Chapter 1: Polar Bear Boogie
1 Polar Bear Boogie
IT WAS THURSDAY, AND TWELVE-YEAR-OLD Skade was in her fourth-period Norse History class at Asgard Academy. Concentrating hard, she spun herself in a tight circle, around and around on the wood plank classroom floor. Her long, thick, white-streaked black hair fanned out around her as she spun. Believe it or not, this was a history lesson. Dancing! And she and her classmates were all having a lot of fun with it.
Their teacher, Mr. Sturluson, had begun a Traditions and Rituals unit this afternoon. They were learning the traditional folk dances of Norway, starting with one called the halling. They’d needed music, of course, so a boygod named Fossegrim was playing the fiddle. And another named Bragi was playing his lute, a stringed instrument with a deep, round back. To give themselves more floor space to move freely throughout the room, they’d pushed all their chairs and desks against the walls, which were slanted since the classroom was actually built to look like the inside of a big, wooden sailing ship.
Between each twirl she made, Skade folded both arms across her chest and squatted low on the balls of her feet. Then she’d pop back up to begin the sequence again. Squat, stand, twirl. Squat, stand, twirl. Occasionally, she and some of the girls in class would slightly lift the hems of their hangerocks—apronlike dresses they wore over linen shifts—to ensure they wouldn’t trip over them.
Whenever the fiddle music hit a loud, hard note, students in line were supposed to take turns leaping high to try to kick a black hat off the end of a pole. The other end of this pole was held by their bearded teacher Mr. Sturluson, who stood on a chair at the far side of the room. He held the pole horizontally about six feet above the floor so that its hat-covered end jutted into the middle of the room. So far, no one had managed to jump and kick high enough to knock that hat off.
Skade eyed it carefully as three boygods named Balder, Ull, and Njord, who were dancing in line ahead of her, waited for their turns to try. After them, she’d be next.
She breathed hard as she danced in place, squatting, standing, and twirling. As she pictured herself doing the precise moves needed to successfully dislodge the hat, her confidence rose. When it was her turn to be the one to try to kick that hat, she’d send it flying up to the rafters!
Although she was a good athlete, she’d never tried dancing before. There had been dances at her old school to celebrate the changing seasons. However, she’d always skipped them in favor of going skiing—her favorite sport. Who knew dancing was such great exercise, though? And much to her surprise she had really gotten into the rhythm of the music. She’d definitely been missing out. Because she was loving the halling. And she was rocking it too!
As Skade executed another twirl, she recalled the posters she’d seen around the academy the last few days promoting a school dance this weekend here at Asgard Academy. Maybe she should go. Freya, Sif, and Idun would probably come with her. She and those three were all girlgoddesses with various magical powers. They’d quickly become good friends when the academy opened and they’d been thrown together as podmates (which meant they shared a room in the girls’ dorm).
This was after Principal Odin had invited (ordered, actually) certain students from various places within the nine worlds of the Norse universe to leave their homes and schools and come enroll here at AA. And since no one ever said “no” to the supremely powerful Odin—not if they knew what was good for them—here they all were.
Skade stepped closer to the end of the pole that stuck out into the center of the room. The end with the hat. Only Njord, the boygod of the sea, remained in line ahead of her now. Fittingly, his shiny yellow hair hung in shoulder-length waves that kind of reminded her of seaweed. She watched as he spun, then kicked. And missed. He looked annoyed and embarrassed.
“Good try,” she told him, attempting to lighten his mood as she continued breathlessly dancing. But instead of smiling at her, he straightened the leather cord necklace he wore that held nine small seashells, and sent her a sour look.
Boys! Why did they always seem to get majorly put out when they couldn’t win every single contest, big or small? Still, she understood that in a way. Winning at any kind of athletic competition was really important to her. Luckily, she often did win!
Finally, her turn had come to try to kick the hat off the pole. Eyes on her goal, she moved forward, her confidence running high. She could do this! She was going to nail that hat with one sharp kick-shot. Squat, stand, twirl. As soon as she heard the hard musical note, she reared back, readying to jump and kick her right foot high in the perfect strike.
Suddenly a concerned classmate’s voice reached her ears through the music, piercing her concentration. “You think Skade’s okay?”
“No, she’s not okay. Obviously. She’s dancing like some kind of crazed polar bear,” another voice replied. She was pretty sure that second voice was Njord’s.
Her focus broken, she faltered as she kicked toward the hat. And missed! “Ow!” she yelled as her foot connected with the pole instead.
The thrust of her energetic kick caused her to spin out of control and land in a heap on the floor. Thunk! Her hit to the pole dislodged the hat, all right, but only because she’d knocked the pole from Mr. Sturluson’s hands. Before the pole fell to the floor with a whap, the hat rolled off its end to land at a funny angle atop her head.
Trying to make the best of an embarrassing situation, she grinned. Leaping up, she tipped the hat forward with one hand, swung her other arm wide in a grand fashion, and bowed. “Ta-da! I meant to do that,” she announced.
