The setting sun cast a farewell glow across the green and fertile countryside. Basking in the radiance, Robert Barconian watched the day’s end from a window in his new farmhouse on the outskirts of Skara Brae. At thirty-two, Robert had seen his fair share of sunsets, but they never grew old for him.
By Odin’s blood, Orkney is glorious this time of year, Robert thought.
After a difficult winter, spring was finally in the air. The days were longer now. Soon, crops would need planting and tending. The fence would need repairs to keep animals from feasting on early buds. Robert envisioned his life as a farmer with a smile. It would be a new adventure. An adventure, unlike many in his past, he could safely share with his wife and child.
“Is he asleep?” Robert whispered to Abigail, who gently rocked their seven day-old son, Samuel, in her arms while she walked circles around the hand-carved bassinet.
“Yes,” she replied, “but I don’t want to put him down just yet.”
And to think some doubted Abby would make a great mother, Robert recalled. He took no small pride in knowing those naysayers were all wrong.
Robert returned his gaze to the fertile acreage outside the window. That dirt was now his family’s future. The soil was rocky in spots, but with this much afternoon sun there was no reason they could not claim a bumper crop come harvest time. “I’m thinking black cabbage and squashmor,” Robert whispered to Abigail, passing by him on another lap around the baby’s bed. “Maybe even some jookberries for the—”
Outside, a flock of crows broke Robert’s reverie. Flapping and cawing and scattering, spooked from a gnarled tree at the farm’s fenced border. Robert thought he caught a glimpse of a figure, indistinct, before it disappeared into the tree’s twisted shadows.
“No,” Abigail teased, bringing his attention back, “you are not corrupting our son with your jookberry addiction.” She finally stopped circling. “Now, if you had said gally melons… that I could support.”
Robert shook his head, amused, as she laid the infant down in the bassinet. The truth was that neither parent could wait to share their favorite foods with young Samuel, not to mention cherished places, and childhood stories. Robert kissed his index finger and touched it to his son’s forehead. “Grow up fast, my boy,” he said half-seriously. “There’s much to see and much to do.”
After Abigail carefully tucked Samuel beneath a blanket bearing the Orkadian crest, a white heron clasping a green olive branch, she floated a question.
“I know you have your heart set on homesteading, but do you really think the High Council will let you trade your sword for a… well, for a hoe?”
Robert bristled. “The Council does not control me.” His voice raised with his ire. “I’ll do what’s best for my family, politics be damned.”
“Shh,” Abigail chided with a smile as she waited at the doorway for her husband. “With any luck, our son will have more common sense than his parents.”
“I told you, Abby,” Robert reminded on their way to the kitchen, “you have to forget what they’re saying. Every word, erase it from your mind. If we can’t trust our hearts, what can we trust?” He sealed the question with a kiss. “Call when dinner is ready.”
Robert left through the front door, soaking up the last rays of sun as he strode across his untilled land to the border fence where he had seen the mysterious figure beneath the old tree. There were footprints. Narrow and heeled. Clearly made by a woman.
Glancing back at his farmhouse, now cloaked in twilight, Robert noticed something amiss. A window was open—Samuel’s bedroom window.
That was closed before, he recalled. How could…?
Before he could finish his thought, a wailing cry came from inside the baby’s room.
Robert ran. Across the dirt field, feet barely touching the ground.
Never had he heard his son cry like this. The sound distressed every fiber of his being, made worse by a dread revelation. I never thought it would happen this soon.
He burst in through the front door and sprinted to Samuel’s room, where he found Abigail tightly cradling the bawling baby in her arms.
“Is he all right?” Robert barked breathlessly.
“A Deathstalker. In his bed! Kill it!”
Robert moved quickly to the bassinet. He peered in, only to rear back in alarm. There was a violet-colored scorpion with black pincers and a stinger-tipped tail skittering across the blanket.
“Be careful, Robert!”
Without hesitation, Robert reached in and gathered up the blanket to capture the creature inside, then he flung the cloth to the floor and stomped with both feet until a sickly crunch announced an end to the threat.
He took a moment to regain his breath. “Thank Odin it didn’t sting him.”
Abigail had begun to quiet Samuel, now only sobbing fitfully.
“It did sting him.” Abigail lifted Samuel’s tiny foot to reveal a swollen red mark on the boy’s heel.
“I don’t understand. Deathstalkers are always fatal.”
Abigail covered the baby back up as she moved to the open window. She paused there, looking as if the world was caving in on her. Then she closed the window firmly and turned to Robert.
“We have to leave. Tonight.”
“Leave? But those cursed witches will find us wherever we go.”
