The Ship of the Dead

Page 37

railing, I lost the ability to breathe.

On either side of the ship, so close I could almost touch them, sheer cliffs rose out of the water—thousand-foot-high walls of rock marbled with waterfalls. White rivulets of snowmelt coursed down the ridges, bursting into mist that fractured the sunlight into rainbows. The sky had been reduced to a jagged ravine of deep blue directly above. Around the hull, the water was so green it might have been algae puree.

In the shadow of those cliffs, I felt so small I could only think of one place we might be. “Jotunheim?”

T.J. laughed. “No, it’s just Norway. Pretty, huh?”

Pretty didn’t do it justice. I felt like we’d sailed into a world meant for much larger beings, a place where gods and monsters roamed freely. Of course, I knew gods and monsters roamed freely all over Midgard. Heimdall was fond of a certain bagel place near Fenway. Giants often strolled through the marshes in Longview. But Norway seemed like a proper stomping ground for them.

I got a little ache in my heart, thinking how much my mom would’ve loved this place. I wished I could share it with her. I could picture her hiking along those cliff-tops, relishing the sun and the crisp, clean air.

At the prow stood Alex and Mallory, both silent in amazement. Hearth and Blitz must have still been asleep below. Halfborn sat at the rudder, a sour look on his face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked him.

The berserker eyed the cliffs as if they might collapse on us if he made a bad comment. “Nah. It’s beautiful. Hasn’t really changed since I was a boy.”

“Fläm was your hometown?” I guessed.

He let out a bitter laugh. “Well, wasn’t much of a town. And it wasn’t called Fläm back then. Just a nameless fishing village at the end of the fjord. You’ll see the spot in a minute.”

His knuckles whitened on the rudder. “As a boy, I couldn’t get out of here fast enough. Joined Ivar the Boneless when I was twelve and went a-Viking. I told my mom…” He grew silent. “I told her I wouldn’t come back until the skalds were singing about my heroic deeds. I never saw her again.”

The boat glided onward, the soft applause of the waterfalls echoing through the fjord. I remembered what Halfborn had told me about not liking to go backward, not revisiting his past. I wondered if he felt guilty about leaving his mom, or disappointed that the skalds hadn’t made him a great hero. Or maybe they had sung about his deeds. From what I’d seen, fame rarely lasted longer than a few years, much less centuries. Some einherjar in Valhalla got bitter when they realized nobody born after the Middle Ages had a clue as to who they were.

“You’re famous to us,” I offered.

Halfborn grunted.

“I could ask Jack to write a song about you.”

“Gods forbid!” His brow remained furrowed, but his mustache quirked like he was trying not to smile. “Enough of that. We’ll be docking soon. Keen, Fierro, stop gawking at the scenery and help! Trim the sail! Ready the mooring lines!”

“We’re not your pirate wenches, Gunderson,” Mallory grumbled, but she and Alex did as he asked.

We rounded a curve, and again I caught my breath. At the end of the fjord, a narrow valley split the mountains—layer upon layer of green hills and forests zigzagging into the distance like an infinite reflection. At the rocky shore, shadowed by cliffs, a few dozen red, ochre, and blue houses clustered together as if for protection. Parked at the dock was a giant white cruise ship bigger than the entire town—a twenty-story floating hotel.

“Well, that wasn’t here before,” Halfborn grumbled.

“Tourists,” Mallory said. “What do you think, T.J.? Are they exciting enough for you to fight?”

T.J. tilted his head as if considering the idea.

I decided it might be a good time to refocus the conversation.

“So, back in York,” I said, “Hrungnir told us to take the train in Fläm, then we’d find what we were looking for. Anybody see a train?”

T.J. frowned. “How could anybody lay tracks across terrain like that?”

It did seem improbable. Then I glanced off our port side. A car zipped along the base of a cliff. It made a hairpin turn and disappeared into a tunnel, straight through the side of the mountain. If Norwegians were crazy enough to build and drive on highways like that, maybe they were crazy enough to lay train tracks the same way.

“Let’s go ashore and find out,” Alex suggested. “I recommend we dock as far as possible from that cruise ship.”

“You don’t like tourists?” Sam asked.

“That’s not it,” said Alex. “I’m afraid they’ll notice this bright yellow Viking boat and think we’re a local attraction. You want to give rides around the fjord all day?”

Sam shuddered. “Good point.”

