Alex threw her arms around Mallory and Halfborn. “Well, then. It sounds like you two are the water-horse experts. You should stay on board and defend the Big Banana while the rest of us go giant hunting!”
“Uh,” I said. “I can just turn the ship into a handkerchief—”
“Oh, no!” Halfborn said. “I have no desire to set foot in Jorvik again. I wouldn’t be of any use to you, anyway. Place has changed a bit in twelve hundred years. I’ll stay on the ship, but I don’t need Mallory’s help defending it.”
“You think not?” Mallory glared up at him, her hands on the hilts of her knives. “Do you know any Gaelic songs for calming water horses? I’m not leaving this ship in your care.”
“Well, I’m not leaving it in your care!”
“Guys!” Samirah raised her hands like a boxing referee. She’d never been much of a curser, but I got the sense she was struggling with the Ramadan no cursing rule again. Funny how that works: as soon as you’re told you can’t do something, you have the overwhelming desire to do it.
“If you both insist on staying aboard,” she said, “I’ll stay, too. I’m good with horses. I can fly if I get in trouble. And in a pinch”—she flicked her wrist, telescoping her spear of light into existence—“I can blast anything that attacks us. Or I can blast the two of you, if you don’t behave.”
Halfborn and Mallory looked equally unhappy about that arrangement, which meant it was a good compromise.
“You heard the lady,” Alex said. “The landing party will consist of me, T.J., and Blond Guy.”
“Excellent!” T.J. rubbed his hands. “I can’t wait to thank the British!”
T.J. wasn’t kidding.
As we walked the narrow streets of York in a cold gray drizzle, he greeted everyone he saw and tried to shake hands.
“Hello!” he said. “I’m from Boston. Thank you for not supporting the Confederacy!”
The reactions of the locals ranged from “Eh?” to “Leave off!” to some phrases so colorful I wondered if the speakers had descended from Halfborn Gunderson.
T.J. wasn’t deterred. He strolled along, waving and pointing. “Anything you guys need!” he offered. “I owe you.” He grinned at me. “I love this place. The people are so friendly.”
“Uh-huh.” I scanned the low rooftops, figuring that if there was a giant in this city, I should be able to spot him. “So, if you were a jotun in York, where would you be hiding?”
Alex stopped in front of a collection of street signs. With her green hair sticking out of the hood of her yellow raincoat, she looked like a punk spokesperson for frozen fish sticks. “Maybe we could start there.” She pointed at the top sign. “The Jorvik Viking Centre.”
It sounded like as good a plan as any, especially since we had no other plans.
We followed the signs, winding our way through narrow crooked streets lined with brick town houses, pubs, and storefronts. It could have been the North End of Boston, except York was even more of a historical patchwork. Victorian brick butted up against medieval stone, which butted up against black-and-white Elizabethan magpie, which butted up against a tanning salon offering twenty minutes for five pounds.
We passed only a few people. Traffic was light. I wondered if it was a holiday, or if the locals had heard about the bright yellow Viking ship invading the Ouse and had run for the hills.
I decided it was just as well. If there’d been more English folk to meet and greet, T.J. would have really slowed us down.
We made our way down a street called the Shambles, which struck me as an honest description but poor branding. The road itself was just wide enough for a bicycle, assuming the rider was skinny. The houses overhung the sidewalk at fun-house-mirror angles, each story a little wider than the one below it, giving the impression that the entire neighborhood would collapse in on itself if we took one wrong step. I barely breathed until we emerged onto a wider avenue.
Finally, the signs led us to a pedestrian shopping area, where a squat brick building was festooned with green banners: VIKINGS! LIVING HISTORY! THRILLS! FULL INTERACTIVE EXPERIENCE!
All of which sounded pretty good, except for the sign across the front entrance: CLOSED.
“Huh.” T.J. rattled the door handle. “Should we break in?”
I didn’t see what good that would do. The place was obviously a museum for tourists. No matter how good this interactive experience was, it would be a letdown after actually living in Valhalla. I didn’t need any Viking paraphernalia from the gift shop, either. My runestone pendant/talking sword was as much as I could handle.
“Guys,” Alex said, her voice tight. “Did that wall just move?”
I followed her gaze. Across the pedestrian plaza, jutting from the side of a Tesco Express grocery store, was a crumbling section of rough-hewn limestone blocks that might have been part of a castle or the old city walls.
At least that’s what I thought, until the pile of limestone shifted.
A few times, I had watched Samirah emerge from beneath her camouflage hijab—it would look like she had stepped out of a tree trunk or a plain white wall or the display case at a Dunkin’ Donuts. This sight gave me a similar kind of vertigo.
My mind had to reprocess what I was looking at: not a section of ruined wall, but a giant, twenty feet tall, whose appearance perfectly mimicked limestone. His rough brown-and-beige skin was beaded like a Gila monster’s. A flocking of rubble crusted his long shaggy hair and beard. He wore a tunic and leggings of quilted heavy canvas, giving him that fortress-wall look. Why he’d been leaning against the grocery store, I had no idea. Dozing? Panhandling? Did giants panhandle?
