The Ship of the Dead

Page 16

We plowed together in a desperate group hug as the wave hit us. My handkerchief expanded around us. The collapsing hall squirted us into the deep like toothpaste from a tube, and we shot toward the surface on our bright yellow Viking warship.

THERE’S NOTHING like erupting from the depths of the ocean on a magical Viking ship!

It sucks. A lot.

My eyes felt like grapes that had been lagaz-ed. My ears popped with such force I thought I’d been shot in the back of the head. I gripped the rail, shivering and disoriented, as the Big Banana landed on the waves—WHOMMMM!—and knocked my jaw out of alignment.

The sail unfurled on its own. The oars unlocked, pushed into the water, and began to row by themselves. We sailed under starry skies, the waves calm and glittering, no land to be seen in any direction.

“The ship…is self-driving,” I noted.

Next to me, Njord popped into existence, looking no worse for being caught in the collapse of Aegir’s hall.

Njord chuckled. “Well, yes, Magnus, of course the ship is self-driving. Were you trying to row it the old-fashioned way?”

I ignored my friends glaring at me. “Um, maybe.”

“All you have to do is will the ship to take you where you want to go,” Njord told me. “Nothing else is required.”

I thought about all that time I’d spent with Percy Jackson learning bowlines and mizzenmasts, only to find out the Viking gods had invented Google-boats. I bet the ship would even magically assist me if I needed to fall off the mast.

“Magnus?” Alex spat a clump of sea giantess hair out of his mouth. Wait. Her mouth. I wasn’t sure when it had happened, but I was pretty certain Alex had shifted gender. “Aren’t you going to introduce us to your friend?”

“Right,” I said. “Everybody, this is Frey-Dad. I mean Njord.”

Blitzen scowled. He muttered under his breath, “Might have known.”

Halfborn Gunderson’s eyes widened. “Njord? God of ships? The Njord?” Then the berserker turned and vomited over the railing.

T.J. stepped forward, hands raised like We come in peace. “Halfborn wasn’t making an editorial comment, great Njord. We appreciate your help! He just has a head injury.”

Njord smiled. “That’s perfectly fine. You all should get some rest. I did what I could to ease your decompression sickness, but you’re going to feel bad for a day or two. Also, you have blood trickling from your nose. Oh, and coming out of your ears.”

I realized he was talking about everyone. We were leaking red like Blodughadda, but at least all my friends seemed to be in one piece.

“So, Njord,” said Mallory, wiping her nose. “Before we rest, are you sure those nine giantesses aren’t going to pop up again any minute and, you know, destroy us?”

“No, no,” he promised. “You’re under my protection and safe for the present! Now perhaps you would give me some time to talk with my grandson?”

Alex picked a last strand of giantess hair off her tongue. “No problem, Frey-Dad. Oh, and by the way, guys, my pronouns are she and her now. It’s a new day!”

(Hooray for me being right.)

Samirah stepped forward, her fists clenched. Her wet hijab clung to her head like an affectionate octopus. “Magnus, down in the feast hall…do you realize what you agreed to? Do you have any idea—?”

Njord raised his hand. “My dear, perhaps you’d let me discuss that with him? Dawn is coming. Shouldn’t you eat your suhur meal?”

Sam gazed east, where the stars were beginning to fade. She worked her jaw muscles. “I suppose you’re right, though I don’t feel much like it. Anybody want to join me?”

T.J. shouldered his rifle. “Sam, when it comes to eating, I always have your back. Let’s go below and see if the galley is still in one piece. Anybody else?”

“Yep.” Mallory eyed the sea god. For some reason, she seemed fascinated by his bare feet. “We’ll give Magnus some family time.”

Alex followed, doing her best to steady Halfborn Gunderson. Maybe it was just my imagination, but before Alex went down the ladder, she gave me a look like You okay? Or maybe she was just wondering why I was so weird, as per usual.

That left only Blitz and Hearth, who were fussing with each other’s outfits. Hearth’s scarf had somehow gotten tied around his arm like a sling. Blitzen’s ascot had wrapped around his head like a fancy do-rag. They were trying to help while swatting each other away, thus not accomplishing much.

“Dwarf and elf.” Njord’s tone was relaxed, but my friends immediately stopped their fussing and faced the god. “Stay with us,” Njord said. “We should confer.”

Hearthstone looked agreeable enough, but Blitz scowled even deeper.

We settled on the foredeck, which was the only place where we wouldn’t get tripped by the self-rowing oars, bonked by the boom, or strangled by the magical rigging.

Njord sat with his back to the railing, his legs far apart. He wriggled his toes as if to get them a good tan. This didn’t give the rest of us a lot of room to sit, but since Njord was the god and he’d just saved us, I figured he’d earned the privilege of manspreading.

