“Ahh.” Hrungnir’s death gasp sounded almost smug.
“Hey, guys?” Jack’s weak voice called from over at the pharmacy. “Don’t pierce his heart, okay? Stone giants’ hearts explode.”
Alex’s eyes widened. “Hit the deck!”
Shards of Hrungnir sprayed the square, breaking windows, destroying signs, and peppering brick walls.
My ears rang. The air smelled of flint sparks. Where the giant Hrungnir had lain, nothing remained but a smoking line of gravel.
I seemed unhurt. Alex looked okay. But T.J. knelt, groaning, with his hand cupped over his bleeding forehead.
“Let me see!” I rushed to his side, but the damage wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. A piece of shrapnel had embedded itself above his right eye—a triangular gray splinter like a flint exclamation point.
“Get it out!” he yelled.
I tried, but as soon as I pulled, T.J. howled in pain. I frowned. That made no medical sense. The shard couldn’t be that deep. There wasn’t even that much blood.
“Guys?” Alex said. “We have visitors.”
The locals were finally starting to come outside to check on the commotion, probably because Hrungnir’s exploding heart had shattered every window on the block.
“Can you walk?” I asked T.J.
“Yeah. Yeah, I think so.”
“Then let’s get you back to the ship. We’ll heal you there.”
I helped him to his feet, then went to retrieve Jack, who was still moaning about being covered in mud. I put him back into runestone form, which did not help my level of exhaustion. Alex knelt next to the remnants of Pottery Barn. She picked up their detached head, cradling it like an abandoned infant.
Then the three of us staggered back through York to find the Big Banana. I just hoped the water horses hadn’t sunk it along with our friends.
THE SHIP was still intact. Halfborn, Mallory, and Samirah looked like they’d paid a heavy price to keep it that way.
Halfborn’s left arm was in a sling. Mallory’s wild red hair had been shorn off at chin-level. Sam stood at the rail dripping wet, wringing out her magic hijab.
“Water horses?” I asked.
Halfborn shrugged. “Nothing we couldn’t handle. Half a dozen attacks since yesterday afternoon. About what I figured.”
“One pulled me into the river by my hair,” Mallory complained.
Halfborn grinned. “I think I gave you a pretty good haircut, considering I only had my battle-ax to work with. Let me tell you, Magnus, with the blade so close to her neck, I was tempted—”
“Shut up, oaf,” Mallory growled.
“Exactly my point,” said Halfborn. “But Samirah, now—you should’ve seen her. She was impressive.”
“It was nothing,” Sam muttered.
Mallory snorted. “Nothing? You got dragged under the river and came up riding a water horse. You mastered that beast. I’ve never heard of anyone who could do that.”
Samirah winced slightly. She gave her hijab another twist, as if she wanted to squeeze out the last drops of the experience. “Valkyries get on well with horses. That’s probably all it was.”
“Hmm.” Halfborn pointed at me. “What about you all? You’re alive, I see.”
We told him the story of our night in the pottery studio and our morning destroying King’s Square.
Mallory frowned at Alex, who was still covered in clay. “That would explain Fierro’s new coat of paint.”
“And the rock in T.J.’s head.” Halfborn leaned closer to inspect the shrapnel. T.J.’s forehead had stopped bleeding. The swelling was down. But for reasons unknown, the sliver of flint still refused to come out. Whenever I tried to pull it, T.J. yelped in pain. Fixed above his eyebrow, the little shard gave him a look of permanent surprise.
“Does it hurt?” Halfborn asked.
“Not anymore,” T.J. said sheepishly. “Not unless you try to remove it.”
“Hold on, then.” With his good hand, Halfborn rummaged through his belt pouch. He pulled out a box of matches, fumbled one free, then struck it against T.J.’s flint. The match burst into flames immediately.
“Hey!” T.J. complained.
“You have a new superpower, my friend!” Halfborn grinned. “That could be useful!”
“Right, enough of that,” Mallory said. “Glad you all survived, but did you get information from the giant?”
“Yeah,” Alex said, cradling the head of Pottery Barn. “Kvasir’s Mead is in Norway. Some place called Fläm.”
The lit match slipped from Halfborn’s fingers and landed on the deck.
T.J. stomped out the flame. “You all right, big guy? You look like you’ve seen a draugr.”
An earthquake seemed to be happening under Halfborn’s whiskers. “Jorvik was bad enough,” he said. “Now Fläm? What are the odds?”
“You know the place,” I guessed.