He fixed us with his amber eyes—the only part of him that seemed truly alive.
“Well, well,” rumbled the giant. “I’ve been waiting ages for Vikings to appear at the Viking Centre. Can’t wait to kill you!”
“Good idea, Alex,” I squeaked. “Let’s follow the signs to the Viking Centre. Yay.”
For once, she had no scathing comeback. She stared at the giant, her mouth hanging open, her raincoat hood slipping back from her head.
T.J.’s rifle quivered in his hands like a dowsing rod.
I didn’t feel much braver. Sure, I’d seen taller giants. I’d seen eagle giants, fire giants, drunk giants, and giants in gaudy bowling shirts. But I’d never had a stone giant appear right in front of me and cheerfully offer to kill me.
Standing upright, his shoulders were level with the two-story rooftops around us. The few pedestrians on the streets simply walked around him as if he were an inconvenient construction project.
He grabbed the nearest telephone pole and yanked it out of the ground along with a large circular chunk of pavement. Only when he rested the pole across his shoulder did I realize it was his weapon—a maul with a head the size of a hot tub.
“Vikings used to be more social,” he rumbled. “I thought surely they’d come to their community center for trials by combat. Or at least for bingo! But you’re the first ones I’ve seen in…” He
tilted his shaggy head, a gesture that looked like an avalanche of sheepdogs. “How long was I sitting there? I must have dozed off! Ah, well. Tell me your names, warriors. I would like to know who I am killing.”
At that point, I would have screamed I claim guest rights! But, sadly, we were not inside the giant’s home. I doubted guest rights would apply on a public street in a human city.
“Are you the giant Hrungnir?” I asked, hoping I sounded more confident than panic-stricken. “I’m Magnus Chase. This is Thomas Jefferson Jr. and Alex Fierro. We’re here to bargain with you!”
The shaggy stone colossus looked from side to side. “Of course I am Hrungnir! Do you see any other giants around? I’m afraid killing you is nonnegotiable, little einherji, but we can haggle about the details, if you like.”
I gulped. “How did you know we’re einherjar?”
Hrungnir grinned, his teeth like the crenellations of a castle turret. “You smell like einherjar! Now, come. What were you hoping to bargain for—a quick death? A death by squeezing? Perhaps a lovely death by stomping followed by being scraped off the bottom of my shoe!”
I glanced at T.J., who shook his head vigorously like Not the shoe!
Alex still hadn’t moved. I only knew she was still alive because she blinked the rain out of her eyes.
“O Large and Beige Hrungnir,” I said, “we seek the location of Kvasir’s Mead!”
Hrungnir scowled, his rocky eyebrows furrowing, his brick-like lips forming a segmental arch. “Well, well. Playing Odin’s thievery game, are you? The old Bolverk trick?”
Hrungnir chuckled. “I could give you that information. I was with Baugi and Suttung when they sequestered the mead in its new hiding place.”
“Right.” I silently added Baugi and Suttung to my mental list of Things I Am Clueless About. “That’s what we have come to bargain for. The location of the mead!”
I realized I had already said that. “What is your price, O Beige One?”
Hrungnir stroked his beard, causing rubble and dust to sift down the front of his tunic. “For me to consider such a trade, your deaths would have to be very entertaining.” He studied T.J., then me. His eyes came to rest on Alex Fierro. “Ah. This one smells of clay! You have the necessary skills, do you not?”
I glanced at Alex. “Necessary skills?”
“Eep,” Alex said.
“Excellent!” Hrungnir boomed. “It’s been centuries since the stone giants found a worthy opponent for a traditional two-on-two duel! A fight to the death! Shall we say tomorrow at dawn?”
“Whoa,” I said. “Couldn’t we do a healing contest?”
“Or bingo,” T.J. offered. “Bingo is good.”
“No!” Hrungnir cried. “My very name means brawler, little einherji. You won’t cheat me out of a good fight! We will follow the ancient rules of combat. Me versus…Hmm.”
I didn’t want to volunteer, but I’d seen Jack take down bigger giants than this guy before. I raised my hand. “Very well, I—”
“No, you’re too scrawny.” Hrungnir pointed to T.J. “I challenge him!”
“I ACCEPT!” T.J. yelled.
Then he blinked, as if thinking Thanks a lot, Dad.
“Good, good,” the giant said. “And my second will fight your second, who will be made by her!”
Alex staggered back as if she’d been pushed. “I—I can’t. I’ve never—”
“Or I can just kill all three of you now,” Hrungnir said. “Then you’ll have no chance of finding Kvasir’s Mead.”
My mouth felt as dusty as the giant’s beard. “Alex, what’s he talking about? What are you supposed to make?”
By the trapped look in her eyes, I could tell she understood Hrungnir’s demand. I’d only seen her this panicked once before—on her first day in Valhalla, when she thought she might be stuck in one gender for the rest of eternity.
“I—” She licked her lips. “All right. I’ll do it.”
“That’s the spirit!” Hrungnir said. “As for the little blond guy here, I guess he can be your water boy or something. Well, I’m off to make my second. You should do the same. I will meet you tomorrow, at dawn, at Konungsgurtha!”