The Navigator’s Touch – Julia Ember

THE MAİDEN’S SONG DREW THE god’s attention as he galloped over the Northern Sea. The song had a loneliness that called to Heimdallr; each note was hesitant and sweet, whispered to the air. The god peeled back his sleeve and the cobalt tattoos on his arm arranged themselves into a map, charting a course to the sound. Compelled as if enchanted, Heimdallr nudged Gulltoppr with his heels. The water horse tossed his golden mane and surged over the ocean’s tumult, toward the source of the god’s desire. Heimdallr imagined a slight girl: alone and afraid after her kinsmen had died in battle or succumbed to the ocean. Maybe she had been captured from a distant land and become a spoil of war, abandoned when her kidnappers perished at sea. Or maybe she was a healer, brought into battle to tend the sick and repair the sails, alone untouched by a plague that ravished her ship. If he chose, Heimdallr could see her safely to shore and leave her with no memory of him or the great water stallion. She might perform a poem and worship him with her beautiful voice. Or she might be enraptured by his appearance, as so many humans were, and worship him in more carnal ways. Heimdallr smirked. The god had taken human lovers of many genders before, all of them for fleeting affairs, though he never forced anyone. But stealing a god’s heart was not a task for mortals. The Norns guarded Heimdallr’s hjarta and would not let it fall into unworthy human hands.

But as he drew close to the source of the song, Heimdallr discovered that the woman was a warrior. She sang to herself as she tightened the starboard shroud of her vast drekkar. He halted alongside the ship’s deck, concealing himself and Gulltoppr behind a veil of sea mist and illusion. The warrior carried a sword covered in crusted brown blood strapped to her back. Jagged, red cuts and faded, white scars worn as proudly as gold decorated her forearms. She had wild eyes the color of a storm sky and sweat-streaked auburn hair. Her fingers were chapped by cold and salt, but they worked nimbly. The warrior tied a series of knots so fast even the god’s eyes had trouble following. With a groan, she pushed herself to her feet and, hands braced on wide, strong hips, surveyed her work. Her ship was fractured and storm-beaten; its mast was cracked, and its burgundy sail was in tatters.

Three large bodies were piled together under a sodden bear pelt. Their congealing blood had seeped from under the fur and stained the deck. Heimdallr smelled the men’s rotting flesh on the wind. They must have been the woman’s brothers in battle, since she took such care in returning their bodies home. She was putting herself at great risk. Unburned bodies lured water spirits and sharks; they polluted the air with disease and deadly fumes. Her chances of survival were better alone. Gulltoppr stamped his hoof on the crest of a wave. Sighing, the god stroked the water horse’s neck. The stallion would not stand and draw on his magic forever, not with fresh human blood within reach of his sharp teeth, not at sea, when Gulltoppr need only snatch the warrior by the arm and drag his helpless meal into the depths.

The shieldmaiden stared ahead into the space where he waited, invisible, then glanced toward her unmoving sail. She licked one of her fingers and held it to the air, feeling for the breeze. She cocked her head, studied the rise and fall of the waves, and said flatly, “You’re blocking my wind.” In surprise, Heimdallr dropped his magic shield. The mist around him dissipated. Gulltoppr tensed beneath him, ready to strike. The warrior’s eyes widened at his appearance and she drew the sword from her back. How had she known he was watching? And why did she not kneel? What mortal would not quail at the sight of him? He had heard the desperation of her song. She knew that death followed her ship. And he was Heimdallr, guardian of the gods, a head taller than any mortal man.

He swung his leg over Gulltoppr’s broad back and stepped onto the deck of the ship. The horse gave a frustrated whinny, but sank into the dark water to wait. “Do you know who I am?” Heimdallr asked. The warrior stepped toward him with her sword still raised. She stood only as high as Heimdallr’s waist and yet she glared up at him with such ferocity that it was the god who backed away. “I am Jarl Sigrid and you are a stowaway upon my ship.” Heimdallr swallowed, unsure whether to laugh or protest. In his millennia of scouring the earth and the oceans, he had never encountered a mortal so utterly without fear. Her crew was dead; her ship was all but destroyed. She needed his aid.

And yet, her thunderstorm eyes remained locked on his; her blade held position at his throat. In an instant, he found himself as lost as the imaginary maiden his mind had conjured. He sank to his knees before Sigrid. She sheathed her blade. His heart pounded in his chest, more alive than it had been in a millennium. Here was a mortal worthy of Asgard’s attention. She would be welcomed among the Valkyrie; he was sure of it. “Come with me,” he said, breathless, and extended his hand to her. “I will make you a queen among gods.” Jarl Sigrid glanced at the corpses, and her mouth pressed into a thin line.

