He made a stick figure man standing in his palm: ground; then two fists, one tapping the top of the other: work.
Lay the groundwork. At least, I thought that’s what he meant. Either that or: You farm the fields. Since Njord was a god of crops, I couldn’t be sure.
Hearthstone touched his scarf. He signed, reluctantly, The stone?
Njord nodded. You know where you must look for it.
Blitzen broke into the conversation, signing so fast his words got a little muddled. Leave my elf alone! We can’t do that again! Too dangerous!
Or he could have meant, Leave my elf in the bathroom! We can’t do that wristwatch! Too much garbage!
“What are you guys talking about?” I asked.
My spoken words sounded jarring and unwelcome in the silent dialogue.
Blitzen brushed his chain mail vest. “Our long-range reconnaissance work, kid. Mimir told us to look for the Mead of Kvasir. Then we heard rumors about a certain item we’d need—”
“Bolverk’s whetstone,” I guessed.
He nodded unhappily. “It’s the only way to defeat”—he spread his hands—“whatever’s guarding the mead. We’re not clear on the who, how, or why.”
Those all seemed like pretty important points to me.
“The thing is,” Blitz continued, “if this stone is where we think it is…”
It’s all right, Hearthstone signed. We must. So we will.
“Buddy, no,” Blitz said. “You can’t—”
“The elf is right,” Njord said. “You two must find the stone while Magnus and the rest of the crew sail on to discover the location of the mead. Are you ready?”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said. “You’re sending them away right now? They just got here!”
“Grandson, you have very little time before Loki’s ship is ready to sail. Only by dividing can you conquer.”
I was pretty sure the old divide and conquer saying meant that the divided army got conquered, but Njord didn’t sound like he was in the mood for a debate.
“Let me go instead.” I staggered to my feet. I’d just had the longest day in the history of days. I was ready to fall over. But there was no way I was going to stand by while my two oldest friends got sent into mortal danger. “Or at least let me go with them.”
“Kid,” Blitz said, his voice cracking. “It’s okay.”
My burden, Hearth signed, both hands pushing down on one of his shoulders.
Njord gave me another calm smile. I was about ready to punch in my grandfather’s perfect teeth.
“The crew of this ship will need you with them, Magnus,” he said. “But I promise you this: once Hearthstone and Blitzen have found the location of the whetstone, once they have laid the groundwork for the assault, I will send them back to get you. Then the three of you can face the true danger together. If you fail, you’ll die as a team. How is that?”
That didn’t make me yell hooray, but I figured it was the best offer I was going to get.
“All right.” I helped Blitz to his feet and gave him a hug. He smelled like toasted kelp and Dwarf Noir eau de toilette. “Don’t you dare die without me.”
“Do my best, kid.”
I faced Hearthstone. I put my hand gently on his chest, an elfish gesture of deep affection. You, I signed. Safe. Or me. Angry.
The corners of his mouth pulled upward, though he still looked distracted and worried. His heartbeat fluttered under my fingertips like a scared dove.
You, too, he signed.
Njord snapped his fingers, and my friends broke into sea spray, like waves crashing against the bow.
I swallowed down my anger.
I told myself Njord had only sent Hearth and Blitz away. He hadn’t actually vaporized them. He’d promised I would see them again. I had to believe that.
“Now what?” I asked him. “What do I do while they’re gone?”
“Ah.” Njord crossed his legs in lotus position, probably just to show off the soles of his wave-sculpted feet. “Your task is equally difficult, Magnus. You must discover the location of Kvasir’s Mead. This is a closely guarded secret, known only to a few giants. But there is one who might be convinced to tell you: Hrungnir, who prowls the human land of Jorvik.”
The ship hit a swell, jarring my stomach loose from its undercarriage. “I’ve had some bad encounters with giants.”
“Haven’t we all?” Njord said. “Once you reach Jorvik, you must find Hrungnir and challenge him. If you beat him, demand that he give you the information you need.”
I shuddered, thinking about the last time I was in Jotunheim. “Please tell me this challenge won’t be a bowling tournament.”
“Oh, no, rest easy!” Njord said. “It will most likely be personal combat to the death. You should bring a couple of friends along. I would recommend the attractive one, Alex Fierro.”
d if Alex would be flattered by that or grossed out, or if she’d just laugh. I wondered if Alex’s feet were as well-groomed as Njord’s. What a stupid thing to wonder about.
“Okay,” I said. “Jorvik. Wherever that is.”
“Your ship knows the way,” Njord promised. “I can grant you safe passage that far, but if you survive and sail onward, your ship will once again be vulnerable to attack by Aegir, Ran, their daughters, or…worse things.”
“I will try to contain my happiness.”
“That’s wise,” Njord said. “Your elf and dwarf will find the whetstone you require. You will discover the secret location of the mead. Then you will retrieve the Mead of Kvasir, defeat Loki, and return him to his chains!”
“I appreciate the vote of confidence.”
“Well, it’s more that if you don’t, Loki will flyte you into a pathetic, powerless shadow of yourself. Then you will have to watch all your friends die, one by one, until you alone are left to suffer in Helheim for eternity while the Nine Worlds burn. That is Loki’s plan.”
“Anyway!” Njord said brightly. “Good luck!”
My grandfather exploded in a fine sea mist, splattering my face with salt.
I never appreciated that term until I’d actually had some. The next two days were shockingly, perversely uneventful. The sky remained cloudless, the winds gentle and cool. The sea stretched in all directions like green silk, reminding me of pictures my mom used to show me from her favorite artist team, this couple Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who worked outside and wrapped entire forests, buildings, and islands in shimmering cloth. It looked like they had turned the North Atlantic into one huge art installation.
The Big Banana sailed merrily onward. Our yellow oars churned by themselves. The sail tacked and jibed as needed.
When I told the crew we were going to Jorvik, Halfborn grunted unhappily, but whatever he knew about the place, he wouldn’t share. At least the ship seemed to understand where we were heading.
The second afternoon, I found myself standing amidships with Mallory Keen, who’d been acting even more disgruntled than usual.
“I still don’t understand why Blitz and Hearth had to leave,” she grumbled.
I had a sneaking suspicion Miss Keen had a crush on Blitzen, but I was not brave enough to ask. Every time Blitz visited Valhalla, I would catch Mallory checking out his immaculate beard and perfect outfit, then glancing at Halfborn Gunderson as if wondering why her boyfriend/ex-boyfriend/re-boyfriend/ex-boyfriend couldn’t dress so nattily.
“Njord swore it was necessary,” I said, though I’d been doing little else but worrying about Blitz and Hearth. “Something about maximizing our time.”
“Hmph.” Mallory waved at the horizon. “Yet here we are, sailing and sailing. Your grandpa couldn’t have just zapped us to Jorvik? That would’ve been more useful.”
Halfborn Gunderson walked by with a mop and bucket. “Useful,” he muttered. “Unlike some people.”
“Shut up and swab!” Mallory snapped. “As for you, Magnus, I warned you about taking Loki’s bait. And what did you do? Stepped up and volunteered for a flyting. You’re as stupid as this berserker!”
With that, she climbed to the top of the mast, the most solitary place on the ship, and proceeded to glare daggers at the ocean.
Halfborn mumbled as he swabbed the deck, “Redheaded Irish vixen. Pay her no mind, Magnus.”
I wished we didn’t have to make our voyage while the two of them were feuding. Or while Sam was fasting for Ramadan. Or while Alex was trying to teach Sam how to foil Loki’s control. Come to think of it, I wished we didn’t have to make this voyage at all.