“That is why we have to leave the Ninth Realm, Robert.”
Confused, he searched her eyes. “What are you not telling me?”
“To survive that creature… our son has more power than you can imagine. We’re all in danger now.”
With a heavy sigh, Robert nodded in resignation. As Abigail pulled together an overnight bag, he glanced out the window one last time at his would-be farm, now shrouded in darkness. Their future as homesteaders would have to wait.
“I know who can take us,” Robert said, following his wife from the room. “An old sailor.”
“Can he be trusted?” she asked hurrying down the hallway.
“Without a doubt.” Robert joined Abigail in the master bedroom. “But we’ll take no chances,” he added, removing his broad, sheathed sword from the closet.
While Abigail stuffed a change of clothes for both of them into the overnight bag, Robert pulled on his High Council coat and gear. His mind raced ahead. He had never been to Midgard—the Earth realm. He was nervous, but determined.
Wherever we settle, he silently vowed, I will be the best father a boy can have.
The day started out like every other day in the life of Sam Baron, which is to say it was as boring and predictable as the sun rising over the Blue Mountains. Sam rolled up to school five minutes past the bell and parked his bike. The brick buildings of Pilot Rock Junior High glistened from the heavy Oregon rain that had fallen during the night. In the distance, the giant boulder the town was named for loomed like a swollen tick.
Sam splashed through puddles and entered the building. The hallways were deserted, but he wasn’t worried. Good old Mr. Platz didn’t mind if Sam was a little late as long as he brought his English teacher some of his old Gamer magazines.
He strolled into class surprised to see kids sitting on desks throwing wads of paper and chattering like hyenas. There was no sign of Platz. A crowd of boys had formed a dogpile by the window. Sam dropped his backpack on his seat in front of Keely Hatch. A quiet girl who kept to herself, Keely had her nose buried in a book.
“Where’s Howie?” Sam asked.
Keely went on reading and pointed to the back.
Sam gritted his teeth. Howie got picked on. A lot. He was skinny, and his pants were usually an inch or three too short. Top that off with oversized glasses and a mop of curly hair, and he might as well have spray-painted a bull’s-eye on his chest.
“Be careful,” Keely cautioned as Sam brushed past. “Ronnie’s in a mood.”
A pair of familiar red tennis shoes stuck out from the bottom of the dogpile. Sam waded in, yanking aside the first two boys. Howie lay on his back. The class bully, Ronnie Polk, was on top of him, squashing a grape jelly sandwich all over Howie’s face.
Sam yanked Ronnie off and spun him around. The startled look on Ronnie’s face was priceless, like he was about to wet his pants when he saw who it was. Kids started chanting, “Fight, fight!”
A twinge of guilt made Sam loosen his hold. He had already flattened Ronnie’s nose once a few months back. Another incident and his mom was going to pack him off to military school. But Ronnie had other ideas. He twisted free and punched Sam hard in the stomach. The air went out of Sam with an oof. Blood zinged between his ears. Grabbing Ronnie by the shirt, Sam cocked his fist back to reflatten Ronnie’s nose when the door opened with a bang.
A woman walked in on spindly high heels, dressed in a black suit cinched tight around the waist. Ebony-colored hair was tied back in a sleek bun. Dropping a leather satchel on the desk, she turned to face the class, folding her arms primly. She arched one eyebrow at Sam, and he realized he was still holding Ronnie by his collar. Sam dropped the boy, sure he was about to be suspended.
She rapped out the command with quiet authority. Kids scattered to their seats. Sam helped Howie to his feet. Chunks of grape jelly dripped from his friend’s face. Sam handed Howie his glasses, and they slunk to their desks.
“My name is Ms. Endera,” she announced to the silent room. “I will be taking over for Mr. Platz.”
“What happened to Mr. Platz?” a girl up front asked.
Ms. Endera looked down her thin nose and said, “Why don’t I show you? Raise your hand if you would like to see a magic trick.”
Hands shot up. This was a lot more fun than grammar lessons. Ms. Endera rummaged in her black satchel and pulled out a silk handkerchief. “Observe.” She put the scrap of fabric over her left hand and waved her other hand in a circle. “Fein kinter, reptilia,” she whispered.
Ms. Endera whipped the handkerchief away, and in her palm sat a fat, green lizard. Its pink tongue slithered out of its mouth. The class oohed and clapped as she raised the reptile up high. “Here is your Mr. Platz. As you can see, someone has turned him into a lizard.”
The class burst into laughter, but Sam half rose out of his chair. Its eyes looked so forlorn he almost believed it was their missing teacher.
Howie grabbed Sam and yanked him back down. “Dude, how’d she do that?” he whispered.
