Who lives here? I signed to Hearth. President of Alfheim?
Just a family. The Makepieces. He spelled out their name.
They must be important, I signed.
Hearth shrugged. Regular. Middle-class.
I laughed, then realized he wasn’t joking. If this was a middle-class family in Alfheim, I didn’t want to split a lunch tab with the one-percenters.
We should go, Hearth signed. Makepieces don’t like me. He readjusted his scarf harness for Blitzen, who probably weighed no more than a regular backpack in Alfheim.
Together we headed for the road.
I have to admit, the lighter gravity made me feel…well, lighter. I bounded along, covering five feet with every step. I had to restrain myself from leaping farther. With my einherji strength, if I wasn’t careful, I might have found myself jumping over the rooftops of middle-class mansions.
As far as I could tell, Alfheim was just row after row of estates like the Makepieces’, each property at least several acres, each lawn dotted with flower beds and topiaries. In the cobblestone driveways, black luxury SUVs gleamed. The air smelled like baked hibiscus and crisp dollar bills.
Sam had said our flight path to Norwood would put us over the best drop zone. Now that made sense. In the same way Nidavellir resembled Southie, Alfheim reminded me of the posh suburbs west of Boston—Wellesley, maybe, with its huge houses and pastoral landscapes, its winding roads, picturesque creeks, and sleepy aura of absolute safety…assuming you belonged there.
On the downside, the sunlight was so harsh it accentuated every imperfection. Even one stray leaf or wilted flower in a garden stood out as a glaring problem. My own clothes looked dirtier. I could see every pore on the back of my hands and the veins under my skin.
I also understood what Hearthstone meant about Alfheim being made of air and light. The whole place seemed unreal, like it was whisked together from cotton candy fibers and might dissolve with a splash of water. Walking across the spongy ground, I felt uneasy and impatient. The super-dark sunglasses only did so much to alleviate my headache.
After a few blocks, I signed to Hearthstone: Where are we going?
He pursed his lips. Home.
I caught his arm and made him stop.
Your home? I signed. Where you grew up?
Hearth stared at the nearest quaint garden wall. Unlike me, he wore no sunglasses. In the brilliant daylight, his eyes glittered like crystal formations.
Skofnung Stone is at home, he signed. With…Father.
The sign for father was an open hand, palm facing out, thumb across the forehead. It reminded me of L for loser. Given what I knew about Hearth’s childhood, that seemed appropriate.
Once, in Jotunheim, I’d done some healing magic on Hearth. I’d gotten a glimpse of the pain he carried around inside. He’d been mistreated and shamed while growing up, mostly because of his deafness. Then his brother had died—I didn’t know the details—and his parents had blamed Hearth. He couldn’t possibly want to go back to a home like that.
I remembered how strongly Blitzen had protested the idea, even when he knew he was going to die. Don’t make Hearth go. Not worth it, kid.
Yet here we were.
Why? I signed. Why would your father (loser) have the Skofnung Stone?
Instead of answering, Hearthstone nodded in the direction we’d come. Everything was so bright in Elf World, I hadn’t noticed the flashing lights until the sleek black town car pulled up directly behind us. Along the sedan’s front grill, red and blue sequencers pulsed. Behind the windshield, two elves in business suits scowled at us.
The Alfheim Police Department had come to say hello.
“Can we help you?” asked the first cop.
Right then, I knew we were in trouble. In my experience, no cop ever said can we help you if he had any actual desire to help. Another giveaway: cop number one’s hand was resting on the butt of his sidearm.
Cop number two edged around the passenger side, also looking ready to break out some helpful deadly force.
Both elves were dressed like plainclothes detectives—in dark suits and silk ties, with ID badges clipped to their belts. Their short-cropped hair was as blond as Hearthstone’s. They had the same sort of pale eyes and eerily calm expressions.
Otherwise they looked nothing like my friend. The cops seemed taller, spindlier, more alien. They exuded a cold air of disdain as though they had personal AC units installed under their shirt collars.
The other thing I found strange: they spoke. I’d spent so much time around Hearthstone, who communicated in eloquent silence, that hearing an elf speak was really jarring. It just seemed wrong.
Both cops focused on Hearthstone. They looked right through me as if I didn’t exist.
“I asked you a question, pal,” the first cop said. “Is there a problem here?”
Hearthstone shook his head. He edged back, but I caught his arm. Retreating would only make things worse.
“We’re good,” I said. “Thanks, officers.”
The detectives stared at me like I was from another world, which, to be fair, I was.
