The Ship of the Dead

Page 17

Njord shifted his back against the rail. “Well, no. We separated shortly thereafter. She wanted to live in the mountains. I liked the beach. Then Skadi had an affair with Odin. Then we got a divorce. But that’s not the point! My feet on the day of the contest—they were amazing. They won the hand of Skadi, the beautiful ice giantess!”

I was tempted to ask if he only won her hand or the rest of her, too, but I decided against it.

Blitzen stared at me. He twitched his hands like he wanted to sign something ugly about Njord but then remembered that Njord could read ASL. He sighed and stared at his lap.

Njord frowned. “What’s wrong, Mr. Dwarf? You don’t look impressed!”

“Oh, he is,” I promised. “Just speechless. We can all tell that…uh, your feet are very important to you.”

What is your beauty secret? Hearthstone asked politely.

“Several centuries of standing in the surf,” Njord confided. “It smoothed my feet into the perfectly sculpted masterpieces you see today. That, and regular pedicures with a paraffin-wax treatment.” He wiggled his shiny toenails. “I was debating about buffing or no buffing, but I think the buffing really makes those piggies shine.”

I nodded and agreed that he had very shiny piggies. I also wished I didn’t have such an odd family.

“In fact, Magnus,” said Njord, “that is one of the reasons I wanted to meet you.”

“To show me your feet?”

He laughed. “No, silly.” By which, I was pretty sure, he meant yes. “To give you some advice.”

“On how to buff his toenails?” Blitz asked.

“No!” Njord hesitated. “Although I could do that. I have two important bits of wisdom that may help you on your quest to stop Loki.”

We enjoy bits of wisdom, Hearth signed.

“The first is this,” Njord said. “To reach the Ship of the Dead, you must pass through the borderlands between Niflheim and Jotunheim. This is harsh territory. Mortals can perish from the cold in seconds. If that does not kill you, the giants and draugrs will.”

Blitz grumbled, “I’m not enjoying this particular bit of wisdom.”

“Ah, but there is one safe harbor,” Njord said. “Or at least one potentially safe harbor. Or at least one harbor where you might not be instantly killed. You should seek out Thunder Home, the fortress of my beloved Skadi. Tell her I sent you.”

“Your beloved?” I asked. “Aren’t you divorced?”


“But you’re still friends.”

“I haven’t seen her in centuries.” Njord got a distant look in his eyes. “And we didn’t exactly part on good terms. But I have to believe she still holds some affection for me. Seek her out. If she grants you safe harbor for my sake, that will tell me she’s forgiven me.”

And if she doesn’t welcome us? Hearth asked.

“That would be disappointing.”

I took this to mean: You will all end up in Skadi’s meat locker.

I didn’t like the idea of being my grandfather’s test balloon for a reconciliation with his ex-wife. Then again, a potentially safe harbor sounded better than freezing to death in twenty seconds.

Unfortunately, I got the feeling we hadn’t heard Njord’s worst “helpful” advice yet. I waited for the other shoe to drop, even though Njord did not appear to own any shoes.

“What’s the second bit of wisdom?” I asked.

“Hmm?” Njord’s focus snapped back to me. “Oh, yes. The point of my story about my beautiful feet.”

“There was a point?” Blitz sounded genuinely surprised.

“Of course!” Njord said. “The most unexpected thing can be the key to victory. Balder was the most handsome of the gods, but because of my feet, I won the girl.”

“Whom you later separated from and divorced,” Blitz said.

“Would you stop dwelling on that?” Njord rolled his eyes at me like Dwarves these days. “My point, dear grandson, is that you will need to use unexpected means to defeat Loki. You began to realize that in Aegir’s hall, didn’t you?”

I didn’t remember biting off any clumps of sea giantess hair, but a ball of the stuff seemed to be forming in my throat.

“A flyting,” I said. “I’ll have to beat Loki in a contest…of insults?”

New gray whiskers spread like frost through Njord’s beard. “A flyting is much more than a series of simple put-downs,” he warned. “It’s a duel of prestige, power, confidence. I was present at Aegir’s hall when Loki flyted with the gods. He shamed us so badly….” Njord seemed to deflate, as if just thinking about it made him older and weaker. “Words can be more lethal than blades, Magnus. And Loki is a master of words. To beat him, you must find your inner poet. Only one thing can give you a chance to beat Loki at his own game.”

“Mead,” I guessed. “Kvasir’s Mead.”

The answer didn’t sit right with me. I’d been on the streets long enough to see how well “mead” improved people’s skills. Pick your poison: beer, wine, vodka, whiskey. Folks claimed they needed it to get through the day. They called it liquid courage. It made them funnier, smarter, more creative. Except it didn’t. It just made them less able to tell how unfunny and stupid they were acting.

“It’s not merely mead,” my grandfather said, reading my expression. “Kvasir’s Mead is the most valuable elixir ever created. Finding it will not be easy.” He turned to Hearthstone and Blitzen. “You know this, don’t you? You know that the quest may claim both your lives.”

“YOU SHOULD have led with that,” I said, my pulse jackhammering in my neck. “Hearth and Blitz do not die. That’s a deal-breaker.”