She had heard stories of the gods’ hjortu, chosen by Fate, but kept in Asgard as little more than decorations. She wanted more than purposeless eternity. “I have a duty to my people.” The god bowed his head. Fate had directed his hjarta, and he was as powerless against the Norns as any mortal. “Then my duty will be to you.” Rising, Heimdallr summoned the wind, and they sailed together for the Brytten coast. In the years that followed, Heimdallr disguised himself as Sigrid’s prized thegn. He muted his god-light and shrank his height, appearing to the other thegns as a battlescarred warrior with weathered white skin and a graying, black beard. He fought at Sigrid’s side and only used enough of his magic to tip battles in her favor, never enough power to draw the attention of Asgard.

He slept on the floor of her great hall and feasted among the other thegns. His only condition for this loyalty was that his secret be kept, for if Odin’s eye fell upon him and recognized Heimdallr, then the god-guardian would be summoned home. Over time, Sigrid accepted him as a lover. Her children, she reasoned, should be sired by the strongest thegn, and who better to father future rulers than a god? Sigrid thought that she had forged strong armor around her heart. Despite what she saw of the man who worshipped her flesh, she remembered the stories of the gods. She knew it wasn’t safe to love a god, even one who had pledged his fealty. She would not become a gilded prize in Valhalla’s vast halls. Their first child was a boy, strong, but without any mark of divine origin. After his birth, Heimdallr, known to the earldom as Finn, stopped sleeping on the longhouse floor and moved permanently into Sigrid’s bed and, slowly, into her heart as well. Two years later, Sigrid gave birth to a girl.

At first, the child seemed unremarkable. Astrid came into the world screaming, demanding attention and reverence, a small mirror of her mother. But a few days later, curious markings developed on the baby’s pale skin. Lines of latitude stretched across her chest and legs, and, as the days passed, cobalt continents and oceans of cerulean blue appeared. When the jarl’s people saw the child, they recognized Heimdallr for what he was. They prayed to him and offered sacrifices to Asgard for the miracle. And Asgard responded, sending a legion to retrieve the wayward god. Faced with insurmountable numbers, Heimdallr surrendered. Odin gave him a choice: Return as the guardian of gods to Asgard or live and die as a mortal. After his millennia of life, Heimdallr could not imagine the briefness of mortality.

He loved Sigrid, but could another thirty years really be enough time to live? He was destined to exist until the end of time, to fight at Ragnorak. Shedding his human appearance, Heimdallr returned with Odin. Heartbroken and humiliated by Heimdallr’s abandonment, Sigrid prayed to Loki for assistance. She wanted to vanish with her people. She never wanted to see the godguardian again. Loki answered her call and brought with them Odin’s ravens, Huginn and Munnin—guardians of Thought and Memory—to take Sigrid’s pain away. She would not remember her love of Heimdallr or pine for him. Loki pitied Sigrid. They understood what it was like to be betrayed by a lover. So they used their powers of illusion to hide Sigrid and her people, so well that even Heimdallr, with his navigator’s touch, could never find her.

Months passed, then years. The Norns refused to free Heimdallr’s hjarta. Once bound, they said, it could not be given to another. Heimdallr came to realize the emptiness of his long, immortal life. Railing against Odin, he fled from the realm of gods in search of his children and his love. But it was as if Sigrid and her entire earldom had never existed. Though he scoured the earth and seas, Heimdallr could never find a trace of the island he had called home or the human woman he’d come to love. Knowing that such magic could only come from a single source, Heimdallr confronted Loki. But the Trickster would give him no answers. In grief, Heimdallr’s spirit soured.

He bided his time. He waited through the centuries for a chance to get revenge on Loki, blaming them for taking his love. War infested the realm of gods, tearing it apart. In the aftermath, for their role in the conflict and in another god’s death, Odin bound Loki’s voice and closed their mouth with threads of magic. Only an enchanted silver dagger could break the binding. Odin entrusted the dagger to Heimdallr, who was to guard it and keep it from Loki’s hands until their crime was forgiven. But even after hundreds of years, Heimdallr’s resentment of Loki blazed. The Allfather had not intended the punishment to be permanent, but Heimdallr broke the dagger into pieces and hid them at the far corners of the world. He used a blood spell and bound his immortal life to its strength, so that, however hard Loki might search, they would never find their freedom. Part 1: The Seafarer And now, they are unsettled, these heart-thoughts, that drive me to seek out the high waves and the salt-tossed tumult.

