The weirdest thing about him was his hair. His shaggy locks, his beard, even his fuzzy forearms glistened whitish blue, as if he’d been caught outside overnight and glazed with frost.
As we approached, he looked up from the rope he was coiling. ‘Well, now. A dwarf, an elf and two humans walk onto my pier … Sounds like the beginning of a joke.’
‘I hope not,’ I said. ‘We want to rent your boat for a fishing expedition. We’ll need the special bait.’
Harald snorted. ‘You four on one of my expeditions? I don’t think so.’
‘Big Boy sent us.’
Harald furrowed his brow, causing light snow to fall across his cheeks. ‘Big Boy, eh? What does he want with the likes of you?’
Sam stepped forward. ‘None of your concern.’ From her coat pocket she pulled a large coin and tossed it to Harald. ‘One red gold now; five more when we finish. Will you rent us the boat or not?’
I leaned towards her. ‘What is red gold?’
‘The currency of Asgard and Valhalla,’ she said. ‘Widely accepted in the other realms.’
Harald sniffed the coin. Its gold surface glowed so warmly it seemed to be on fire. ‘You have giantish blood, girl? I can see it in your eyes.’
‘That’s also none of your concern.’
‘Humph. The payment is sufficient, but my boat is small. Two passengers maximum. I’ll take you and the human boy, but the dwarf and the elf – forget it.’
Blitzen cracked his knuckles inside his leather gloves. ‘Look here, Frosty –’
‘HUR! Never call a frost giant Frosty. We hate that. Besides, you look half petrified already, dwarf. I don’t need another anchor. As for elves, they are creatures of air and light. They’re useless aboard a ship. Two passengers only. That’s the deal. Take it or leave it.’
I glanced at my friends. ‘Guys, sidebar please.’
I led them down the dock, out of earshot from Harald. ‘That dude is a frost giant?’
Hearthstone signed, Icy hair. Ugly. Big. Yes.
‘But … I mean, he’s large, but he’s not giant.’
Sam’s expression made me suspect she was not the most patient geometry tutor. ‘Magnus, giants aren’t necessarily enormous. Some are. Some can grow to enormous size if they feel like it. But they’re even more varied than humans. Many look like regular people. Some can change shape into eagles or pigeons or almost anything.’
‘But what’s a frost giant doing on the docks in Boston? Can we trust him?’
‘First answer,’ Blitzen said, ‘frost giants are all over the place, especially in the north of Midgard. As for trusting him – absolutely not. He might take you two straight to Jotunheim and throw you in a dungeon, or he might use you for bait. You have to insist that Hearth and I go with you.’
Hearth tapped Blitz’s shoulder.
Giant is right, he signed. I told you – too much daylight. You are turning to stone. Too stubborn to admit.
‘Nah, I’m fine.’
Hearth looked around the dock. He spotted a metal pail, picked it up and slammed it over Blitz’s head. Blitz didn’t react, but the pail crumpled into the shape of his skull.
‘Okay,’ Blitz admitted, ‘maybe I’m petrifying a little, but –’
‘Get out of the light for a while,’ I told him. ‘We’ll be fine. Hearth, can you find him a nice underground lair or something?’
Hearth nodded. We will try to find out more about Fenris and his chains. Meet you tonight. Back at library?
‘Sounds good,’ I said. ‘Sam, let’s go fishing.’
We returned to Harald, who was fashioning his rope into a lovely noose.
‘Okay,’ I told him, ‘two passengers. We need to fish as far out in Massachusetts Bay as possible, and we need the special bait.’
Harald gave me a twisted grin. His teeth might have been cut from the same fuzzy brown cord he was coiling. ‘By all means, little human.’ He pointed to a sliding door on the side of the warehouse. ‘Pick your own bait … if you can carry it.’
When Sam and I opened the door, I almost passed out from the stench.
Sam gagged. ‘Odin’s Eye, I’ve smelled battlefields that smell better than this.’
Inside the storage room, hanging from meat hooks, was an impressive collection of rotting carcasses. The smallest was a five-foot-long shrimp. The largest was a severed bull’s head the size of a Fiat.