The ID tag on cop number one’s belt read SUNSPOT. He didn’t look much like a sunspot. Then again, I guessed I didn’t look much like a chase.
Cop number two’s ID read WILDFLOWER. With a handle like that, I wanted him to be wearing a Hawaiian shirt or at least a floral-pattern tie, but his outfit was just as boring as his partner’s.
Sunspot wrinkled his nose as if I smelled like a wight’s barrow. “Where’d you learn Elfish, thick? That accent is horrible.”
“Thick?” I asked.
Wildflower smirked at his partner. “What do you bet Elfish isn’t his first language? Illegal husvaettr would be my guess.”
I wanted to point out that I was a human speaking English, and it was my first language. Also my only language. Elfish and English just happened to be the same, like Hearth’s Alf Sign Language was the same as American Sign Language.
I doubted the cops would listen or care. The way they spoke was a little strange to my ears: a sort of old-fashioned, aristocratic American accent I’d heard on newsreels and movies from the 1930s.
“Look, guys,” I said, “we’re just taking a walk.”
“In a nice neighborhood,” said Sunspot, “where I’m guessing you don’t live. The Makepieces down the road—they called in a report. Somebody trespassing, loitering. We take that sort of thing seriously, thick.”
I had to tamp down my anger. As a homeless person, I’d been a frequent target for rough treatment by law enforcement. My darker-skinned friends got it
even worse. So, during the two years I lived on the street, I’d learned a whole new level of caution when dealing with “friendly” neighborhood police officers.
And yet…I didn’t like being called a thick. Whatever that was.
“Officers,” I said, “we’ve been walking for maybe five minutes. We’re heading to my friend’s house. How is that loitering?”
Hearthstone signed to me: Careful.
Sunspot frowned. “What was that? Some kind of gang sign? Speak Elfish.”
“He’s deaf,” I said.
“Deaf?” Wildflower’s face scrunched up in disgust. “What kind of elf—?”
“Whoa, partner.” Sunspot swallowed. He tugged at his collar like his personal AC had stopped working. “Is that…? That’s gotta be…you know, Mr. Alderman’s kid.”
Wildflower’s expression shifted from contempt to fear. It would’ve been kind of satisfying to watch, except that a fearful cop was way more dangerous than a disgusted one.
“Mr. Hearthstone?” Wildflower asked. “Is that you?”
Hearthstone nodded glumly.
Sunspot cursed. “All right. Both of you, in the car.”
“Whoa, why?” I demanded. “If you’re arresting us, I want to know the charges—”
“We’re not arresting you, thick,” Sunspot growled. “We’re taking you to see Mr. Alderman.”
“After that,” Wildflower added, “you won’t be our problem anymore.”
His tone made it sound like we’d be no one’s problem, since we’d be buried under a lovely well-tended flower bed somewhere. The last thing I wanted to do was get in the car, but the cops tapped their fingers on their elfish firearms, showing us just how helpful they were prepared to be.
I climbed into the back of the cruiser.
Pretty Sure Hearthstone’s Dad Is a Cow-Abducting Alien
IT WAS the nicest cop car I’d ever been in, and I’d been in quite a few. The black leather interior smelled of vanilla. The Plexiglas divider was squeaky clean. The bench seat had a massage feature so I could relax after a hard day of loitering. Obviously, they served only the finest criminals here in Alfheim.
After a mile of comfortable cruising, we pulled off the main road and stopped at a pair of iron gates monogrammed with a fancy A. On either side, ten-foot-tall stone walls were topped with decorative spikes to keep out the upper-middle-class riffraff who lived down the street. From the tops of the gateposts, security cameras swiveled to study us.
The gates opened. As we drove through into Hearthstone’s family estate, my jaw nearly dropped off. I thought my family mansion was embarrassing.
The front yard was bigger than the Boston Common. Swans glided across a lake edged with willow trees. We drove over two different bridges crossing a winding creek, past four different gardens, then through a second set of gates before coming to the main house, which looked like a postmodern version of Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland—white-and-gray slab walls jutting out at strange angles, slender towers like organ pipes, huge plate glass windows, and a burnished steel front door so large it probably had to be opened by chain-pulling trolls.
Hearthstone fidgeted with his bag of runes, occasionally glancing back toward the car’s trunk, where the cops had stowed Blitzen.
The officers said nothing until we parked at the front door.
“Out,” Wildflower said.
As soon as Hearthstone was free, he walked to the back of the cruiser and rapped on the trunk.