The Ship of the Dead

Page 25

a tenth of his presence of mind when I had to face Loki.

My conscience answered NO! then broke down in hysterical sobbing.

Thanks to the rain, I finally managed to sleep, but my dreams were not relaxing, nor were they reassuring.

I found myself back on Naglfar, the Ship of the Dead. Masses of draugr swarmed the deck, rags and mildewed armor hanging from their bodies, their spears and swords corroded like burnt matchsticks. The warriors’ spirits fluttered inside their rib cages like blue flames clinging to the last remnants of kindling.

Thousands upon thousands shambled toward the foredeck, where hand-painted banners hung along the rails and waved from the yardarms in the frigid wind: MAKE SOME NOISE!, GO, DRAUGR, GO!, RAGNAROK AND ROLL!, and other slogans so terrible they could only have been written by the dishonored dead.

I did not see Loki. But standing at the helm, on a dais cobbled together from dead men’s nails, was a giant so old I almost thought he might be one of the undead. I’d never seen him before, but I’d heard stories about him: Hrym, the captain of the ship. His very name meant decrepit. His bare arms were painfully emaciated. Wisps of white hair clung to his leathery head like icicles, making me think of pictures I’d seen of prehistoric men found in melting glaciers. Moldy white furs covered his wasted frame.

His pale blue eyes, though, were very much alive. He couldn’t have been as frail as he looked. In one hand, he brandished a battle-ax bigger than I was. In the other hand was a shield made from the sternum of some huge animal, the space between the ribs fitted with sheets of studded iron.

“Soldiers of Helheim!” the giant bellowed. “Behold!”

He gestured across the gray water. At the other end of the bay, the glacial cliffs crumbled more rapidly, ice cracking and sloughing into the sea with a sound like distant artillery.

“The way will soon be clear!” the giant shouted. “Then we sail to battle! Death to the gods!”

The cry went up all around me—hollow, hateful voices of the long dead taking up the chant.

Mercifully, my dream shifted. I stood in a recently plowed wheat field on a warm sunny day. In the distance, wildflowers blanketed rolling hills. Beyond that, milk-white waterfalls tumbled down the sides of picturesque mountains.

Some part of my brain thought: At last, a pleasant dream! I’m in a commercial for organic whole wheat bread!

Then an old man in blue robes hobbled toward me. His clothes were tattered and mud-stained from long travel. His wide-brimmed hat shaded his face, though I could make out his graying beard and secretive smile.

When he reached me, he looked up, revealing one eye that gleamed with malicious humor. The other eye socket was dark and empty.

“I am Bolverk,” he said, though of course I knew it was Odin. Aside from his less-than-creative disguise, once you’ve heard Odin give a keynote address on best berserker practices, you never forget his voice. “I’m here to make you the deal of a lifetime.”

From beneath his cloak, he produced an object the size of a cheese round, covered in cloth. I was afraid it might be one of Odin’s inspirational CD collections. Then he unwrapped it, revealing a circular whetstone of gray quartz. It reminded me of the bashing end of Hrungnir’s maul, only smaller and less maul-worthy.

Odin/Bolverk offered it to me. “Will you pay the price?”

Suddenly Odin was gone. Before me loomed a face so large I couldn’t take it all in: glowing green eyes with vertical slits for pupils, leathery nostrils dripping with mucus. The stench of acid and rotten meat burned my lungs. The creature’s maw opened to reveal rows of jagged triangular teeth ready to shred me—and I sat bolt upright, screaming in my bed of tarps.

Above me, dim gray light filtered through the skylights. The rain had stopped. T.J. sat across from me, munching a bagel, a strange pair of glasses on his face. Each lens had a clear center, bordered by a ring of amber glass, making T.J. look like he’d acquired a second set of irises.

“Finally up!” he noted. “Bad dreams, huh?”

My whole body felt jittery, like coins rattling inside a change-separator machine.

“Wh-what’s going on?” I asked. “What’s with the glasses?”

Alex Fierro appeared in the doorway. “A scream that high could only be Magnus. Ah, good. You’re awake.” She tossed me a brown paper bag that smelled of garlic. “Come on. Time’s wasting.”

She led us to the main room, where her ceramic duality dude still lay in pieces. She circled the table, checking her work and nodding with satisfaction, though I couldn’t see that anything had changed. “Okay! Yep. We’re good.”

I opened the paper bag and frowned. “You left me a garlic bagel?”

“Last awake, last choice,” Alex said.

“My breath is going to be terrible.”

“More terrible,” Alex corrected. “Well, that’s fine. I’m not kissing you. Are you kissing him, T.J.?”

“Wasn’t planning on it.” T.J. popped the last of his bagel in his mouth and grinned.