We slipped into the dock farthest from the cruise ship. Our only neighbors were a couple of fishing boats and a Jet Ski with the dubious name Odin II painted on the side. I considered one Odin quite enough. I wasn’t anxious for a sequel.

As Mallory and Alex tied the mooring lines, I scanned the town of Fläm. It was small, yes, but more convoluted than it had appeared from a distance. Streets wound up and down hills, through pockets of houses and shops, stretching out about half a mile along the shore of the fjord. I would have thought a train station would be easy to spot, but I didn’t see one from the dock.

“We could split up,” Mallory suggested. “Cover more ground that way.”

I frowned. “That never works in horror movies.”

“Then you come with me, Magnus,” Mallory said. “I’ll keep you safe.” She frowned at Halfborn Gunderson. “But I refuse to be stuck with this lout again. Samirah, you’re useful in a pinch. How about it?”

The invitation seemed to surprise Sam, although Mallory had been treating her with a lot more deference since the incident with the water horses. “Uh, sure.”

Halfborn scowled. “Fine by me! I’ll take Alex and T.J.”

Mallory arched her eyebrows. “You’re going ashore? I thought you wouldn’t set foot—”

“Well, you thought wrong!” He blinked twice, as if he’d surprised himself. “This isn’t my home anymore, just a random tourist stop! What does it matter?”

He sounded less than certain. I wondered if it would be helpful to offer to switch up the teams. Mallory had a gift for distracting Halfborn. I would’ve been willing to trade her for…I don’t know, Alex, maybe. But I didn’t think the offer would be appreciated by anybody else.

“What about Hearthstone and Blitz?” I said. “Shouldn’t I wake them up?”

“Good luck with that,” Alex said. “They are out.”

“Could you fold up the ship with them inside?” T.J. asked.

“Doesn’t sound safe,” I said. “They could wake up and find themselves stuck in a handkerchief.”

“Ah, leave ’em here,” Halfborn said. “They’ll be fine. This place was never dangerous, unless it bored you to death.”

“I’ll leave them a note,” Sam volunteered. “How about we scout around for half an hour? We’ll meet back here. Then, assuming somebody’s found the train, we can all go there together.”

We agreed that plan had a low possibility of violent death. A few minutes later, Halfborn, T.J., and Alex headed off in one direction, while Mallory, Sam, and I headed the other way—wandering the streets of Fläm to find a train and some interesting enemies to kill.

AN OLD LADY was not what I had in mind.

We walked about three blocks through crowds of tourists, past shops selling chocolate and moose sausage and little wooden troll souvenirs. (You would think anybody descended from Vikings would know better than to create more trolls.) As we passed a small grocery store, Mallory grabbed my arm with enough force to leave a bruise.

“It’s her.” She spat the word like a mouthful of poison.

“Who?” Sam asked. “Where?”

Mallory pointed to a store called Knit Pickers, where tourists were oohing and aahing over a sidewalk

display of locally produced wool yarn. (Norway offered something for everyone.)

“The lady in white,” Mallory said.

I spotted the one she meant. In the midst of the crowd stood an old woman with rounded shoulders and a hunched back. Her head craned forward like it was trying to get away from her body. Her white knit sweater was so fuzzy it might have been cotton candy, and cocked on her head was a matching floppy hat that made it hard to see her face. Dangling from one arm was a bag stuffed with yarn and knitting needles.

I didn’t understand what had attracted Mallory’s attention. I could easily have picked out ten other folks from the cruise ship who looked stranger. Then the old lady glanced in our direction. Her cloudy white eyes seemed to pierce right through me as if she’d ninja-chucked her knitting needles into my chest.

The crowd of tourists shifted, engulfing her, and the feeling passed.

I gulped. “Who was—?”

“Come on!” Mallory said. “We can’t lose her!”

She dashed toward the knitting store. Samirah and I exchanged a worried look, then followed.

A senior citizen dressed in cotton candy shouldn’t have been able to hobble very fast, but the lady was already two blocks away when we got to Knit Pickers. We ran after her, dodging tour groups, bicyclists, and guys carrying kayaks. Mallory didn’t wait for us. By the time Sam and I caught up, she was clinging to a chain-link fence outside a small train depot, cursing as she scanned for her lost prey.

“You found the train,” I noted.

Parked at the platform were half a dozen brightly painted old-fashioned railcars. Tourists were piling on board. The tracks wound away from the station and up the hills into the ravine beyond.

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