“Bragi,” I said. “Is he braggy?”
Mallory signed, Don’t ruin things, idiot. “Magnus is only kidding. Of course he knows that brag literally means to recite poetry. Which is why Bragi is a lovely name. Bragging is a fantastic skill.”
I blinked. “Right, I knew that. So anyway, Miss Gunlod, you said something about prying the seam?”
“Yes, I think it might be possible,” she said. “With two blades, you might be able to wedge the doors apart just enough for me to get a glimpse of your faces, have a breath of fresh air, maybe see sunlight again. That would be quite enough for me. Do you still have sunlight?”
“For now, yeah,” I said, “though Ragnarok may be coming up soon. We’re hoping to use the mead to stop it.”
“I see,” Gunlod said. “I think my son Bragi would approve of that.”
“Then if we manage to pry the doors apart,” I said, “do you think you could pass us the mead through the opening?”
“Hmm, yes. I have an old garden hose here. I could siphon the mead from the vat, as long as you have a container to put it in.”
I wasn’t sure why Gunlod would have an old garden hose lying around in her cave. Maybe she grew mushrooms in there, or maybe the hose was to activate her Slip ’N Slide.
Sam pulled a canteen from her belt. Of course the fasting girl was the only one who had remembered to bring water. “I’ve got a container, Gunlod.”
“Wonderful!” Gunlod said. “Now you’ll need two blades—thin and very strong. Otherwise they’ll break.”
“Don’t look at me!” Jack said. “I’m one thick blade, and I’m too young to break!”
Mallory sighed. She unsheathed her knives. “Miss Gunlod, it so happens I have two thin, supposedly unbreakable daggers. You might want to step back from the doors now.” Mallory jammed the points of her weapons into the seam. They were just narrow enough to wedge inside, almost up to the hilts. Then Mallory pushed the grips away from each other, prying the doors apart.
With a vast creaking sound, the doors parted, forming a V-shaped crack no more than an inch wide where the knives crossed. Mallory’s arms trembled. She must have been using all her einherji strength to keep the seam open. Beads of perspiration dotted her forehead.
“Hurry,” she grunted.
On the other side of the doors, Gunlod’s face appeared—pale but beautiful icy blue eyes framed by wisps of golden hair. She inhaled deeply. “Oh, fresh air! And sunlight! Thank you so much.”
“No problem,” I said. “So, about that old hose…”
“Yes! I’ve got it ready.” Through the crack, she fed the end of an old black rubber hose. Sam fit it into the mouth of her canteen, and liquid began gurgling into the metal container. After so many challenges trying to win the Mead of Kvasir, I hadn’t expected the sound of victory to make me want to find a urinal.
“Okay, that’s it,” Gunlod said. The hose retracted. Her face reappeared. “Good luck stopping Ragnarok. I hope you become wonderful braggers!”
“Thanks,” I said. “Are you sure we can’t try to free you? We’ve got a friend back at our ship who’s good with magic.”
“Oh, you’d never have time,” Gunlod said. “Baugi and Suttung will be here any minute.”
Sam squeaked, “What?”
“Didn’t I mention the silent alarm?” Gunlod asked. “It triggers as soon as you start messing with the doors. I imagine you have two, maybe three minutes before my father and uncle swoop down on you. You should hurry. Nice meeting you!”
Mallory pulled her knives out of the seam. The doors clunked together once more.
“And that,” she said, wiping her brow, “is why I don’t trust nice people.”
“Guys.” I pointed north, toward the tops of the mountains. Gleaming in the Norwegian sunlight, growing larger by the second, were the forms of two massive eagles.
“WELP,” I SAID, which was usually how I started conversations about ways to save our butts from certain destruction. “Any ideas?”
“Drink the mead?” Mallory suggested.
Sam rattled her canteen. “Sounds like there’s only one swig in here. If it doesn’t work fast enough, or it wears off before Magnus faces Loki…”
A squadron of tiny T.J.s started bayoneting my gut. Now that we’d gotten the mead, my looming challenge with Loki felt too real, too imminent. I forced that fear to the back burner. I had more immediate problems.
“I don’t think poetry is going to help with these guys,” I said. “Jack, what are our odds in combat?”
“Hmmm,” Jack said. “Baugi and Suttung. I know them by reputation. Strong. Bad. I can take down one of them, most likely, but both at once, before they manage to squash you all flat…?”
“Can we outrun them?” I asked. “Outfly them? Get back to the ship for reinforcements?”
Sadly, I already knew the answer. Watching the eagles fly, seeing how big their forms had gotten in the past minute, I knew they’d be on us soon. These guys were fast.