At first there was only stunned silence. Then a few uncertain giggles erupted from her classmates. Her smile faded as disappointment filled her. All her confidence had been in vain. And she’d been dancing like a crazed polar bear? Is that what everyone thought? She flung the hat to the floor and glared at it.
After blowing her hair out of her face, she took a deep breath to calm down. “There’s always next time,” she muttered to herself. She was determined not to be a bad sport like Njord. Still, it wasn’t fun to fail so spectacularly in front of the whole class.
Hearing murmurs, she glanced up. Numerous students had gathered around her. The looks on their faces ranged from confusion to surprise to amusement to worry. Probably because they were used to seeing her triumph at whatever athletic feat she attempted.
“Skade? Are you feeling well? Are you under a spell?” a boygod’s voice enquired from behind her.
She knew without looking that it was Bragi. The boygod of poetry and music, he often spoke in rhymes without even trying.
“Um…er,” she mumbled, unsure what to say. Usually she was outspoken and among the first to raise her hand or speak up in class during discussions. But feeling sheepish about her clumsy mistake (and maybe about her awful dancing style, if Njord was right about that), she found herself practically speechless for once.
Mr. Sturluson, whose first name was Snorri because he tended to fall asleep easily and snore at his desk, had taken a moment to drag the fallen pole to one side of the room. Presumably so no students would accidentally trip over it. Now he came up to Skade. “You’re never this quiet,” he told her worriedly. “If there is indeed a magic spell at work here, we’ll need a potion to cure you.”
Although he looked and sounded alarmed, a yawn escaped him as he gestured toward a boygod with bright white spiky hair named Balder. “Go get the school nurse. Hurry!” he commanded. As though Mr. Sturluson’s sleepy nature had affected him, Balder let out a yawn too. (Yawns were contagious, after all.) But then Balder’s mouth snapped shut and he ran for the door to follow the teacher’s instructions.
Seeing that the boygod was about to exit the room, Skade waved her arms. “Wait! I don’t need a nurse. I’m not hurt and I’m not under any spell. I was just…dancing. You know, like the rest of you guys.” She took another deep breath, then admitted, “But I guess I’m not very good at it.”
When someone snickered, she turned to locate the source. Njord again! Well, that stung. Instead of being part of the group, she was alone in the center of a ring of staring classmates. She hunched her shoulders. A few minutes ago, they’d all been having fun rocking out together as one big group. Now she felt like she didn’t belong. That they were all looking at her as if they didn’t really know her anymore.
Who is this bumbling, clumsy girl, and what has she done with the real Skade? she imagined them thinking. Our Skade is a fantastic athlete and the best skier at the academy!
Having retraced his steps from the door to stand beside Njord, Balder now piped up with, “I thought your interpretation of the halling dance was interesting, Skade.”
Skade smiled at him and he smiled back. They only had this one class together and hadn’t ever really talked much, but she knew him to be nice and upbeat. His personality was so lighthearted that it caused his skin to give off a soft glow that matched his hair color.
A weird happy feeling moved through her as she studied him. Huh. What was that about? Hmm. Some of her podmates had crushes or almost-crushes. And she’d heard them and other girls talk about how they could make you feel melty inside. She hoped this wasn’t a crush. If it was, she’d better crush it fast. From everything she’d ever heard, crushes were a big pain.
She knew this because her friend Freya was the girlgoddess of love and beauty. She received lots of letters from all over the nine worlds, each one asking for advice concerning crush troubles. Troubles? Who needed those? Not her! Anyway, these letters—which were necessarily short, since they were usually written with the pointed ends of fire-charred sticks on pieces of bark or large leaves—typically asked Freya things like how to get their crush to notice them. Or how to get over a crush who had hurt their feelings. Why would anyone want to have to deal with that stuff? thought Skade. Nope, she was not crushing.
She was brought back to the present when Njord snickered again. She watched him nudge Balder with an elbow. “Interesting? You meant her dancing was hilarious, right?”
Skade felt her cheeks turn red with embarrassment. While she’d been enjoying herself dancing, it seemed that others had been laughing at her—or at least Njord had.
“No, I meant interesting,” insisted Balder.
Uh-oh, Balder being so nice was causing her to feel that happy-melty feeling again. Then she looked from Balder to Njord and it faded. She supposed Njord was cute and all, and maybe some other girl would get that kind of feeling about him. Not her, though. Not even for half a second.
“It’s cool to learn dances from the olden days, but what’s wrong with changing them a little to suit our, um, personalities?” Balder went on.
He really was a nice boy, Skade thought warmly. Thing was, she hadn’t been trying to change the dance, though. Were her dancing skills really so awful? Her athletic abilities had always been her biggest source of pride. She wasn’t just the best skier at the academy. She was, in fact, the girlgoddess of skiing! Shouldn’t she should be great at dancing, too?
“Unfortunately, that’s not the lesson,” Mr. Sturluson explained to Balder, drawing everyone’s attention. “Class time is nearly over. Let’s move our desks back into place for the next class. They’ve finished the dancing unit and won’t need the floor space.”
As the students began to do as he asked, the teacher looked over at Skade and frowned. “Skade?”