Njord’s toothy smile was as white as Scandinavian snow. I wished I knew his secret for staying so calm. Zen meditation? Fishing? Hotel Valhalla yoga classes?

“Ah, Magnus, you are so much like your father.”

I blinked. “We’re both blond and like the outdoors?”

“You both have kind hearts,” said Njord. “Frey would do anything for a friend. He always loved easily and deeply, sometimes unwisely. You have the proof of that around your neck.”

I curled my fingers around Jack’s runestone. I knew the story: Frey had given up the Sword of Summer so he could win the love of a beautiful giantess. Because he had forsaken his weapon, he would be slain at Ragnarok. The moral of the story, as Jack liked to put it: Blades before babes.

The thing was, pretty much everybody would be slain at Ragnarok anyway. I didn’t blame my dad for his choices. If he didn’t fall in love easily, I would never have been born.

“Fine, I’m like my dad,” I said. “I still choose my friends over a cup of mead. I don’t care if it’s pumpkin spice or peach lambic.”

“It’s blood, actually,” Njord said. “And god spit.”

I started to feel seasick, and I didn’t think it was because of the direction I was facing. “Come again?”

Njord opened his hand. Above his palm floated the miniature glowing figure of a bearded man in woolen robes. His face was open and cheerful, his expression caught in mid-laugh. Seeing him, it was hard not to lean forward, smile, and want to hear what he was laughing about.

“This was Kvasir.” Njord’s tone took on an edge of sadness. “The most perfect being ever created. Millennia ago, when the Vanir and Aesir gods ended their war, all of us spit into a golden cup. From that mixture sprang Kvasir, our living peace treaty!”

Suddenly I didn’t want to lean so close to the little glowing man. “The dude was made of spit.”

“Makes sense,” Blitzen grunted. “God saliva is an excellent crafting ingredient.”

Hearthstone tilted his head. He seemed fascinated by the holographic figure. He signed, Why would anyone murder him?

“Murder?” I asked.

Njord nodded, lightning flickering in his eyes. For the first time, I got the impression that my grandfather wasn’t just some laid-back guy with nice feet. He was a powerful deity who could probably crumple our warship with a s

ingle thought. “Kvasir wandered the Nine Worlds, bringing wisdom, advice, and justice wherever he went. Everyone loved him. And then he was slaughtered. Horrible. Inexcusable.”

“Loki?” I guessed, because that seemed like the logical next word in that list.

Njord barked a short, sour laugh. “Not this time, no. It was dwarves.” He glanced at Blitzen. “No offense.”

Blitzen shrugged. “Dwarves aren’t all the same. Like gods.”

If Njord sensed an insult, he didn’t let on. He closed his hand and the tiny spit man disappeared. “The details of the murder aren’t important. Afterward, Kvasir’s blood was drained and mixed with honey to create a magical mead. It became the most prized, most coveted drink in the Nine Worlds.”

“Ugh.” I put my hand to my mouth. My idea of which details should be left out of a story was very different from Njord’s. “You want me to drink mead that is made from blood that is made from god spit.”

Njord stroked his beard. “When you put it that way, it sounds bad. But yes, Magnus. Whoever drinks Kvasir’s Mead finds their inner poet. The perfect words come to you. The poetry flows. The oration dazzles. The stories enthrall all who listen. With such power, you could stand toe-to-toe, insult-to-insult in a flyting with Loki.”

My mind pitched and swayed along with my stomach. Why did I have to be the one to challenge Loki?

My inner voice responded, or maybe it was Jack: Because you volunteered at the feast, dummy. Everybody heard you.

I rubbed my temples, wondering if it was possible for a brain to literally explode from too much information. That’s one death I’d never experienced in Valhalla.

Hearthstone stared at me with concern. You want a rune? he signed. Or some aspirin?

I shook my head.

So Uncle Randolph’s notebook hadn’t been a trick. He’d left an actual, viable plan for me to follow. In the end, despite all he’d done, it seemed like the old fool had experienced some remorse. He had tried to help me. I wasn’t sure if that made me feel better or worse.

“What about the name Bolverk?” I asked. “Who is that?”

Njord smiled. “That was Odin’s alias. For a long time, the giants possessed all of Kvasir’s Mead. Odin went in disguise to steal some back for the gods. He succeeded. He even scattered drops of mead around Midgard to inspire mortal bards. But the gods’ supply of the elixir was exhausted centuries ago. The only mead that remains is a tiny portion, jealously guarded by the giants. To get it, you will have to follow in Bolverk’s footsteps and steal what only Odin was ever able to steal.”

“Perfect,” Blitz muttered. “So how do we do that?”

“More important,” I said, “why is it so dangerous for Hearth and Blitz? And how can we make it not be?”

I had an overwhelming desire to write a letter for Hearth and Blitz: Dear Cosmic Forces, Please excuse my friends from their deadly fate. They are not feeling well today. At the very least, I wanted to outfit them with safety helmets, life jackets, and reflective decals before sending them off.

Njord faced Hearthstone and Blitzen. He signed, You already know your task.

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