Blitz and Hearth sat side by side across from the god. I squatted against the prow, though I’d never done well sitting backward in a moving vehicle. I hoped I wasn’t going to become the second crewmember to vomit in the god’s presence.

“Well,” Njord said, “this is nice.”

I felt like my head had been run through a Play-Doh press. I’d been drenched in mead and salt water. I’d barely touched my vegetarian-option meal, and my stomach was devouring itself. Drops of blood from my nose splattered in my lap. Otherwise, yeah. It was real nice.

Sometime during our ascent, Jack had returned to pendant form. He hung from my neck chain, buzzing against my sternum as if humming a message: Compliment his feet.

I must have either imagined it or misunderstood him. Maybe Jack meant Compliment his feat.

“Uh, thanks again for the help, Granddad,” I said.

Njord sm

iled. “Just call me Njord. Granddad makes me feel old!”

I figured he’d been alive for two or three thousand years, but I didn’t want to insult him. “Right. Sorry. So, did Frey send you, or did you just happen to be in the neighborhood?”

“Oh, I hear all desperate prayers spoken at sea.”

Njord wriggled his toes. Was it my imagination or was he intentionally showing off his feet? I mean, they were well manicured. No calluses. Not a fleck of dirt or tar. Toenails trimmed, buffed to perfection. Zero toe gunk or weird hobbit foot fur. But still…

“I was happy to assist,” Njord continued. “Aegir and I go back a long way. He and Ran and their daughters represent the raging forces of nature, the sea’s raw power, blah, blah, blah. Whereas I—”

“You’re the god of fishing,” Blitzen said.

Njord frowned. “Other things as well, Mr. Dwarf.”

“Please, call me Blitz,” said Blitz. “Mr. Dwarf was my father.”

Hearthstone grunted impatiently, the way he often does when Blitzen is about to get himself killed by a deity.

Njord is god of many things, he signed. Sailing. Shipbuilding.

“Exactly!” Njord said, apparently having no difficulty with Hearth’s ASL. “Trading, fishing, navigation—any occupation that involves the ocean. Even farming, since the tides and storms affect crop-growing! Aegir is the nasty, brutal side of the ocean. I’m the guy you pray to when you want the sea to work for you!”

“Hmph,” Blitz said.

I didn’t know why he was being antagonistic. Then I remembered that his father, Bilì, had died checking the chains that bound Fenris Wolf on his island. Bilì’s slashed and torn clothing had eventually washed up on the shores of Nidavellir. No safe homeward voyage for him. Why would Blitzen consider the sea anything but cruel?

I wanted to let Blitz know that I understood, that I was sorry, but he kept his gaze firmly on the deck.

“Anyway,” Njord said, “Aegir and his family have been my, ah, competitors for centuries. They try to drown mortals: I try to save them. They destroy ships; I build better ships. We’re not enemies, exactly, but we do keep each other on our toes!”

He emphasized the word toes, stretching out his feet a little more. This was now officially getting weird.

Jack’s voice buzzed in my head more forcefully. Compliment. His. Feet.

“You have beautiful feet, Grand—er, Njord.”

The god beamed. “Oh, these old things? Well, you’re kind. Did you know I once won a beauty contest with my feet? The prize was my wife!”

I glanced at Blitz and Hearth, to see if I was imagining this entire conversation.

Please, Hearth signed with zero enthusiasm. Tell us the story.

“Well, if you insist.” Njord gazed at the stars, perhaps recalling his glory days in the foot-beauty-pageant circuit. “Most of the story isn’t important. The gods killed this giant, Thjassi. His daughter Skadi demanded vengeance. Blood. Killing. Blah, blah, blah. To prevent further war and stop the blood feud, Odin agreed to let Skadi marry a god of her choosing.”

Blitzen scowled. “And she chose…you?”

“No!” Njord clapped his hands in delight. “Oh, it was so funny. You see, Odin only let Skadi choose her husband by looking at the gods’ feet!”

“Why?” I asked. “Why not…noses? Or elbows?”

Njord paused. “I never considered that. Not sure! Anyway, Skadi figured the most handsome husband would have the most handsome feet, right? So, we all stood behind a curtain and she went down the line, looking for Balder, because he was always the one everyone thought was the most handsome.” He rolled his eyes and mouthed, Overrated. “But I had the most beautiful feet of all the gods, as Odin must have known. Skadi picked me! You should’ve seen the look on her face when she pulled back the curtain and saw who she had to marry!”

Blitzen crossed his arms. “So, Odin used you to trick the poor lady. You were a booby prize.”

“Of course not!” Njord looked more startled than angry. “It was a great match!”

“I’m sure it was,” I said, anxious to prevent Blitzen from getting turned into a dinghy or whatever other punishment the ship god could deal out. “You two lived happily ever after?”

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