success would depend on me. Alas, me was my least favorite person to depend on.
“But what about this giant?” I asked, anxious to change the subject. “He’s Baugi, right? How did you kill him?”
Everybody looked at Halfborn.
“Oh, come on!” Halfborn protested. “You guys helped a lot.”
Hearthstone signed, Blitz and I slept through it.
“T.J. and I tried to fight him,” Alex admitted. “But Baugi dropped a building on us.” She pointed down the shoreline. I hadn’t noticed it before, but one of the lovely blue cottages of Fläm had been scooped up from its spot on Main Street—which now had a gaping hole like a missing tooth—and slammed onto the beach, where the cottage had collapsed like a deflated bouncy house. What the locals made of this, I had no idea, but nobody seemed to be running around town in a panic.
“By the time I got back to the ship,” Sam said, “the giant was only thirty seconds behind me. I had just enough energy left to explain what was happening. Halfborn took it from there.”
The berserker glowered. “It wasn’t so much.”
“Not so much?” Sam turned to me. “Baugi landed in the middle of town, turned into giant form, and started stomping around and yelling threats.”
“He called Fläm a dirty hovel,” Halfborn grumbled. “Nobody says that about my hometown.”
“Halfborn charged him,” Sam continued. “Baugi was like forty feet tall—”
“Forty-five,” Alex corrected.
“And he had this glamour cast over him, so he looked extra terrifying.”
“Like Godzilla.” Alex considered. “Or maybe my dad. I have trouble telling them apart.”
“But Halfborn just charged right in,” Sam continued, “yelling ‘For Fläm!’”
“Not the best war cry,” Gunderson admitted. “Luckily for me, the giant wasn’t as strong as he looked.”
Alex snorted. “He was plenty strong. You just went…well, berserk.” Alex cupped her hand like she was telling me a secret. “This guy is scary when he goes into full berserker mode. He literally hacked the giant’s feet out from under him. Then, when Baugi fell to his knees, Halfborn went to work on the rest of him.”
Gunderson harrumphed. “Ah, now, Fierro, you wired off his head. It went flying”—he gestured into the fjord—“somewhere out there.”
“Baugi was almost dead by that point,” Alex insisted. “He was in the process of falling over. That’s the only reason the head flew so far.”
“Well,” Halfborn said, “he’s dead. That’s all that matters.”
Mallory spat over the side of the boat. “And I missed the whole thing, because I was stuck inside the walnut.”
“Yes,” Halfborn muttered. “Yes, you did.”
Was it my imagination, or did Halfborn sound disappointed that Mallory had missed his moment of glory?
“Once you’re in the walnut,” Mallory said, “you can’t get out until somebody lets you out. Sam didn’t remember I was in there for, like, twenty minutes—”
“Oh, come on,” Sam said. “It was more like five.”
“Mmm.” Halfborn nodded. “I imagine time goes slower when you’re inside a nut.”
“Shut up, oaf,” Mallory growled.
Halfborn grinned. “So are we making sail, or what? Time’s a-wasting!”
The temperature dropped as we sailed into the sunset. Amidships, Sam did her evening prayer. Hearthstone and Blitzen sat at the prow, gazing in quiet awe at the fjord walls. Mallory went below to check on T.J. and cook up some dinner.
I stood at the rudder next to Halfborn Gunderson, listening to the sail ripple in the wind and the magical oars swish through the water in perfect time.
“I’m fine,” Halfborn said.
“Hmm?” I glanced over. His face was blue in the evening shadows, like he’d painted it for combat (as he sometimes did).
“You were going to ask if I was okay,” he said. “That’s why you’re standing here, right? I’m fine.”
“I’ll admit it was strange walking through the streets of Fläm, thinking about how I grew up there in a little hut with just my mom. Prettier place than I remembered. And I may have wondered what would’ve happened if I’d stayed there, gotten married, had a life.”
“And when Baugi insulted the place, I lost it. I wasn’t expecting to have any…you know, feelings about being home.”
“It’s not like I expect anybody to write a ballad about me saving my hometown.” He tilted his head as if he could almost hear the melody. “I’m glad to be out of that place again. I don’t regret my choices when I was alive, even if I did leave my mom behind and never saw her again.”
