The water churned and bubbled around me like I’d fallen into a Jacuzzi. Between my legs, the current felt almost solid, as if I was sitting astride a creature sculptured from the sea. Directly in front of me, a head rose from the waves—a strong neck of gray water, a mane of frost, a majestic snout spewing plumes of icy mist from its nostrils. I was riding a vatnavaettir—a water horse.
My friends plunged into the water, too, each dropping right onto the back of a waiting horse spirit. The vatnavaettir whinnied and bucked as spears rained down around us.
“Let’s move!” Sam swooped down with her blazing spear and settled onto the back of the lead water horse. “Toward the mouth of the bay!”
The horses raced away from the Ship of the Dead. Giants and draugr screamed in outrage. Spears and arrows splashed in the water. Cannons boomed. Shells exploded near enough to spray us with water, but the vatnavaettir were faster and more maneuverable than any ship. They zigged and zagged, rocketing across the bay with incredible speed.
Jack flew up beside me. “Hey, señor, did you see that one disembowelment I did?”
“Yeah,” I said. “It was amazing!”
“And the way I cut off that jotun’s limbs?”
“I hope you were taking notes for Bragi’s epic.”
“Absolutely!” I made a mental note to start taking more mental notes.
A different equine figure zoomed above us—Stanley the eight-legged horse, checking that we were okay. He whinnied like Okay, guess we’re done here? Have a nice day!
Then he shot toward the steel gray clouds.
The water horse was surprisingly warm, like a living animal, which kept my legs and crotch from freezing completely in the frigid water. Still, I remembered Mallory’s and Halfborn’s stories about vatnavaettir dragging their victims to the bottom of the sea. How was Samirah controlling them? If the herd decided to take a dive, we were all dead.
Yet we kept racing forward, toward the gap in the glaciers at the mouth of the bay. Already I could see the water beginning to refreeze, the ice floes thickening and hardening. Summer in Niflheim, which lasted about twelve minutes, was now over.
Behind us, the boom of cannons carried over the water, but the ship Naglfar remained at its moorings. I could only hope, since we had their admiral in a walnut, the ship would be forced to stay there.
We shot out of the bay into the frosty sea, our water horses picking us a path through the broken ice floes. Then we turned south toward the much safer, monster-infested open waters of Jotunheim.
THREE DAYS is a long time to sail with an evil walnut.
After the water horses dumped us—“They got bored,” Sam explained, which was far better than them drowning us—I summoned the Big Banana and we all climbed aboard. Hearthstone managed to invoke the fire rune kenaz, which saved us from freezing to death. We sailed west, trusting our magic ship to take us where we needed to go.
The first twelve hours or so, we were all running on pure adrenaline and terror. We got into dry clothes. I healed Mallory’s foot. We ate. We didn’t talk much. We grunted and pointed at things we needed. No one slept. Sam chanted her prayers, which was amazing, since the rest of us probably couldn’t have formed simple sentences.
Finally, when the gray sun sank and the world still hadn’t ended, we started to believe that Naglfar really wasn’t sailing after us. Loki would not be busting out of his tiny prison. Ragnarok wouldn’t be starting this summer, at least. We had survived.
Mallory clutched the walnut. She refused to let go of it. She huddled against the prow, examining the sea with narrowed eyes, her red hair whipping in the wind. After about an hour of this, Halfborn Gunderson sat down next her. She didn’t kill him. He muttered to her for a long time, words I didn’t try to hear. She started to cry, expelling something from herself that sounded almost as bitter as Loki’s venom. Halfborn put his arm around her, looking not happy exactly, but content.
The next day, Blitzen and Hearthstone went into nurturing mode, making sure everybody had food, everybody was warm enough, nobody was alone if they didn’t want to be. Hearth spent a lot of time listening to T.J. talk about war and slavery and what constituted an honorable challenge. Hearth was an excellent listener.
Blitz sat with Alex Fierro all afternoon, showing her how to make a sweater vest out of chain mail. I wasn’t sure Alex needed a chain mail sweater vest, but the work seemed to calm them both.
After her evening prayers, Samirah came up to me and offered me a date. (The kind you eat, of course.) We chewed our fruit and watched the strange constellations of Jotunheim blink above us.
“You were amazing,” Sam said.
I let that sink in. Samirah wasn’t big on doling out praise, any more than Mallory was big on doling out apologies.
“Well, it wasn’t poetry,” I said at last. “More like pure panic.”