Sam had no idea, but it was kinda strange.
“When’s he coming back?” Keely asked.
The room quieted, and Ms. Endera’s eyes narrowed as she put the lizard away in her bag. “I don’t believe poor Mr. Platz is going to be able to return. Let’s play a little game, shall we?” She clapped her hands. “Everyone stand up. Come, come out of your chairs.” The students slouched to their feet, standing awkwardly next to their desks.
“Now, if you are a girl, you may sit down.”
The girls grabbed their seats and giggled as if they had just won a prize.
Ms. Endera held up a finger. “If your father has blond hair, take a seat.”
Seven of the boys sat down.
Sam shuffled from foot to foot. It was like an awful game of musical chairs. Only five boys remained.
She resumed her pacing. “If your father was at back-to-school night, please sit down.” Three more were excused, leaving only Sam and Ronnie Polk. The bully shot Sam a nasty look, like it was Sam’s fault Ronnie was left standing with him.
“You.” She pointed at Ronnie. “Where was your father?”
Ronnie scowled. “At home watching the play-offs. He says back-to-school night is lame.”
She waved him into his chair. “And you?” She scrutinized Sam closely. “The boy with the temper. What is your name?”
“Sam, Sam Baron.” A bead of sweat rose up on his brow. This was embarrassing.
“Mr. Baron, where was your father?”
“Working on a fishing boat in Alaska,” he lied. She didn’t need to know his dad had walked out two years ago without so much as a note.
Ronnie snorted loudly. “His dad took off ‘cause Sam’s so ugly.”
Sam would have gladly punched Ronnie right then and there, but Ms. Endera came to his rescue. She stalked over on those spindly heels of hers and leaned over Ronnie’s desk.
“Then your father must be a mountain troll—or has your nose always been that crooked?”
Ronnie turned red and sunk down in his seat as titters of laughter spread across the class. Sam relaxed, taking the opportunity to take his seat. Maybe this Ms. Endera wasn’t so bad.
They spent the rest of the period writing an essay about the kind of work their dads did. Sam filled a couple of pages on how to bait a hook before the bell rang. As he gathered his stuff, Ms. Endera tapped him on the shoulder.
“I’d like a word after class.”
The room emptied, leaving just the two of them. She sat on the edge of her desk, a tentative smile on her face. “I hope I didn’t make you uncomfortable. I find it breaks the ice to play a little game.”
Sam didn’t want to tell her it had been a pretty lame game, not when she had come to his rescue. So he just said it was cool.
Ms. Endera crooked her finger, inviting him closer. “I have a secret,” she said softly. “I’m looking for someone. A boy. About your age.”
“Perhaps you,” she said, searching his eyes intently.
Sam took a step back. His “crazy” sensors were sending off loud warnings. “I gotta go,” he said, grabbing his backpack. He turned to make a break for it, but she was fast. In a blink, she was between Sam and the door.
She poked her finger in his chest. At her touch, a jolt of pain shot through Sam. “Are you a Son of Odin, Mr. Baron?”
“What? No,” Sam gritted out. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She pressed harder. Iron bands wrapped around his torso until it felt like he couldn’t breathe.
“I saw how you wanted to tear that boy apart,” she crooned in a low voice. “Are you the one I’m looking for?”
Sam tried to shout for help, but his tongue felt nailed to the roof of his mouth.
Thankfully, the door burst open as the next class crowded in, filling the room with noise. Ms. Endera vanished, appearing on the other side of the classroom. Sam didn’t stop to wonder how she had done that. He fled fast as his feet could carry him.
Safely outside, he leaned against the wall, trying to slow his racing heart.
“Teacher’s pet,” Howie said, punching him on the arm.
“Shut up, Howie.”
“You shut up, Mr. Baron, or I’ll turn you into a lizard.” Howie pitched his voice higher, mimicking Ms. Endera and waving his arms around. “Finker pinker, reptile stinker.”
Sam couldn’t help it; he smiled, feeling the haze of fear lift. “You okay?” he asked.
Howie shrugged, his skinny shoulders jutting sharply under his tee. “Never better. Grape jelly facials are all the rage. Hey, check out the new kid.”
Sam looked up. A boy stood uncertainly in the hall clutching his schedule. His long, black hair was tied neatly in a ponytail. He wore a flannel shirt over faded jeans. With his almond skin, he was obviously Umatilla. Strange. The Native American kids usually stuck to the reservation school.
Their eyes met. The other boy’s nostrils flared, like he recognized Sam, but Sam could swear he had never seen the kid before. One thing was certain; the day was turning out to be anything but boring.