“Yeah, fine.” Sunspot popped the lid. “Though I don’t see why you care. That has to be the ugliest dwarf lawn ornament I’ve ever seen.”
Hearthstone gently lifted out Blitzen and slung the granite dwarf over his shoulder.
Wildflower shoved me toward the entrance. “Move, thick.”
“Hey!” I almost reached for my pendant but caught myself. At least the cops now treated Hearthstone as off-limits, but they still seemed perfectly fine pushing me around. “Whatever thick means,” I said, “I’m not it.”
Wildflower snorted. “Have you looked in the mirror recently?”
It dawned on me that, compared to elves, all willowy and delicate and handsome, I must have looked squat and clumsy—thick. I got the feeling the term also implied mentally slow, because why insult someone on one level when you can insult them on two?
I was tempted to wreak my revenge on the police officers by bringing out Jack to sing some top-forty hits. Before I could, Hearthstone took my arm and led me up the front steps. The cops trailed behind us, putting distance between themselves and Hearthstone as if they feared his deafness might be contagious.
When we reached the top step, the big steel door swung open silently. A young woman hurried out to meet us. She was almost as short as Blitzen, though she had blond hair and delicate features like an elf. Judging from her plain linen dress and white hair bonnet, I assumed she was a house servant.
“Hearth!” Her eyes lit up in excitement, but she quickly stifled her enthusiasm when she saw our police escorts. “Mr. Hearthstone, I mean.”
Hearth blinked like he might start crying. He signed: Hello/Sorry, blending them together in a single word.
Officer Wildflower cleared his throat. “Is your master home, Inge?”
“Oh—” Inge gulped. She looked at Hearthstone, then back at the cops. “Yes, sir, but—”
“Go get him,” snapped Sunspot.
Inge turned and fled inside. As she hurried away, I noticed something hanging from the back of her skirt—a cord of brown-and-white fur, frayed at the end like the tassel of a belt. Then the tassel flicked, and I realized it was a living appendage.
“She’s got a cow tail,” I blurted.
Sunspot laughed. “Well, she’s a hulder. It would be illegal for her to hide that tail. We’d have to bring her in on charges of impersonating a proper elf.”
The cop gave Hearthstone a quick look of distaste, making it clear that his definition of proper elf also did not include my friend.
Wildflower grinned. “I don’t think the boy has ever seen a hulder before, Sunspot. What’s the matter, thick? They don’t have domesticated forest sprites in whatever world you crawled out of?”
I didn’t answer, though in my mind I was imagining Jack belting out Selena Gomez right in the policeman’s ears. The thought comforted me.
I stared into the foyer—a sunlit colonnade of white stone and glass skylights that still managed to make me feel claustrophobic. I wondered how Inge felt about being required to display her tail at all times. Was it a source of pride to show her identity, or did it feel like a punishment—a constant reminder of her lesser status? I decided the really horrible thing was entwining the two together: Show us who you are; now feel bad about it. Not much different from Hearth signing hello and sorry as a single word.
I felt Mr. Alderman’s presence before I saw him. The air turned cooler and carried a scent of spearmint. Hearthstone’s shoulders slumped as if Midgard gravity were taking over. He shifted Blitzen to the middle of his back as if to hide him. The spots on Hearth’s scarf seemed to swarm. Then I realized Hearth was shivering.
Footsteps echoed on the marble floor.
Mr. Alderman appeared, rounding one of the columns and marching toward us.
All four of us stepped back—Hearth, me, even the cops. Mr. Alderman was almost seven feet tall, and so thin that he looked like one of those UFO-flying, strange-medical-experiment-conducting aliens from Roswell. His eyes were too large. His fingers were too delicate. His jaw was so pointy I wondered if his face had been hung on a perfect isosceles triangle.
He dressed better than your average UFO traveler, though. His gray suit fit perfectly over a green turtleneck that made his neck look even longer. His platinum blond hair bristled like Hearth’s. I could see some family resemblance in the nose and the mouth, but Mr. Alderman’s face was much more expressive. He looked harsh, critical, dissatisfied—like someone who’d just had an outrageously expensive, terrible meal and was contemplating the one-star review he was going to write.
“Well.” His eyes dug into his son’s face. “You’re back. At least you had enough sense to bring the son of Frey with you.”
Sunspot choked on his own smug smile. “Sorry, sir. Who?”
“This lad.” Mr. Alderman pointed to me. “Magnus Chase, son of Frey, isn’t it?”
“That’s me.” I bit back the urge to add sir. So far, this dude hadn’t earned it.