“Maybe there’s not much difference,” Sam said. “Besides, just take the compliment, Chase.”
“Okay. Thank you.” I stood next to her, watching the horizon. It felt nice just to be with a friend, enjoying the stars, not worrying about dying in the next five minutes.
“You did great, too,” I said. “You stood up to Loki and defeated him.”
Sam smiled. “Yeah. I had a lot of thanks to give in my prayers tonight.”
I nodded. I wondered if I should be thanking someone, too—I mean, apart from my friends on the boat, of course. Sigyn, maybe, for her silent support, her passive resistance against her husband. If the gods put Loki back in his cave, I wondered if Sigyn would be going with him.
Maybe Uncle Randolph deserved a thank-you, too, for leaving me those notes about Kvasir’s Mead. He’d tried to do something right at the end, no matter how spectacularly he’d betrayed me.
Thinking about Randolph reminded me of the voices from Helheim, tempting me to join them in the darkness. I locked that memory away. I wasn’t feeling strong enough to face it just yet.
Sam pointed toward Alex, who was trying on her new sweater vest. “You should go talk to her, Magnus. That was kind of a bombshell you dropped during the flyting.”
“You mean…oh.” My stomach curled with embarrassment, like it was trying to hide behind my right lung. In front of my eight closest friends and several thousand enemies, I’d announced how much I’d enjoyed a private kiss from Alex.
Sam chuckled. “She probably won’t be too mad. Go. Get it over with.”
Easy for Sam to say. She knew exactly where she stood in her relationship with Amir. She was happily engaged and never had to worry about secret kisses under blankets because she was a good Muslim girl and would never do such a thing. I, alas, was not a good Muslim girl.
I walked over to Alex. Blitzen saw me coming, nodded to me nervously, and fled.
“What do you think, Magnus?” Alex spread her arms, showing off her glittering new fashion statement.
“Yeah,” I said. “I mean, not many people can pull off the plaid chain mail sweater vest, but yeah.”
“It’s not plaid,” Alex said. “It’s more a cuadros, like diamonds. Checkered.”
“So…” She crossed her arms and sighed, examining me like What are we going to do with you? It was a look I’d gotten from teachers, coaches, social workers, police, and a few of my closest relatives. “That declaration of yours back on Naglfar—that was all very sudden, Magnus.”
“I…uh. Yeah. I wasn’t really thinking.”
“Clearly. Where did that even come from?”
“Well, you did kiss me.”
“I mean, you can’t surprise somebody like that. Suddenly I’m the greatest thing that ever happened to you?”
“I—I didn’t exactly say—” I stopped myself. “Look, if you want me to take it back…”
I couldn’t form a complete thought. And I couldn’t see any way to extract myself from this conversation with my dignity intact. I wondered if I was suffering withdrawal symptoms from Kvasi
r’s Mead, paying the price for my successful performance on Naglfar.
“I’m going to need some time,” Alex said. “I mean, I’m flattered, but this is all so out of the blue….”
“I don’t just date any einherji with a pretty face and a nice haircut.”
“No. Yeah. Pretty face?”
“I appreciate the offer. Really. But let’s put this on hold and I’ll get back to you.” She held up her hands. “A little space, Chase.”
She strode off, glancing back once with a smirk that made my toes curl up in my woolen socks.
Hearthstone appeared at my side, his expression inscrutable as always. His scarf, for reasons unknown, had changed to a cuadros, red and white checkers. We watched Alex walking away.
“What just happened?” I asked him.
There are no words for it in sign language, he said.
On our third morning at sea, T.J. called from the halyard, “Hey! Land!”
I thought the expression was land, ho! But maybe they did things differently in the Civil War. We all jostled to the prow of the Big Banana. A vast flat landscape of red and gold spread across the horizon, as if we were sailing straight toward the Sahara desert.
“That’s not Boston,” I noted.
“That’s not even Midgard.” Halfborn frowned. “If our ship followed the currents Naglfar would have taken, that means—”
“We’re landing at Vigridr,” Mallory offered. “The Last Battlefield. This is the place where we’ll all die someday.”
Strangely, nobody screamed Turn this boat around!
We stood transfixed as the Big Banana took us in, aiming for one of a jillion docks that jutted into the surf. At the end of the pier, a group of figures stood waiting—men and women, all resplendent in glittering armor and colorful cloaks. The gods had turned out to welcome us.