“What’s Mallory’s history with Loki?” I asked. “She seems…”
I wasn’t sure which word to use: Worried? Resentful? Homicidal?
Halfborn knotted his shoulders, making the serpent tattoos undulate across his back. He glanced at the top of the mast, as if considering more curse words at Mallory’s expense. “Not my place to say. But being baited into doing something you later regret…Mallory knows about that. It’s how she died.”
I thought back to my first days in Valhalla, when Halfborn had teased Mallory for trying to disarm a car bomb with her face. Her death must have had more to it. She’d been brave enough to attract the attention of a Valkyrie.
“Magnus, you’ve got to understand,” Halfborn said, “we’re both heading toward the places where we died. It may be different for you. You died in Boston, stayed in Boston. You haven’t been dead long enough to see the world change around you. But for us? Mallory’s got no wish to see Ireland again, even if we just sail past its shores. And me…I never wanted to return to Jorvik.”
I felt a pang of guilt. “Man, I’m sorry. Is that where you died?”
“Eh. Not the exact spot, but close. I helped conquer the city with Ivar the Boneless. It served as our base camp. Not much of a town, back in the day. I just hope they don’t still have vatnavaettir in the river.” He shuddered. “Bad.”
I had no idea what vatnavaettir were, but if Halfborn Gunderson considered them bad, I did not want to meet them.
Later that evening I checked in on T.J., who was standing at the prow, staring over the waves, drinking coffee, and nibbling a piece of hardtack. Why he liked hardtack, I couldn’t tell you. It was like a big saltine cracker made with cement instead of flour, and no salt.
“Hey,” I said.
He had trouble focusing on me. “Oh, hey, Magnus.” He offered me a cement cracker. “Want one?”
“I’m good, thanks. I might need my teeth later on.”
He nodded as if he hadn’t gotten the joke.
Ever since I’d told the crew about my conversation with Njord, T.J. had been quiet and withdrawn, about as close as he ever got to brooding.
He dipped his hardtack in the coffee. “I’ve always wanted to go to England. I just never thought it would be after I was dead, on a quest, on a bright yellow warship.”
“That’s where we’re heading. Didn’t you know?”
When I thought about England, which wasn’t very often, I thought of the Beatles, Mary Poppins, and guys wearing bowler hats, carrying umbrellas, and saying pip, pip cheerio. I didn’t think about hordes of Vikings or places called Jorvik. Then I remembered that when I first met Halfborn Gunderson, he’d told me he died invading East Anglia. That had been a kingdom in England, like, twelve hundred years ago. Those Vikings really got around.
T.J. leaned on the rail. In the moonlight, a thin streak of amber glowed across his neck—the path of a minié ball that had grazed him during his first battle as a Union Army soldier. It seemed strange to me that you could die, reach Valhalla, get resurrected daily for a hundred and fifty years, and still carry a tiny scar you got in your mortal life.
“Back in the war,” he said, “we all worried that Great Britain would declare for the Rebels. The British had abolished slavery way before we did—the Union, I mean—but they needed Southern cotton for their textile mills. The fact that the UK stayed neutral and didn’t side with the South—that was a huge factor in the North winning the war. It always gave me a warm feeling toward the Brits. I dreamed about going there someday and saying thank you in person.”
I tried to detect sarcasm or irony in his tone. T.J. was the son of a freed slave. He’d fought and died for a country that kept his family in chains for generations. He even carried the name of a famous slaveholder. But T.J. said we when he talked about the Union. He wore his uniform proudly after more than a century. He dreamed about crossing the ocean to thank the British just because they’d done him the favor of staying neutral.
“How do you always find the bright side?” I marveled. “You’re so…positive.”
T.J. laughed, nearly choking on his hardtack. “Magnus, buddy, if you’d seen me right after I got to Valhalla? Nah. Those first few years were rough. Union soldiers weren’t the only ones who made it to Valhalla. Plenty of Rebels died with swords in their hands. Valkyries don’t care which side of the war you fight on, or how just your cause is. They look for personal bravery and honor.” There. Just a hint of disapproval in his voice. “First couple of years I was an einherji, I saw some familiar faces come through the feast hall—”
“How did you die?” I asked. “The real story.”
He traced the rim of his cup. “Told you. Charging the battlements at Fort Wagner, South Carolina.”
“There’s more to it. A few days ago, you warned me about accepting challenges. You talked like you had personal experience.”
I studied the line of T.J.’s jaw, the tension bottled up there. Maybe that was why he liked hardtack. It gave him something difficult to grind his teeth against.
“A Confederate lieutenant singled me out,” he said at last. “I have no idea why. Our regiment was hunkered down, waiting for the order to charge the battlements. The enemy fire was withering. None of us could move.”