I covered my nose with my jacket sleeve. That didn’t help. I felt like somebody had filled a grenade with rotten egg, rusty metal and raw onion, then tossed it into my sinus cavity.
‘It hurts to breathe,’ I said. ‘Which of these tasty morsels do you think is the special bait?’
Sam pointed at the bull’s head. ‘Go big or go home?’
‘She said to the homeless kid.’ I forced myself to study the bull’s head – its curved black horns, its lolling pink tongue like a hairy air mattress, its white steaming fur and the glistening slime craters of its nostrils. ‘How is it possible that a bull grew that large?’
‘It’s probably from Jotunheim,’ Sam said. ‘Their cattle get pretty big.’
‘You don’t say. Any idea what we’re supposed to be fishing for?’
‘There are lots of sea monsters in the deep. As long as it’s not …’ A shadow crossed her face. ‘Never mind. Probably just a sea monster.’
‘Just a sea monster,’ I said. ‘That’s a relief.’
I was tempted to take the jumbo shrimp and get out of there, but I had a feeling we’d need bigger bait if we were going to cause a ruckus that would attract a sea goddess.
‘The bull’s head it is,’ I decided.
Sam hefted her axe. ‘I’m not sure it’ll even fit on Harald’s boat, but …’
She threw her axe at the meat-hook chain, which broke with a snap. The bull’s head crashed to the floor like a large, disgusting piñata. The axe flew back to Sam’s hand.
Together we gripped the meat hook and dragged the bull’s head out of the storage locker. Even with help, I shouldn’t have been able to move it, but my einherji strength was up to the task.
Die painfully. Go to Valhalla. Gain the ability to drag rancid, colossal severed heads across a dock. Hooray.
When we got to the boat, I yanked the chain with all my strength. The bull’s head toppled off the pier and smashed onto the deck. The S.S. Harald almost capsized, but somehow it stayed afloat. The bull’s head took up the back half of the ship. Its tongue hung over the stern. Its left eye rolled up in its head so it looked seasick.
Harald rose from his bait bucket. If he was at all surprised or annoyed that I’d dropped a five-hundred-pound cow head on his boat, he didn’t show it.
‘An ambitious choice of bait.’ Harald gazed across the harbour. The sky was darkening. Light sleet needled the surface of the water. ‘Let’s get going, then. Lovely afternoon to fish.’
My Years of Playing Bassmasters 2000 Really Pay Off
It was a terrible afternoon to fish.
The sea heaved and so did I, right over the side several times. The cold didn’t bother me, but the sleet stung my face. The rocking of the deck made my legs feel like Slinkys. Harald the frost giant stood at the wheel, singing in a guttural language I assumed was Jotunese.
Sam didn’t seem to mind the rough seas. She leaned against the bow rail and stared into the grey, her scarf rippling around her neck like gills.
‘What’s with the scarf anyway?’ I asked. ‘Sometimes you cover your head. Sometimes you don’t.’
She laid her fingers protectively over the green silk. ‘It’s a hijab. I wear it when I want to, or when I think I need to. Like when I take my grandmother to mosque on Friday, or –’
‘Or when you see Amir?’
She muttered under her breath. ‘I almost thought you were going to let that go.’
‘The pigeon said Amir is your intended. Like … engaged? What are you, like, sixteen?’
?I’m just saying, if this is one of those forced arranged marriages, that’s messed up. You’re a Valkyrie. You should be able to –’
‘Magnus, shut it. Please.’
The boat hit a swell, spraying us with saltwater buckshot.
Samirah gripped the rail. ‘My grandparents are old-fashioned. They were raised in Baghdad, but fled to the U.S. when Saddam Hussein was in power.’
‘They’ve known the Fadlans since forever. They’re good people. Distant kin. Successful, kind –’
‘I know. Abdel is awesome. Amir seems cool. But a forced marriage if you don’t love the guy –’
‘Ugh! You don’t get it. I’ve been in love with Amir since I was twelve.’
The boat groaned as it dipped between the waves. Harald kept singing his Jotunese version of ‘Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer’.
‘Oh,’ I said.
‘Not that it’s any of your business,’ Samirah said.
‘But sometimes when a family tries to find a good match they actually care what the girl thinks.’