“And Mallory meeting her own mother…that didn’t raise any particular emotions in me. I’m just glad Mack found out the truth, even if she did run off on a wild train ride without telling us, and could’ve gotten herself killed, and I never would’ve known what happened to her. Oh, and you and Sam, too, of course.”
Halfborn hit the rudder handle. “But curse that vixen! What was she thinking?”
“The daughter of Frigg?” Halfborn’s laugh sounded a little hysterical. “No wonder she’s so…” He waved his hand, making signs that could’ve meant almost anything: Exasperating? Fantastic? Angry? Food processor?
“Mmm,” I said.
Halfborn patted my shoulder. “Thanks, Magnus. I’m glad we had this talk. You’re all right, for a healer.”
“Take the rudder, will you? Just stay in the middle of the fjord and watch out for krakens.”
“Krakens?” I protested.
Halfborn nodded absently and went below, maybe to check on dinner, or Mallory and T.J., or simply because I smelled bad.
By full dark, we’d reached the open sea. I didn’t crash the ship or release any krakens, which was good. I did not want to be that guy.
Samirah came aft and took over rudder duty from me. She was chewing Medjool dates with her usual expression of post-fast ecstasy. “How are you holding up?”
I shrugged. “Considering the kind of day we’ve had? Good, I guess.”
She raised her canteen and sloshed around Kvasir’s Mead. “You want to take charge of this? Smell it or sip it or something, just to test it?”
The idea made me nauseous. “Keep it for now, please. I’ll wait until I absolutely have to drink it.”
“Sensible. The effect might not be permanent.”
“It’s not just that,” I said. “I’m afraid I’ll drink it and—and it won’t be enough. That I still won’t be able to beat Loki.”
Sam looked like she wanted to give me a hug, though hugging a boy wasn’t something a good Muslima would ever do. “I wonder the same thing, Magnus. Not about you, but about me. Who knows if I’ll have the strength to face my father again? Who knows if any of us will?”
“Is that supposed to boost my morale?”
Sam laughed. “All we can do is try, Magnus. I choose to believe that our hardships make us stronger. Everything we’ve been through on this voyage—it matters. It increases our chances of victory.”
I glanced toward the prow. Blitzen and Hearthstone had fallen asleep side by side in their sleeping bags at the base of the dragon figurehead. It seemed a strange place to sleep, given our adventure in Alfheim, but they both seemed at peace.
“I hope you’re right, Sam,” I said. “Because some of it’s been pretty rough.”
Sam sighed as if letting go of all the hunger, thirst, and curse words she’d kept inside while fasting. “I know. I think the hardest thing we can ever do is see someone for who they really are. Our parents. Our friends. Ourselves.”
I wondered if she was thinking about Loki, or maybe herself. She could have been talking about any of us on the sh
ip. None of us were free of our pasts. During the voyage, we’d looked into some pretty harsh mirrors.
My moment at the mirror was yet to come. When I faced Loki, I was sure he’d delight in magnifying my every fault, stripping bare my every fear and weakness. If he could, he would reduce me to a sniveling grease spot.
We had until tomorrow to reach Naglfar, Frigg had said…or the next day at the latest. I found myself wavering, almost wishing we would miss the deadline so I wouldn’t have to face Loki one-on-one. But no. My friends were counting on me. For the sake of everybody I knew, everybody I didn’t know…I had to delay Ragnarok as long as possible. I had to give Sam and Amir a chance at a normal life, and Annabeth and Percy, and Percy’s baby sister, Estelle. They all deserved better than planetary destruction.
I said good night to Sam, then spread my own sleeping bag out on the deck.
I slept fitfully, dreaming of dragons and thralls, of falling down mountains and battling clay giants. Loki’s laughter echoed in my ears. Over and over, the deck turned into a gruesome patchwork of dead men’s keratin, enfolding me in a disgusting toenail cocoon.
“Good morning,” said Blitzen, jolting me awake.
The morning was bitter cold and steel gray. I sat up, breaking a sheet of ice that had formed on my sleeping bag. Off our starboard side, snowcapped mountains loomed even taller than the fjords of Norway. All around us, the sea was a broken-up puzzle of ice blocks. The deck was completely glazed in frost, turning our bright yellow warship the color of weak lemonade.