I wasn’t used to people looking impressed when they found out my dad was Frey. Reactions normally ranged from Gee, I’m sorry to Who is Frey? to hysterical laughter.
So I’m not going to lie. I appreciated how quickly the cops’ expressions changed from contempt to oh-poop-we-just-dissed-a-demigod. I didn’t understand it, but I liked it.
“We—we didn’t know.” Wildflower brushed a speck off my shirt like that would make everything better. “We, um—”
“Thank you, officers,” Mr. Alderman cut in. “I will take it from here.”
Sunspot gaped at me like he wanted to apologize, or possibly offer me a coupon for fifty percent off my next imprisonment.
“You heard the man,” I said. “Off you go, Officers Sunspot and Wildflower. And don’t worry. I’ll remember you.”
They bowed to me…actually bowed, then made a hasty retreat to their vehicle.
Mr. Alderman scrutinized Hearthstone as if looking for visible defects. “You’re the same,” he pronounced sourly. “At least the dwarf has turned to stone. That’s an improvement.”
Hearthstone clenched his jaw. He signed in short angry bursts: His name is B-L-I-T-Z-E-N.
“Stop,” Alderman demanded. “None of that ridiculous hand-waving. Come inside.” He gave me the subzero once-over. “We must properly welcome our guest.”
Yep, His Other Car Is Definitely a UFO
WE WERE shown into the living room, where absolutely nothing was living. Light spilled in from huge picture windows. The thirty-foot ceiling glittered with a silver mosaic of swirling clouds. The polished marble floor was blindingly white. Lining the walls, illuminated niches displayed various minerals, stones, and fossils. All around the room, yet more artifacts sat under glass cases on white podiums.
As far as museums went—yeah, great space. As far as rooms where I wanted to hang out—no thanks. The only places to sit were two long wooden benches on either side of a steel coffee table. Above the mantel of the cold fireplace, a giant oil portrait of a young boy smiled down at me. He didn’t look like Hearthstone. His dead brother, Andiron, I guessed. The boy’s white suit and beaming face made him look like an angel. I wondered if Hearthstone had ever looked that happy as a child. I doubted it. The smiling elf boy was the only joyful thing in this room, and the smiling elf boy was dead—frozen in time like the other artifacts.
I was tempted to sit on the floor instead of the benches. I decided to try politeness. It hardly ever works for me, but once in a while I give it a shot.
Hearthstone put Blitzen down carefully on the floor. Then he sat next to me.
Mr. Alderman made himself uncomfortable on the bench across from us.
“Inge,” he called, “refreshments.”
The hulder materialized in a nearby doorway. “Right away, sir.” She scurried off again, her cow tail swishing in the folds of her skirt.
Mr. Alderman fixed Hearthstone with a withering stare, or maybe it was his normal Wow-I-missed-you! expression. “Your room is as you left it. I assume you wil
l be staying?”
Hearthstone shook his head. We need your help. Then we will leave.
“Use the slate, son.” Mr. Alderman gestured at the end table next to Hearth, where a small whiteboard sat with a marker attached by a string. The old elf glanced at me. “The slate encourages him to think before he speaks…if you can call that hand-waving speech.”
Hearthstone crossed his arms and glared at his father.
I decided to play translator before one of them killed the other. “Mr. Alderman, Hearth and I need your help. Our friend Blitzen—”
“Has turned to stone,” said Mr. Alderman. “Yes, I can see that. Fresh running water will bring back a petrified dwarf. I don’t see the issue.”
That information alone would’ve made the unpleasant trip to Alfheim worth it. I felt like the weight of a granite dwarf had been lifted from my shoulders. Unfortunately, we needed more.
“But see,” I said, “I turned Blitzen to stone on purpose. He was wounded by a sword. The Skofnung Sword.”
Mr. Alderman’s mouth twitched. “Skofnung.”
“Yeah. Is that funny?”
Alderman showed his perfect white teeth. “You’ve come here for my help. To heal this dwarf. You want the Skofnung Stone.”
“Yeah. You have it?”
“Oh, certainly.” Mr. Alderman gestured to one of the nearby podiums. Under a glass case sat a stone disc about the size of a dessert plate—gray with blue flecks, just as Loki had described.
“I collect artifacts from all the Nine Worlds,” said Mr. Alderman. “The Skofnung Stone was one of my first acquisitions. It was specially enchanted to withstand the magical edge of the sword—to sharpen it if necessary—and, of course, to provide an instant remedy in the event some foolish wielder cut himself.”
“That’s great,” I said. “How do you heal with it?”
Alderman chuckled. “Quite simple. You touch the stone to the wound, and the wound closes.”
“So…can we borrow it?”