He glanced over. “And then this Reb officer stood up on the enemy lines. He pointed across no-man’s-land with his sword, right at me, like somehow he knew me. He shouted, ‘You, n—’ Well, you can guess what he called me. ‘Come out and fight me man-to-man!’”
“Which would have been suicide.”
“I prefer to think of it as a hopeless display of bravery.”
“You mean you did it?”
His coffee cup trembled between his hands. The piece of hardtack in it started to dissolve, expanding like a sponge, brown liquid soaking into the white starch.
“When you’re a child of Tyr,” he said, “you can’t turn down a personal duel. Somebody says fight me, and you do it. Every muscle in my body responded to that challenge. Believe me, I didn’t want to go one-on-one with that…guy.”
He’d obviously been thinking of a word other than guy. “But I couldn’t refuse. I went over the top, charged the Reb fortifications all by myself. I heard later, after I was dead, that my action triggered the offensive that led to the fall of Fort Wagner. The rest of the fellows followed my example. Guess they figured I was so crazy, they’d better back me up. Me, I just wanted to kill that lieutenant. I did, too. Jeffrey Toussaint. Shot him once in the chest, then got close enough to jab my bayonet right into his gut. Of course, by then the Rebs had shot me about thirty times. I fell in their ranks and died smiling up at a bunch of angry Confederate faces. Next thing I knew, I was in Valhalla.”
“Odin’s undies,” I muttered, which was a curse I saved for special occasions. “Wait…the lieutenant you killed. How did you learn his name?”
T.J. gave me a rueful smile.
Finally, I understood. “He ended up in Valhalla, too.”
T.J. nodded. “Floor seventy-six. Me and old Jeffrey…we spent about fifty years killing each other over and over again, every day. I was so filled with hate. That man was everything I despised and vice versa. I was afraid we’d end up like Hunding and Helgi—immortal enemies, still sniping at each other thousands of years later.”
“But you didn’t?”
“Funny thing. Eventually…I just got tired of it. I stopped looking for Jeffrey Toussaint on the battlefield. I figured something out. You can’t hold on to hate forever. It won’t do a thing to the person you hate, but it’ll poison you, sure enough.”
He traced the minié ball scar with his finger. “As for Jeffrey, he stopped showing up in the feast hall. Never saw him again. That happened to a lot of the Confederate einherjar. They didn’t last. They locked themselves in their rooms, never came out. They faded away.”
T.J. shrugged and continued. “I guess it was harder for them to adjust. You think the world is
one way, then you find out it’s much bigger and stranger than you ever imagined. If you can’t expand your thinking, you’re not going to do well in the afterlife.”
I recalled standing with Amir Fadlan on the rooftop of the Citgo building, cradling his head and willing his mortal mind not to fracture under the weight of seeing the Bifrost Bridge and the Nine Worlds.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Expanding your brain hurts.”
T.J. smiled, but I no longer thought of it as an easy smile. It was hard-won, as courageous as a solitary soldier charging enemy lines. “You’ve accepted your own personal challenge now, Magnus. You’re going to have to face Loki one-on-one. There’s no going back. But if it helps, you won’t be charging those fortifications by yourself. We’ll be right there with you.”
He patted my shoulder. “Now, if you’ll excuse me…” He handed me his coffee-and-hardtack soup like this was a fantastic gift. “I’m off to get some shut-eye!”
Most of the crew slept belowdecks. The Big Banana, we had discovered, would unfold as many rooms as we needed to be comfortable, regardless of the exterior size of the hull. I wasn’t sure how that worked. Even though I was a Doctor Who fan, I didn’t feel like testing the limits of our bright yellow TARDIS. I preferred sleeping on the deck, under the stars, which is where I was on our third morning at sea, when Alex shook me awake.
“Let’s go, Chase,” she announced. “We’re running Samirah through her paces. I’m going to teach her how to defy Loki even if it kills us. And by us, I mean you.”
I SAW my problem immediately.
I should never have introduced Alex to Percy Jackson. She had learned way too much from his relentless training methods. Maybe Alex couldn’t summon sea animals, but she could turn into them. That was just as bad.
We started with Samirah and Alex fighting each other—on the deck, in the water, in the air. My job was to call out random animals from a stack of flash cards Alex had made. I’d shout, “MONKEY!” and Sam was supposed to turn into a monkey mid-combat, while Alex shape-shifted continually from human to animal to human, doing her best to beat up Sam.
Whenever Alex was in human form, she tossed out taunts like “Come on, al-Abbas! You call that a cotton-topped tamarin? Do better!”
After an hour of combat charades, Samirah’s face gleamed with sweat. She’d taken off her hijab and tied back her long brown hair so she could fight better. (She considered us all family, so she had no problem going hijab-less when required.) She leaned against the rail, taking a breather. I almost offered her some water, then I remembered she was fasting.