Next to him, Gjalar waved enthusiastically. “Well met! We’ve heard wonderful things about you!”
Kvasir, being the wisest being ever created, should have known enough to say Sorry, I gave at the office and keep walking.
Unfortunately, Kvasir was also kind. He raised his hand in greeting. “Hello, good dwarves! I am indeed Kvasir. How may I help you?”
Fjalar and Gjalar exchanged glances, like they couldn’t believe their good luck. “Uh, well, you can be our guest for dinner!” Gjalar gestured to a nearby hillside, where the entrance to a cave was covered with curtains of ragged leather.
“We are not interested in murdering you,” Fjalar promised. “Or stealing your stuff. Or draining your blood, which probably has incredible magical properties. We simply want to show you our hospitality!”
“Much appreciated,” Kvasir said. “But I am expected in Midgard tonight. Many humans need my help.”
“Oh, I see,” Fjalar said. “You like…helping people.” He said it the way one might say You like raw beef. “Well, as it happens, we’re having a terrible time with our, uh, quarterly estimated taxes.”
Kvasir frowned in sympathy. “I see. Those can be difficult to calculate.”
“Yes!” Gjalar clasped his hands. “Could you help us, O Wise One?”
This was like the part in every horror movie when the audience yells DON’T DO IT! But Kvasir’s compassion overcame his wisdom.
“Very well,” he said. “Show me your paperwork!”
He followed the dwarves into their cave.
I wanted to run after him, to warn him what was going to happen, but my feet remained rooted to the ground. Inside the cave, Kvasir began to scream. A few moments later, I heard a sound like a chain saw, then liquid gurgling into a large cauldron. If I’d been able to throw up in my sleep, I would have.
The scene shifted one last time.
I found myself in the front yard of a three-story mansion, one in a line of Colonials facing a public green. It might have been Salem or Lexington—one of those sleepy pre-Revolutionary towns outside Boston. White-painted columns flanked the house’s entrance. Honeysuckle bushes filled the air with sugary perfume. An American flag fluttered on the porch. The scene was so bucolic it could have been Alfheim if the sunlight had been a little harsher.
The front door swung open, and a skinny figure tumbled down the brick steps as if she’d been thrown.
Alex Fierro looked about fourteen, maybe two or three years younger than when I’d met her. A trickle of blood ran from her left temple. She crawled down the front walk on her hands and knees, her palms shredded from breaking her fall and leaving dabs of blood across the cement like a sponge painting.
She didn’t look scared so much as bitter and angry, with tears of frustration in her eyes.
In the doorway of the house, a middle-aged man appeared—short dark hair streaked with gray, pressed black slacks, shiny black shoes, a white dress shirt so crisp and bright it hurt my eyes. I could imagine Blitzen saying You really need a splash of color, sir!
The man had Alex’s petite build. His face was handsome in the same harsh angular way—like a diamond you could admire but not touch without getting cut.
He shouldn’t have been scary. He wasn’t big or strong or tough-looking. He dressed like a banker. But there was something terrifying about the set of his jaw, the intensity of his stare, the way his lips twitched and tightened across his teeth as if he hadn’t quite mastered human expressions. I wanted to put myself between him and Alex, but I couldn’t move.
In one hand, the man hefted a ceramic object the size of a football—a brown-and-white ovoid. I saw that it was a bust with two different faces side by side.
“NORMAL!” The man threw the ceramic sculpture at Alex. It shattered on the walkway. “That’s all I want from you! To be a normal kid! Is that so damn hard?”
Alex struggled to her feet. She turned to face her father. A mauve skirt hung to her knees over black leggings. Her green sleeveless top had given her arms no protection from the pavement. Her elbows looked like they’d been struck by a meat tenderizer. Her hair was longer than I’d ever seen it, a green ponytail sprouting from her black roots like a flame from Aegir’s hearth fire.
“I am normal, Father.” She hissed the word as if it was the most twisted insult she could think of.