‘I didn’t realize until I was older … After my mom died, my grandparents took me in but, well, my mom wasn’t married when she had me. That’s still a big deal for my grandparents’ generation.’
‘Yeah.’ I decided not to add: Plus the fact that your dad was Loki, the father of evil.
Sam seemed to read my thoughts. ‘She was a doctor, my mom. She found Loki in the emergency room. He was … I don’t know … he’d used up too much of his power trying to appear in Midgard in physical form. He got trapped somehow, divided between worlds. His manifestation in Boston was in agony, weak and helpless.’
‘She cured him?’
Sam brushed a droplet of seawater from her wrist. ‘In a way. She was kind to him. She stayed by his side. Loki can be very charming when he wants to be.’
‘I know.’ I blinked. ‘I mean … from the stories. You’ve met him in person?’
She shot me a dark look. ‘I don’t approve of my father. He may be charismatic, but he’s also a liar, a thief, a murderer. He’s visited me several times. I refused to talk to him, which drives him nuts. He likes to be noticed. He’s not exactly low-key.’
‘I get it,’ I said. ‘Loki. Low-key.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Anyway, my mom mostly raised me by herself. She was headstrong, unconventional. When she died … well, in the local community, I was damaged goods, a bastard child. My grandparents were lucky, very lucky, to get the Fadlans’ blessing for me to marry Amir. I won’t really bring anything to the marriage. I’m not rich or respectable or –’
‘Come on,’ I said. ‘You’re smart. You’re tough. You’re an honest-to-Frigg Valkyrie. And I can’t believe I’m finding reasons to support your arranged marriage …’
Her dark hair whipped around her, collecting flecks of ice.
‘The Valkyrie thing is a problem,’ she said. ‘My family … well, we’re a little different. We have a long, long history with the Norse gods.’
She waved away the question like, Too much to explain.
‘Still,’ she said, ‘if anyone found out about my other life … I don’t think Mr Fadlan would be okay with his eldest son marrying a girl who moonlights as a soul collector for pagan gods.’
‘Ah. When you put it that way …’
‘I cover for my absences as best I can.’
‘And some simple Valkyrie glamours. But a good Muslim girl is not supposed to hang out on her own with strange guys.’
‘Strange guys. Thanks.’
I had a sudden image of Sam sitting in English class when her phone started to buzz. The screen flashed: ODIN CALLING. She dashed to the restroom, changed into her Super Valkyrie costume and flew out of the nearest window.
‘When you got kicked out of Valhalla … uh, I mean, I’m sorry about that. But didn’t you think, Hey, maybe this is a good thing. I can have a normal life now?’
‘No. That’s the problem. I want both. I want to marry Amir when the time comes. But also, all my life, I’ve wanted to fly.’
‘Flying like aeroplanes or flying like zooming around on a magic horse?’
‘Both. When I was six, I started drawing pictures of aeroplanes. I wanted to be a pilot. How many Arab-American female pilots do you know?’
‘You would be the first,’ I admitted.
‘I like that idea. Ask me any question about aeroplanes. I can answer it.’
‘So when you became a Valkyrie –’
‘It was a total rush. A dream come true, being able to take off at a moment’s notice. Besides, I felt like I was doing some good. I could find honourable, brave people who died protecting others, and I could bring them to Valhalla. You don’t know how much I miss that.’
I could hear the pain in her voice. Honourable, brave people … She was including me in that group. After all the trouble she’d got into for my sake, I wanted to tell her that it would be all right. We would figure out a way so she could have both her lives.
But I couldn’t even promise we’d live through this boat trip.
From the wheelhouse, Harald bellowed, ‘Mortals, you should bait your hooks! We’re getting close to good fishing!’
Sam shook her head. ‘No. Go further out!’
Harald scowled. ‘Not safe! Any further –’
‘You want your gold or not?’
Harald muttered something that was probably inappropriate in Jotunese. He gunned the motor.
I looked at Sam. ‘How do you know we need to go further?’
‘I can sense it,’ she said. ‘One of the advantages of my father’s blood, I guess. I can usually tell where the biggest monsters are lurking.’
‘Joy and happiness.’
