“Maybe we should take a break until tonight,” I suggested. “After dark, you can eat and drink. This must be killing you.”
“I’m fine.” Sam wasn’t a very good liar, but she forced a smile. “Thanks, though.”
Alex paced the deck, consulting her clipboard. A clipboard, y’all, like she was gunning to be assistant manager at the Hotel Valhalla. She wore green skinny jeans with a pink tank top, the front stitched with an inappropriate hand gesture in glittery sequins. Her hair had started to grow out, the black roots making her look even more imposing, like a lion with a healthy mane.
“Okay, Magnus, your turn,” she told me. “Get Jack and prepare to fight.”
Jack was pleased to help. “Combat time? Cool!” He floated in a circle around me. “Who are we fighting?”
“Sam,” I said.
Jack froze. “But I like Sam.”
“We’re just practicing,” I said. “Try to kill her without really killing her.”
“Oh, phew! Okay. I can do that.”
Alex had a clicker. Her cruelty knew no bounds. Jack and I double-teamed Sam—Jack attacking with his blade, obviously; me with a mop handle, which I doubt struck terror into Sam’s heart. She dodged and weaved and tried to land hits on us with her ax, the blade wrapped in sail canvas. Sam was supposed to shape-shift whenever Alex clicked her clicker, which she did at random intervals with no regard for Sam’s situation.
The idea, I guessed, was to condition Samirah to change shape whenever, wherever she had to without second-guessing herself.
Jack held back, I could tell. He only whacked Sam a couple of times. Me, I was less than successful with my mop. Combat maneuvering on the deck of a Viking ship turned out to be one of the many important skills I did not have. I tripped over the oars. I got snagged in the rigging. Twice, I bonked my head on the mast and fell into the ocean. About average for me, in other words.
Sam had no such trouble. She left me bruised and battered. The only time I landed a hit was when Alex clicked at a particularly bad time. Mid-lunge, Sam turned into a parrot and flew beak-first into my mop handle. She squawked, turned back into a human, and sat down hard on the deck, a cloud of blue and red feathers fluttering around her.
“Sorry, Sam.” I felt mortified. “I’ve never hit a parrot before.”
Despite her bloody nose, she laughed. “It’s fine. Let’s try that again.”
We fought until we were both spent. Alex called our practice done, and the three of us slumped against the rail shields.
“Whew!” Jack propped himself next to me. “I’m exhausted!”
Since all the energy he expended would come out of me as soon as I took hold of him, I decided to let Jack stay in blade form a while longer. I wasn’t ready to go comatose until after I had lunch.
But at least I could have lunch.
I glanced at Samirah. “This Ramadan thing. I seriously don’t know how you do it.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You mean why I do it?”
“That, too. You really have to endure the fast for a whole month?”
“Yes, Magnus,” she said. “It may surprise you to learn that the month of Ramadan lasts one month.”
“Glad you haven’t completely lost your snark.”
She dabbed her face with a towel, which was apparently not forbidden. “I’m more than halfway through the month. It’s not so bad.” She frowned. “Of course, if we all die before the end of Ramadan, that would be irritating.”
“Yeah,” Alex agreed. “Loki burns down the Nine Worlds while you’re fasting, and you can’t even have a drink of water? Ouch.”
Sam swatted her arm. “You have to admit, Fierro, I was more focused today. Ramadan helps.”
“Eh, maybe,” Alex said. “I still think you’re crazy to fast, but I’m not as worried as I was.”
“I feel clearer,” Sam said. “Emptier, in a good way. I’m not freezing up as much. I’ll be ready when I face Loki, inshallah.”
Sam didn’t use that term much, but I knew it meant God willing. Though it obviously helped her, it never inspired much confidence in me. I’m going to do great, inshallah was sort of like saying I’m going to do great, assuming I don’t get run over by a truck first.
“Well,” Alex said, “we won’t know what’ll happen until you’re facing dear old Mom-slash-Dad. But I’m cautiously optimistic. And you didn’t kill Magnus, which I suppose is good.”
“Thanks,” I muttered.
Even that little bit of consideration from Alex—the idea that my death might be slightly disagreeable to her—gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling. Yeesh. I was pathetic.
The rest of the afternoon, I helped out around the Big Banana. Despite the automatic sailing, there was still plenty to do: swabbing decks, untangling lines, preventing Mallory and Halfborn from killing each other. The chores kept me from thinking too much about my impending confrontation with Loki, or what Blitz and Hearth might be up to. They’d already been gone three days, and we now had just under two weeks until Midsummer, maybe even less time until the ice melted enough to let Loki’s ship sail. How long could it take Blitz and Hearth to find a rock?
Naturally, the idea of searching for a whetstone brought back bad memories of my last quest with Blitz and Hearth, when we’d been trying to find the Skofnung Stone. I told myself there was no connection. This time there would be no brutal Alfheim sunlight, no evil violin-playing nøk
ks, no scowling, sadistic elf father.