“I—I didn’t say anything about—” I stammered. “I didn’t mean…” My face felt like it was crawling with fire ants. “Whatever. T.J., why are you wearing those glasses, anyway?”

I’m good at subtly changing the conversation like that when I’m embarrassed. It’s a gift.

T.J. wiggled his new specs. “You helped jog my memory, Magnus, talking about that sniper last night! Then I dreamed about Hrungnir and those weird amber eyes of his, and I saw myself laughing and shooting him dead. Then, when I woke up, I remembered I had these in my haversack. Completely forgot about them!”

It sounded like T.J. had way better dreams than I did, which was no surprise.

“They’re sniper glasses,” he explained. “They’re what we used before scopes were invented. I bought this pair in Valhalla, oh, a hundred years ago, I guess, so I’m pretty sure they’re magic. Can’t wait to try them out!”

I doubted Hrungnir was going to stand still while T.J. sniped at him from a safe distance. I also doubted any of us would be doing much laughing today. But I didn’t want to spoil T.J.’s pre-combat buzz.

I turned to the ceramic warrior. “So, what’s going on with Pottery Barn guy? Why is he still in pieces?”

Alex beamed. “Pottery Barn? Good name! But let’s not assume Pottery Barn’s gender.”

“Uh. Okay.”

“Wish me luck.” She took a deep breath, then traced her fingers across the ceramic warrior’s two faces.

The ceramic pieces clattered and flew together as if they’d been magnetized. Pottery Barn sat up and focused on Alex. The faces were still hardened clay, but the frozen twin sneers suddenly seemed angrier, hungrier. The right side’s eye sockets glowed with golden light.

“Yes!” Alex exhaled with relief. “Okay. Pottery Barn is nonbinary, as I suspected. Preferred pronouns are they and them. And they are ready to fight.”

Pottery Barn jumped off the table. Their limbs grinded and scraped like stones against cement. They stood about eight feet tall, which was plenty scary to me, but I wondered if they stood a chance against whatever clay warrior Hrungnir had created.

Pottery Barn must have sensed my doubt. They turned their faces toward me and raised their right fist—a heavy clay vase glazed bloodred.

“Stop!” Alex ordered. “He’s not the enemy!”

Pottery Barn turned to Alex as if asking You sure about that?

“Maybe they don’t like garlic,” Alex speculated. “Magnus, finish that bagel quickly and let’s get on the road. We can’t keep our enemies waiting!”

AS WE WALKED through the early-morning streets of York, I ate my garlic bagel and told my friends about my dreams. Our new buddy Pottery Barn clanked along beside us, drawing disapproving looks from the sleepy locals, like Bah, tourists.

At least my story kept T.J.’s attention, so he didn’t pester too many Yorkshire folk with thank-yous and handshakes.

“Hmm,” he said. “I wish I knew why we needed the whe

tstone. I think maybe Odin discussed the Bolverk incident in one of his books—The Aesir Path to Winning? Or was it The Art of the Steal? I can’t remember the details. A big beast with green eyes, you say?”

“And lots of teeth.” I tried to shake off the memory. “Maybe Odin killed the beast to get the stone? Or maybe he hit the beast in the face with the stone, and that’s how he got the mead?”

T.J. frowned. He’d propped his new glasses on the rim of his cap. “Neither sounds right. I don’t remember any monster. I’m pretty sure Odin stole the mead from giants.”

I recalled my earlier dream of about Fjalar and Gjalar’s chain-saw massacre. “But didn’t dwarves kill Kvasir? How did giants get the mead?”

T.J. shrugged. “All the old stories are basically about one group murdering another group to steal their stuff. That’s probably how.”

This made me proud to be a Viking. “Okay, but we don’t have much time to figure it out. Those glaciers I saw are melting fast. Midsummer is in, like, twelve days now, but I think Loki’s ship will be able to sail long before that.”

“Guys,” Alex said. “How about this? First, we beat the giant, then we talk about our next impossible task?”

That sounded sensible, though I suspected Alex just wanted me to shut up so I wouldn’t breathe more garlic in her direction.

“Anyone know where we’re going?” I asked. “What’s a Konungsgurtha?”

“It means king’s court,” T.J. said.

“Was that in your travel book?”

“No.” T.J. laughed. “Old Norse 101. Didn’t you take that class yet?”

“I had a scheduling conflict,” I muttered.

“Well, this is England. There’s got to be a king with a court around here somewhere.”

Alex stopped at the next crossroads. She pointed to one of the signs. “What about King’s Square? Will that do?”

Pottery Barn seemed to think so. They turned their double faces in that direction and strode off. We followed, since it would’ve been irresponsible to let an eight-foot-tall pile of ceramics walk through town unaccompanied.

We found the place. Hooray.

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