I peered into the gloom. I thought about Ginnungagap, the primordial mist between ice and fire. We seemed to be sailing right into it. Any moment the sea might dissolve and we’d fall into oblivion. I hoped I was wrong. Sam’s grandparents would probably be ticked off if she didn’t get home in time for dinner.
The boat shuddered. The sea darkened.
‘There,’ Sam said. ‘Did you feel it? We’ve passed from Midgard into Jotunheim waters.’
I pointed off the port bow. A few hundred yards away, a granite spire jutted out of the fog. ‘But that’s Graves Light. We’re not too far from the harbour.’
Sam grabbed one of the giant’s fishing poles, which looked more appropriate for heavyweight pole-vaulting. ‘The worlds overlap, Magnus, especially near Boston. Go get the bait.’
Harald slowed the engines when he saw me coming aft.
‘Too dangerous to fish here,’ he warned. ‘Besides, I doubt you’ll be able to cast that bait.’
‘Shut up, Harald.’ I grabbed the chain and dragged the bull’s head forward, almost knocking the captain overboard with one of its horns.
When I got back to Sam, we examined the meat hook, which was embedded pretty well in the bull’s skull.
‘That should work for a fishing hook,’ Sam decided. ‘Let’s get this chain tied on.’
We spent a few minutes attaching the chain to the fishing line – a thin braided-steel cable that made the reel weigh about three hundred pounds.
Together, Sam and I rolled the bull’s head off the front of the boat. It sank slowly into the icy froth, the bull’s dead eye staring at me as it submerged, like, Not cool, man!
Harald lumbered over, carrying a large chair. He sank its four feet into anchor holes on the deck. Then he lashed the seat in place with steel cables.
‘If I were you, human,’ he said, ‘I’d buckle up.’
With its leather harnesses, the seat looked a little too much like an electric chair to me, but Sam held the fishing pole while I strapped myself in.
‘So why am I in the chair?’ I asked.
‘Your promise,’ she reminded me. ‘You swore by your troth
‘Troth sucks.’ From the giant’s supply kit, I pulled some leather gloves that were only four sizes too big and put them on.
Sam handed me the pole, and then found gloves for herself.
I had a disjointed memory from when I was ten years old, watching Jaws with my mom because she insisted. She warned me it was super scary, but the whole time I was either bored at the slow pace or laughing at the schlocky-looking rubber shark.
‘Please let me catch a rubber shark,’ I muttered now.
Harald cut the engines. Suddenly it was freakishly quiet. The wind died. The sleet against the deck sounded like sand hitting glass. The waves calmed as if the sea were holding its breath.
Sam stood at the rail, feeding out cable as the bull’s head sank into the depths. Finally the line went slack.
‘Did we hit bottom?’ I asked.
Sam bit her lip. ‘I don’t know. I think –’
The line sprang taut with a sound like a hammer on a saw blade. Sam let go to avoid being catapulted into space. The pole was nearly ripped out of my hands, taking my fingers with it, but somehow I held on.
The chair groaned. The leather straps dug into my collarbones. The entire boat leaned forward into the waves with timbers creaking and rivets popping.
‘Ymir’s Blood!’ Harald yelled. ‘We’re breaking apart!’
‘Give it more line!’ Sam grabbed a bucket. She poured water on the cable, which steamed as it raced off the prow.
I gritted my teeth. My arm muscles felt like warm bread dough. Just when I was sure I couldn’t hold on any longer, the pulling stopped. The line hummed with tension, laser-dotting on the grey water about a hundred yards starboard.
‘What’s going on?’ I asked. ‘Is it resting?’
Harald cursed. ‘I don’t like this. Sea monsters don’t act this way. Even the biggest catches –’
‘Reel it in,’ Sam said. ‘Now!’
I turned the handle. It was like arm-wrestling the Terminator. The rod bent. The cable creaked. Sam pulled the line, keeping it clear of the rail, but even with her help I could barely make any progress.
My shoulders went numb. My lower back spasmed. Despite the cold, I was soaked with sweat and shivering with exhaustion. I felt like I was reeling in a sunken battleship.
From time to time, Sam yelled encouraging things like, ‘No, you idiot! Pull!’
Finally, in front of the boat, the sea darkened in a fifty-foot-diameter