The desire of my wild heart calls without relenting to my caged spirit, urging that I, so far away, should seek Neverland on distant shores. —Adaptation from The Seafarer One Gormánuður The Slaughter Month October A SHİVER OF GREAT WHİTE sharks trailed our ship as we rowed through the Trap. Their gray fins glimmered like tiny sails in the low Arctic sun—live vessels waiting to deliver us to Valhalla should we deviate from the course and fall victim to the icebergs. On deck, another, more vicious, sort of shark waited to devour me. I could feel the hungry eyes of my crew on my back as I squinted into the distant horizon. If any of them could have navigated the narrow pass and rough seas on their own, without my magic, I’d have been sacrificed to Aegir weeks ago. My crew’s loyalty was proving a more resilient beast than their former leader. Haakon had died with my dagger embedded in his chest, but under the thick wolf pelts we donned to keep warm, most of the crew still wore the blood-red tunics of his house. The ice shelf that had been my salvation when I had been shipwrecked was far behind us. If I fell into the water here, even the mermaid who clung to the ship’s dragonhead bow wouldn’t be able to save me.

Our alliance was tenuous, but this tumultuous stretch of ocean—dubbed the Trap by sailors the world over—had claimed thousands. My men wouldn’t take the risk of killing me here. As long as we sailed through dangerous waters, their rebellion would remain locked away, expressed only as sullen glances and curt nods. I lifted my arm and studied my tattoos. Our route through the icebergs etched its way across my skin. The map stretched from my bicep to the raw, scarred skin of my wrist. It stopped abruptly where the silver hook began. The blue ink of the markings shifted in time with the ship’s movements. Miniscule runes detailed ancient, underwater cities and forgotten mountains, lost to the advancing sea. A frothy wave broke over the ship’s bow, spraying us with cold water as sharp as needles.

I used my remaining hand to shield my face, but Ersel laughed as water splashed her skin. While we humans shivered under our sodden animal pelts, the mermaid relished the blast of the Northern Sea. She dangled over the waves, unperturbed by the sharks circling beneath the hull. Her eight aquamarine tentacles curled around the forward stempost, and her arms splayed as she embraced the ocean’s icy kiss. Her cheeks were flushed, and her topaz eyes were bright with delight. Shaking my head, I braced myself on the mast and turned to face the oarsmen. “Shift windward!” I barked. “There’s a berg ahead.” Groaning, the oarsmen strained to turn the vessel into the wind. The mast creaked as the draught caught the sail.

Another wave broke over the ship’s starboard side. I stifled a yelp as the cold water soaked through my boots. I pulled the fur tighter around my shoulders and covered my lips with my hand, so the crew wouldn’t see my smirk. I hadn’t seen an iceberg, but I wanted the crew to keep believing that collision could happen at any moment. Making them feel afraid was the only way I could feel at ease. I sat beside Ersel at the bow. With a whispered spell, her tentacles receded, and she shifted into the form of a true mermaid. Her long lilac and cerulean tail dangled into the sea. She wrapped an arm around the stempost so that she could float alongside the ship. She had three forms, given to her by Loki when she had passed their test.

With an incantation spoken to the talisman she wore around her neck, she could change at will: from mermaid to human to kraken. She thought the third form monstrous—an ugly reminder of what she had endured at Loki’s hands—but I had witnessed the sheer, crushing power of her tentacles. I thought them incredible. I leaned down and brushed a kiss across her forehead. Her skin was cold against my lips and smelled of kelp, fish, and fresh sea air. I breathed her in. That scent was woven into the memories of my coastal home. It reminded me of the rocky beach, fishermen mending their nets at the docks, and the feel of the wind in my hair as I galloped my horse along the cliffs. Her eyes scanned my face. Frost clung to her long eyelashes.

With a small smile, she reached up and squeezed my knee. One of the men scoffed behind us. I rolled my eyes. The crew thought affection for the mermaid made me soft, too sentimental to captain a ship. Never mind that they’d seen me steal this ship with their own eyes. They didn’t understand the magnitude of what I owed her. Ersel had saved me from a slow death by starvation and exposure when I had been shipwrecked on the ice shelf near her home. When we’d been caught together stealing a kiss, she had sacrificed herself rather than let me die. To reach my home in Brytten, we could have skirted the Trap and avoided the harsh winds, icebergs, and waiting sharks. But I had promised Ersel that I would come back to repay my debt and to save her as she had saved me.

As the crew looked on, I kissed Ersel’s lips. “The texture of the water is changing,” Ersel said after we broke apart. She scooped up a palmful of ocean water and let it drip through her fingers. “We’ll see land soon.” I glanced down at my arm and willed it to show me a wider view of our course. The pattern of the map immediately began to shift. For the last few days, I’d kept my attention on the drifting icebergs and the narrow path between them, scared that splitting my focus for even a moment could result in disaster for the ship. But the waves were settling, and ahead I only saw blue. We’d cleared the Trap at last. The icebergs were behind us, protruding from the sea like rows of jagged, broken teeth.

Aegir’s fangs, the crew called them. The Trap was the sea god’s open maw, waiting to swallow the unworthy. The sea god was not known for mercy.

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