She blinked at him. “Yes?”
“Follow me, please. I’d like to speak to you for a moment.”
Was she in trouble? As the rest of the students began moving desks and gathering their stuff in preparation for leaving for their fifth (and last) period classes, Skade trudged over to the supply area behind a large shelf at the back of the classroom. She liked Mr. Sturluson. She didn’t think she could bear it if she’d done something to make him mad at her. But if he was planning to scold her, at least he was doing it privately where other kids wouldn’t hear.
“I won’t keep you long,” he told her, leading her to sit across from him at a table in the supply area. “I know you have another class to get to next period. However, I want you to think on something before you return here tomorrow.”
When he interrupted himself to yawn big, she had to struggle not to yawn too. Yawns really were catching! “Our Traditions and Rituals unit is going to last for several weeks and will constitute one quarter of your semester grade,” he went on. “So I strongly suggest you step up your efforts. You’re usually a good student, but I don’t appreciate you mocking the traditional dances in order to amuse your classmates today.”
Her mouth dropped open in surprise. “Huh? But I wasn’t m-mocking.” How could he think that? Her stomach knotted in dismay.
Mr. Sturluson squinched his eyes at her. Then he folded his arms across his chest, looking like he didn’t exactly believe her. “Really? It appeared to me that you weren’t even trying to do the steps correctly. And what was that pratfall about? I fully expected you to be the one to knock the hat off.”
Me too, Skade wanted to say. But the words stuck in her throat. A feeling of shame washed over her, even though she hadn’t done anything wrong. Because she really had been trying to do the steps. Only apparently, she’d done them incorrectly. Her teacher would know that, of course. He was an expert on Norse History, and that included traditional dancing. He’d even written a famous scholarly book about Norse History called the Prose Edda. It was on the shelves of the Heartwood Library here at their school.
Skade was in awe of that book. She’d read it from cover to cover. It contained almost everything you needed to know about the nine Norse worlds. For instance, that they were protected under the branches of a single enormous ash tree named Yggdrasil. That tree was awesome. And magical! And it was the job of everyone it sheltered to keep it healthy.
“Well?” The elderly Mr. Sturluson cocked his head at her, causing his round red cap to dip and shadow his forehead. “Will you think about what I just said?”
Jolted back to the present, Skade nodded and then opened her mouth to explain that she really, really hadn’t been trying to change the dance. But her words were interrupted by a loud Toot! sound.
“There’s Heimdall’s horn,” noted the teacher, and they both rose from the table. Heimdall was the school’s brawny, ten-foot-tall security guard stationed on a tricolor bridge called Bifrost that led to and from the world of Asgard. The bridge had been built from fire, air, and water—red for fire, blue for air, and green for water. And Heimdall guarded it day and night to keep intruders out of this world.
Mr. Sturluson’s eyes had grown sleepy. He put his large hand over his mouth and yawned again. Afterward, he said, “You may go, Skade. I’ll look forward to you working up to your usual standard of excellence in our next class.”
Skade nodded. “Yes, sir.” She had never been as happy to hear Heimdall belt out that end-of-class toot as she was right now.
Just as she was about to leave the small room, however, a series of additional horn blasts suddenly sounded in quick succession. Toot! Toot! Toooot!
She and Mr. Sturluson both tensed in alarm. “The emergency signal!” they exclaimed at the same time.
Along with the others who hadn’t yet left, they ran for the room’s ship-shaped exit door. Officially called halls, the academy’s classrooms were basically individual tree houses set high among the branches of Yggdrasil. Instead of just the usual rectangles, their doors often took intriguing shapes and hung in thin air supported by magic, while the exteriors of the classrooms remained invisible to the eye until you actually entered.
Upon exiting now, Skade, her teacher, and her remaining classmates joined groups of students and teachers dashing from their classrooms. They all flooded onto the many small interconnected bridges that were offshoots of the main Bifrost Bridge. Which then led to a series of branch ladders, vine tunnels, vine swings, and vine slides. In combination, these allowed students to travel up, down, and around Yggdrasil to get wherever they needed to go.
On the branchway nearby, Skade saw students from a class called Gnashing and Smashing launch themselves downward, many scrambling onto vine ladders that led to the path below. She grabbed a dangling vine, wrapped both hands and legs around it, and then promptly slid down to land safely on the fernway. From there she was swept into the rush of students weaving through a forest of golden-leafed aspen trees. They were all headed toward a great wall that, along with Heimdall’s security on the Bifrost Bridge, protected Asgard from enemy attack.
Skade noted the looks of panic on everyone’s faces. She could guess what they were thinking. The same worried thoughts she was. Did Heimdall’s horn signal the beginning of Ragnarok—a foreordained mythical battle they feared would one day end all nine worlds?
At first, the aspen forest and Yggdrasil’s branches grew too thick along the path for her to see whatever was happening ahead. But she could hear footsteps—loud ones—coming from outside the wall.
STOMP. STOMP. STOMP.
That sound could only mean one thing. Enemy giants!
“Here comes trouble!” someone yelled.
Skade feared they were right.