“I’m going below,” he muttered.
“Want me to heal that arm first?”
He shook his head miserably, as if he was quite used to living with pain. Then he made his way down the ladder.
T.J. turned to Mallory. “What was that about?”
“Don’t look at me,” she snapped. “I’m not his keeper.”
But there was a twinge of concern in her voice.
“Let’s get under way,” Samirah suggested. “I don’t want to be on this river any longer than we have to.”
On that, we all agreed. York was pretty. It had good fish and chips and at least one decent pottery studio, but I was ready to get out of there.
Alex and T.J. went below to change clothes and rest up from their morning of combat. That left Mallory, Sam, and me to man the ship. It took us the rest of the day to navigate our way down the River Ouse and back out to sea, but the voyage was mercifully uneventful. No water horses stampeded us. No giants challenged us to combat or bingo. The worst thing we encountered was a low bridge, forcing us to fold down the mainmast, which may or may not have collapsed on top of me.
At sunset, as we left the coast of England behind, Sam did her ritual washing. She prayed facing southwest, then sat down next to me with a satisfied sigh and unwrapped a package of dates.
/> She passed me one, then took a bite of hers. She closed her eyes as she chewed, her face transformed by pure bliss like the fruit was a religious experience. Which I guess it was.
“Every sunset,” she said, “the taste of that date is like experiencing the joy of food for the first time. The flavor just explodes in your mouth.”
I chewed my date. It was okay. It did not explode or fill me with bliss. Then again, I hadn’t worked for it by fasting all day.
“Why dates?” I asked. “Why not, like, Twizzlers?”
“Just tradition.” She took another bite and made a contented mmm. “The Prophet Muhammad always broke fast by eating a few dates.”
“But you can have other stuff afterward, right?”
“Oh, yes,” she said gravely. “I intend to eat all the food. I understand Alex brought back some cherry soda? I want to try that as well.”
I shuddered. I could escape giants, countries, and even whole worlds, but it seemed I was never going to get away from Tizer. I had nightmares about all my friends grinning at me with red lips and cherry-tinted teeth.
While Sam went below to eat all the food, Mallory lounged at the rudder, keeping an eye on the horizon, though the ship seemed to know where we were going. From time to time, she touched her shoulders where her hair used to fall, then sighed unhappily.
I sympathized. Not long ago, Blitz had hacked off my hair to make magic embroidering thread for a bowling bag. I still had traumatic flashbacks.
“Sailing to Norway will take us a few days,” Mallory said. “The North Sea can get pretty rough. Unless anybody has a friendly sea god they can call on.”
I focused on my date. I wasn’t about to call for Njord’s help again. I’d seen enough of my granddad’s beautiful feet for one eternal lifetime. But I remembered what he had told me: After Jorvik, we were on our own. No divine protection. If Aegir or Ran or their daughters found us…
“Maybe we’ll get lucky,” I said weakly.
Mallory snorted. “Yep. That happens a lot. Even if we get to Fläm safely, what’s this business about the mead having unbeatable guardians?”
I wished I knew. Guardians of the Mead sounded like another book I never wanted to read.
I recalled my dream of Odin offering me the whetstone, then his face morphing into something else: a leathery visage with green eyes and rows of teeth. I’d never faced a creature like that in real life, but the cold rage in its gaze had seemed uncomfortably, terrifyingly familiar. I thought about Hearthstone and Blitzen, and where Njord might have sent them to search for a rare stone. An idea began to coalesce, swirling into symmetry like a lump of clay on Alex’s wheel, but I didn’t like the shape it was taking on.
“We’ll need the whetstone to defeat the guardians,” I said. “I have no idea why. We just have to trust—”
Mallory laughed. “Trust? Right. I’ve got as much of that as I have luck.”
She drew one of her knives. Casually, holding the blade by the tip, she threw the knife at my feet. It impaled the yellow planking and quivered there like a Geiger-counter needle.
“Take a look,” she offered. “See why I don’t trust ‘secret weapons.’”
I pulled the knife from the deck. I’d never held one of Mallory’s weapons before. The blade was surprisingly light—so light it might get you into trouble. If you handled it like a standard dagger, wielding it with more force than necessary, this was the kind of knife that could leap out of your hand and cut your own face off.
The blade was a long, dark isosceles triangle etched with runes and Celtic knot designs, the handle wrapped in soft worn leather.
I wasn’t sure what Mallory wanted me to notice about it, so I just said the obvious: “Nice blade.”