeting.
Frowny McHugeface furrowed his brow, giving me flashbacks to my sixth-grade science lesson on plate tectonics. He glanced to either side and called out, “Daughters! Get over here!”
More gigantic faces popped up around the rim of the pot: the nine women from the maelstrom, but much larger now, their frothy hair floating about their faces, their smiles a little too manic, their eyes bright with excitement or hunger. (I hoped it wasn’t hunger….It was probably hunger.)
“We got them, Dad!” one of the women squeaked—or it would have been a squeak if she hadn’t been the size of South Boston.
“Yes, but why?” their father asked.
“They’re yellow!” another giantess chimed in. “We noticed them right away! With a ship that color, we figured they deserved to drown!”
I mentally began composing a list of words that began with F: Frey. Father. False. Friend. Frick. Frack. And some others.
“Also,” said a third daughter, “one of them mentioned mead! We knew you’d want to talk to them, Dad! That’s your favorite word!”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Alex Fierro waved his hands like there was a flag on the play. “Nobody here was talking about mead. There’s been some kind of mistake….” He hesitated, then frowned at me. “Right?”
“Uh…” I pointed to Samirah, who backed away, out of range of Alex’s cutting wire. “I was just explaining—”
“DOESN’T MATTER!” boomed Frowny. “You’re here now, but I can’t have you in my cauldron. I’m just cooking down the mead. A Viking ship could totally ruin the flavor of the honey!”
I glanced at the bubbling liquid around us. I was suddenly glad I hadn’t inhaled any of it.
“Honey?” I asked.
“Don’t you dare call me that,” Alex growled. Possibly he was kidding. I didn’t want to ask.
A massive hand loomed over us, and Frowny plucked up our ship by the mast.
“They’re too small to see properly,” he complained. “Let’s scale things down.”
I hated it when gigantic people changed the proportions of reality. Instantly the world telescoped around me. My stomach imploded. My ears popped. My eyes expanded painfully in their sockets.
BOOM! SCRAPE! THUMP!
I stumbled over my own feet, and found myself standing with my friends in the middle of a vast Viking hall.
In one corner, our ship lay on its side, hot mead still dripping from the hull. The room’s walls were columned with dozens of ship keels, soaring hundreds of feet up and curving inward to form the rafters of a peaked ceiling. Instead of planks or plaster filling in the space between the columns, there was nothing except rippling green water, held in place by no physics that made sense to me. Here and there, doors lined the watery walls, leading to other undersea chambers, I guessed. The floor was carpeted in squishy kelp that made me glad I had shoes on.
The hall’s layout wasn’t much different than your typical Viking party pad. A rectangular feasting table dominated the space, with chairs of carved red coral along either side, and an elaborate throne at the far end, decorated with pearls and shark jaws. Freestanding braziers burned with ghostly green flames, filling the hall with a smell like toasted seaweed. Hanging over the main hearth fire was the cauldron we’d been floating in, though it now appeared much less massive—maybe just big enough to cook a team of oxen in. The pot’s polished bronze sides were engraved with designs of waves and snarling faces.
Our host/captor, the frowny-daddy giant guy, stood before us, his arms crossed, his brow knit. He was now only twice as tall as a human. The cuffs of his army-green skinny jeans were turned up over pointy black boots. His suit vest was buttoned over a white dress shirt, the sleeves pushed back to show lots of swirling runic tattoos on his forearms. With his panama hat and his gold-rimmed glasses, he looked like an agitated Whole Foods shopper, stuck in the express line behind a bunch of people with too many items, when all he wanted to do was purchase his macrobiotic matcha smoothie and leave.
Behind him, in a loose semicircle, stood the nine wave girls—who were not (shockingly) doing the wave. Each giantess was terrifying in her own special way, but they all leered and giggled and pushed each other around with the same level of excitement, like fans waiting for a star to come through the stage door so they could tear him to pieces to show their love.
I recalled my encounter with the sea goddess Ran, who had described her husb
and as a hipster who liked microbrewing. At the time, the description had been too weird to comprehend. Afterward, it had seemed funny. Now it seemed a little too real, because I was pretty sure the hipster god in question was standing right in front of me.
“You are Aegir,” I guessed. “God of the sea.”
Aegir grunted in a way that implied Yeah, so? You still tainted my mead.
“And these…” I gulped. “These lovely ladies are your daughters?”
“Of course,” he said. “The Nine Giantesses of the Waves! This is Himminglaeva, Hefring, Hrönn—”
“I’m Hefring, Dad,” said the tallest girl. “She’s Hrönn.”
“Right,” said Aegir. “And Unn. And Bylgya—”
“Bigly?” asked Mallory, who was doing her best to hold up a half-conscious Halfborn.
“Nice to meet you all!” Samirah yelped, before Aegir could introduce Comet, Cupid, and Rudolph. “We claim guest rights!”
Samirah was smart. In certain polite jotun households, claiming guest rights could get you a free pass from being slaughtered, at least temporarily.