Sam slung the canteen over her shoulder. “I might be able to outfly them, at least as far as the ship, but carrying two people? Impossible. Carrying even one will slow me down.”
“Then we divide and conquer,” Mallory said. “Sam, take the mead. Fly back to the ship. Maybe one giant will follow you. If not, well, Magnus and I will do our best against both of them. At least you’ll get the mead back to the others.”
Somewhere off to my left, a little voice chirped: The redhead is smart. We can help.
In a nearby tree sat a murder of crows. (That’s what you call a group of them. You learn useless facts like that in Valhalla.) “Uh, guys,” I told my friends, “those crows claim they can help.”
Claim? squawked another crow. You don’t trust us? Send your two friends back to the ship with the mead. We’ll give you a hand here. All we ask for in return is something shiny. Anything will do.
I related this to my friends.
Mallory glanced toward the horizon. The giant eagles were getting awfully close. “But if Sam tries to carry me, I’ll slow her down.”
“The walnut!” Sam said. “Maybe you can fit inside—”
“We’re wasting time!” Sam said.
“Gah!” Mallory fished out the shell and opened the halves. “How do I—?”
Imagine a silk scarf getting sucked into the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner, disappearing with a rude slurp. That’s pretty much what happened to Mallory. The walnut closed and dropped to the ground, a tiny voice inside yelling Gaelic curses.
Sam snatched up the nut. “Magnus, you sure about this?”
“I’m fine. I’ve got Jack.”
“You’ve got Jack!” Jack sang.
Sam shot skyward, leaving me with just my sword and a flock of birds.
I looked at the crows. “Okay, guys, what’s the plan?”
Plan? cawed the nearest crow. We just said we’d help. We don’t have a plan, per se.
Stupid misleading crows. Also, what kind of bird uses the term per se?
Since I didn’t have time to murder the entire murder, I contemplated my limited options. “Fine. When I give you guys the signal, fly in the nearest giant’s face and try to distract him.”
Sure, chirped a different crow. What’s the signal?
Before I could think of one, a huge eagle plummeted down and landed in front of me.
The only good news, if you could call it that: the other eagle kept flying, pursuing Sam. We had divided. Now we needed to conquer.
I hoped the eagle in front of me would morph into a small, easy-to-defeat giant, preferably one who used Nerf weapons. Instead, he rose to thirty feet tall, his skin like chipped obsidian. He had Gunlod’s blond hair and pale blue eyes, which looked very strange with the rocky volcanic skin. Ice and snow flecked his whiskers like he’d been face-diving in a box of Frosted Flakes. His armor was stitched from various hides, including some that looked like endangered species: zebra, elephant, einherji. In the giant
’s hand glittered an onyx double-sided ax.
“WHO DARES STEAL FROM THE MIGHTY SUTTUNG?” he bellowed. “I JUST FLEW IN FROM NIFLHEIM, AND BOY, ARE MY ARMS TIRED!”
I couldn’t think of any response that did not involve high-pitched screaming.
Jack floated right up to the giant. “I don’t know, man,” he volunteered. “Some dude just swiped your mead and took off that way. I think he said his name was Hrungnir.” Jack pointed in the general direction of York, England.
I thought that was a pretty good fake-out, but Suttung only frowned.
“Nice try,” he rumbled. “Hrungnir would never dare cross me. You are the thieves, and you have pulled me away from important work! We are about to launch the great ship Naglfar! I can’t be flying home every time the alarm goes off!”
“So Naglfar is close, then?” I asked.
“Oh, not too far,” Suttung admitted. “Once you cross into Jotunheim, you follow the coast to the border of Niflheim and…” He scowled. “Stop trying to trick me! You are thieves and you must die!”
He raised his ax.
“Wait!” I yelled.
“Why?” demanded the giant.
“Yeah, why?” demanded Jack.
I hated it when my sword sided with a giant. Jack was ready to fight, but I had bad memories of Hrungnir, the last stone giant we’d faced. He hadn’t been an easy slice-and-dice. Also, he exploded on death. I wanted every advantage I could get against Suttung, including the use of my murder of unhelpful crows, for whom I had not yet thought of a signal.
“You claim we’re thieves,” I said, “but how’d you get that mead, thief?”
Suttung kept his ax suspended over his head, giving us an unfortunate view of his blond underarm hair in his obsidian armpits. “I am no thief! My parents were slain by two evil little dwarves, Fjalar and Gjalar.”
“Ah, I hate those guys,” I said.