“No more help.” His tone was hard and cold. “No more money.”
“I don’t want your money.”
“Well, that’s good! Because it’s going to my real children.” He spat on the steps. “You had so much potential. You understood the craft almost as well as your grandfather. And look at you.”
“The art,” Alex corrected.
“It’s art. Not craft.”
Her father waved in disgust at the broken ceramic pieces. “That is not art. It’s trash.”
The sentiment was clear, even if he didn’t say it: You have chosen to be trash, too.
Alex glared at her father. The air between them turned dry and bitter. Both seemed to be waiting for the other to make a definitive gesture—to apologize and give in, or to cut the thread between them forever.
Alex got no such resolution.
Her father shook his head in dismay, as if he couldn’t believe his life had come to this. Then he turned and went inside, slamming the door behind him.
I woke with a start. “WHAT?”
“Relax, Sleepy.” Alex Fierro stood over me—today’s Alex, wearing a raincoat of such bright yellow I wondered if our ship had begun to assimilate her. The banging sound I’d heard in my dream had been her dropping a full canteen next to my head. She lobbed an apple at my chest.
“Breakfast,” she said. “And also lunch.”
I rubbed my eyes. I could still hear the voice of her father and smell the honeysuckle in their front yard. “How long was I out?”
“About sixteen hours,” she said. “You didn’t miss much, so we let you sleep. But now it’s time.”
I sat up in my sleeping bag. My friends moved around the deck, tying off lines and securing the oars. Cold drizzle hung in the air. Our longship was moored at a stone embankment, on a river lined with brick town houses not too different than those back home in Boston.
“Welcome to Jorvik.” Halfborn glowered. “Or as you modern folk call it, York, England.”
IN CASE you’re wondering, Old York looks absolutely nothing like New York.
It looks older.
Magnus Chase, master of description. You’re welcome.
Halfborn wasn’t thrilled to be back at his old base camp. “No self-respecting Viking city should be so far from the sea,” he grumbled. “I don’t know why Ivar the Boneless even bothered with this place. We wasted all morning sailing here—about twenty-five miles up the River Ouse!”
“The River Ooze?” I asked.
“Ouse,” T.J. corrected, breaking into a grin. “It rhymes with moose. I read about it in a travel guide!”
I shuddered. Nothing good rhymes with moose. Excuse. Noose. Caboose. I also found it disturbing that T.J. had done so much research on England. Then again, a hundred and fifty years is a long time to hang around Valhalla, and the hotel library is impressive.
I glanced over the port side. Murky green water curled and swelled around our hull, the rain stippling the surface of the river with overlapping bull’s eyes. The current seemed too alive, too awake. No matter how much Percy Jackson had trained me, I did not want to fall in there.
“You sense them, don’t you?” Halfborn gripped his ax as if ready to cut loose on the Ouse. “The vatnavaettir.”
Halfborn said the word as if he found it truly awful—like cowardice or beard trimmer. “What are they?” I asked.
“And do they have a more pronounceable name?” Alex added.
“They’re nature spirits,” Mallory said. “We have similar legends in Ireland. We call them each-uisce—water horses.”
; Halfborn snorted. “You Irish have similar legends because you got them from the Norse.”
“Lies,” Mallory growled. “The Celts were in Ireland long before you louts invaded.”
“Louts? The Viking kingdom of Dublin was the only power worth mentioning on your miserable island!”
“Anyway…” Samirah stepped between the two lovebirds. “Why are these water horses dangerous?”
Halfborn frowned. “Well, they can form a herd and, if they get riled up, stampede and destroy our ship. I imagine they’ve only held off this long because they’re not sure what to make of us being bright yellow. Also, if anyone is foolish enough to touch them—”
“They’ll adhere to your skin,” Mallory said, “drag you under, and drown you.”
Her words made my stomach clench. I’d once gotten myself adhered to a magical eagle that proceeded to take me on a demolition-derby tour over the rooftops of Boston. The idea of being dragged into the Ouse sounded even less fun.