Soon, Hearth and Blitz would come back and report on a completely different set of dangerous obstacles for us to overcome! Every time a wave broke over the bow, I watched the sea spray, hoping it would solidify into my friends. But they did not reappear.
A couple of times during the afternoon, small sea serpents swam by—like, twenty-footers. They eyed the ship but didn’t attack. I guessed they either didn’t like banana-flavored prey or were scared off by Jack’s singing.
Jack followed me around the deck, alternating between Abba hits (Vikings are huge Abba fans) and telling me stories about the old days when he and Frey would roam the Nine Worlds, spreading sunshine and happiness and occasionally killing people.
As the day wore on, this became a personal test of endurance: Did I want to return Jack to runestone form and pass out from the toll of our combined exertions, or did I want to listen to him sing some more?
Finally, around sunset, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I stumbled aft to where I’d set up my sleeping bag. I lay down, enjoying the sound of Samirah doing her evening prayer on the foredeck, the singsong poetry soft and relaxing.
It seemed strange, the Muslim Maghrib prayer aboard a Viking ship full of atheists and pagans. Then again, Samirah’s ancestors had been dealing with Vikings since the Middle Ages. I doubted this was the first time prayers to Allah had been said aboard a longship. The world, the worlds, were a lot more interesting because of constant intermixing.
I returned Jack to runestone form and barely had time to reattach him to my neck chain before I passed out.
In my dreams, I got to witness a murder.
I STOOD with four gods at the crest of a hill, next to the ruins of a thatched hut.
Odin leaned on a thick oaken staff, chain mail glinting under his blue travel cloak. A spear was strapped across his back. A sword hung at his side. His one good eye gleamed under the shade of his blue wide-brimmed hat. With his grizzled beard, eye patch, and assorted weapons, he looked like a guy who couldn’t decide whether to go to a Halloween party as a wizard or a pirate.
Next to him stood Heimdall, the guardian of the Bifrost Bridge. Smartphones must not have been invented yet, because he wasn’t doing his usual thing of taking pictures every five seconds. He was dressed in armor of thick white wool, with two swords sheathed in an X across his back. Gjallar, the Horn of Doomsday, dangled from his belt, which didn’t strike me as very safe. Anybody could’ve run up behind him, blown that horn, and started Ragnarok as a practical joke.
The third god, my father, Frey, knelt next to the ashes of a campfire. He wore faded jeans and a flannel shirt, though I didn’t see how those clothes could have been invented yet. Maybe Frey was a medieval beta-tester for REI. His blond hair swept across his shoulders. His bristly beard glowed in the sunlight. If there had been any justice in the world, the thunder god Thor would’ve looked like this—blond and handsome and regal, not like a muscle-bound redheaded fart machine.
The fourth god I had never met, but I recognized him from Njord’s holographic show-and-tell: Kvasir, the living peace treaty between the Aesir and Vanir. He was a handsome guy considering that he originated as a cup of divine spit. His dark curly hair and beard rippled in the breeze. Homespun robes enfolded him, giving him that Jedi-master vibe. He knelt next to my father, his fingers hovering over the charred remnants of the campfire.
Odin leaned toward him. “What do you think, Kvasir?”
That question alone told me how much the gods respected Kvasir. Normally Odin did not ask for the opinions of others. He simply gave answers, usually in the form of riddles or PowerPoint presentations.
Kvasir touched the ashes. “This is Loki’s fire, all right. He was here recently. He is still close by.”
Heimdall scanned the horizon. “I don’t see him anywhere in a five-hundred-mile radius, unless…No, that’s an Irishman with a nice haircut.”
“We must catch Loki,” Odin grumbled. “That flyting was the last straw. He must be imprisoned and punished!”
“A net,” Kvasir announced.
Frey scowled. “What do you mean?”
“See? Loki was burning the evidence.” Kvasir traced a barely discernible pattern of crossed lines in the ashes. “He was trying to anticipate our moves, considering all the ways we might capture him. He wove a net, then quickly burned it.”
Kvasir rose. “Gentlemen, Loki has disguised himself as a fish. We need a net!”
The others looked amazed, like Holmes, how did you do that?
I waited for Kvasir to cry, The game’s afoot! Instead he shouted “To the nearest river!” and strode off, the other gods hurrying after him.
My dream changed. I saw flashes of Kvasir’s life as he traveled the Nine Worlds, advising the locals on everything from farming to childbirth to tax deductions. All mortal beings loved him. In every town, castle, and village, he was greeted like a hero.
Then one day, after filling out some particularly difficult tax forms for a family of giants, he was on the road to Midgard when he was stopped by a pair of dwarves—stunted, warty, hairy little guys with malicious smiles.
Unfortunately, I recognized them—the brothers Fjalar and Gjalar. They’d once sold me a one-way boat ride. According to Blitzen, they were also notorious thieves and murderers.
“Hello!” Fjalar called to Kvasir from the top of a boulder. “You must be the famous Kvasir!”