Why was I not surprised? Hearthstone gave me a look like, Yes, Nine Worlds’ Best Dad.
Inge returned with three silver goblets on a tray. After serving Mr. Alderman, she set a cup in front of me, then she smiled at Hearthstone and gave him his. When their fingers touched, Inge’s ears turned bright red. She hurried off back to…wherever she was required to stay, out of sight but within shouting distance.
The liquid in my cup looked like melted gold. I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything since breakfast, so I’d been kind of hoping for elfish sandwiches and sparkling water. I wondered if I was supposed to ask about the goblet’s creation and its famous deeds before I drank, the way I would in Nidavellir, the world of the dwarves. Something told me no. The dwarves treated every object they made as unique, deserving of a name. From what I’d seen so far, elves surrounded themselves with priceless artifacts and didn’t care about them any more than they cared about their servants. I doubted they named their goblets.
I took a sip. Without doubt, it was the best stuff I’d ever had—with the sweetness of honey, the richness of chocolate, and the coolness of glacier ice, yet it tasted unlike any of those. It filled my stomach more satisfyingly than a three-course meal. It completely quenched my thirst. The jolt it gave me made the mead of Valhalla seem like a knock-off brand of energy drink.
Suddenly, the living room was tinged with kaleidoscopic light. I gazed outside at the well-manicured lawn, the sculptured hedgerows, the garden topiaries. I wanted to pull off my sunglasses, break through the window, and go skipping merrily through Alfheim until the sun burned my eyes out.
I realized Mr. Alderman was watching me, waiting to see how I handled the elfish goofy juice. I blinked several times to get my thoughts back in order.
“Sir,” I said, because politeness was working so well, “why won’t you help us? I mean, the stone is right there.”
“I will not help you,” said Mr. Alderman, “because it would serve me no purpose.” He sipped his drink, raising his pinky finger to show off a glittering amethyst ring. “My…son…Hearthstone, deserves no help from me. He left years ago without a word.” He paused, then barked a laugh. “Without a word. Well, of course he did. But you take my meaning.”
I wanted to shove my goblet between his perfect teeth, but I restrained myself. “So Hearthstone left. Is that a crime?”
“It should be.” Alderman scowled. “In doing so, he killed his mother.”
Hearthstone choked and dropped his goblet. For a moment, the only sound was the cup rolling on the marble floor.
“You didn’t know?” Mr. Alderman asked. “Of course you didn’t. Why would you care? After you left, she was distracted and upset. You have no idea how you embarrassed us by disappearing. There were rumors about you studying rune magic, of all things, consorting with Mimir and his riffraff, befriending a dwarf. Well, one afternoon, your mother was crossing the street in the village, on her way back from the country club. She had endured awful comments from her friends at lunch. She feared her reputation was ruined. She wasn’t looking where she was going. When a delivery truck ran the red light…”
Alderman gazed at the mosaic ceiling. For a second, I could almost imagine he had emotions other than anger. I thought I detected sadness in his eyes. Then his gaze froze over with disapproval again. “As if causing your brother’s death hadn’t been bad enough.”
Hearthstone fumbled for his goblet. His fingers seemed to be made of clay. It took him three tries to stand the cup upright on the table. Spots of gold liquid made a trail across the back of his hand.
“Hearth.” I touched his arm. I signed: I’m here.
I couldn’t think of what else to say. I wanted him to know he wasn’t alone—that someone in this room cared for him. I thought about the runestone he’d showed me months ago—perthro, the sign of the empty cup, Hearth’s favorite symbol. Hearthstone had been drained by his childhood. He’d chosen to fill his life with rune magic and a new family—which included me. I wanted to yell at Mr. Alderman that Hearthstone was a better elf than his parents ever were.
But one thing I’d learned from being a son of Frey—I couldn’t always fight my friends’ battles. The best I could do was be there to heal their injuries.
Also, yelling at Mr. Alderman wouldn’t get us what we needed. Sure, I could summon Jack, bust into the display case, and just take the stone. But I was betting Mr. Alderman had some first-rate security. It wouldn’t do Blitzen any good to get healed only to be killed immediately by the Alfheim SWAT unit. I wasn’t even sure the stone would work properly if it wasn’t given freely by its owner. Magic items had weird rules, especially ones named Skofnung.
“Mr. Alderman.” I tried to keep my voice even. “What do you want?”
He raised a platinum blond eyebrow. “Excuse me?”
“Aside from making your son feel miserable,” I added. “You’re really good at that. But you said helping us wouldn’t serve a purpose for you. What would make it worth your while?”
He smiled faintly. “Ah, a young man who understands business. From you, Magnus Chase, I don’t require much. You know the Vanir are our ancestral gods? Frey himself is our patron and lord. All of Alfheim was given to him as his teething gift when he was a child.”
“So…he chewed on you and spit you out?”
Mr. Alderman’s smile died. “My point is that a son of Frey would make a worthy friend for our family. All I would ask is that you stay with us for a while, perhaps attend a small reception…just a few hundred close associates. Show yourself, take a few photos with me for the press. That sort of thing.”
The gold drink started to leave a bad aftertaste in my mouth. Photos with Alderman sounded almost as painful as getting decapitated by a wire. “You’re worried about your reputation,” I said. “You’re ashamed of your son, so you want me to bolster your street cred.”
Alderman’s big alien eyes narrowed, making them almost normal size. “I do not know this term street cred.
But I believe we understand each other.”
“Oh, I understand you.” I glanced at Hearthstone for guidance, but he still looked unfocused, miserable. “So, Mr. Alderman, I do your little photo op, and you give us the stone?”
“Well, now…” Alderman took a long sip from his goblet. “I would expect something from my wayward son, as well. He has unfinished business here. He must atone. He must pay his wergild.”
“What’s a wergild?” I silently prayed it wasn’t like a werewolf.
“Hearthstone knows what I mean.” Alderman stared at his son. “Not a hair must show. You do what must be done—what you should have done years ago. While you work on that, your friend will be a guest in our house.”
“Wait,” I said. “How long are we talking about? We’ve got somewhere important to be in, like, less than four days.”
Mr. Alderman bared his white teeth again. “Well, then, Hearthstone had better hurry.” He rose and shouted, “Inge!”
The hulder scurried over, a dishrag in her hands.
“Provide for my son and his guest as needed,” said Mr. Alderman. “They will stay in Hearthstone’s old room. And Magnus Chase, do not think you can defy me. My house, my rules. Try to take the stone and, son of Frey or not, it won’t go well for you.”
He tossed his goblet on the floor, as if he couldn’t allow Hearthstone to have the most impressive spill.
“Clean that up,” he snapped at Inge. Then he stormed out of the room.
Oh, You Wanted to Breathe? That’ll Be an Extra Three Gold
HEARTHSTONE’S ROOM? More like Hearthstone’s isolation chamber.
After cleaning up the spill (we insisted on helping), Inge led us up a wide staircase to the second floor, down a hall bedecked with lush tapestries and more artifact niches, to a simple metal door. She opened it with a big old-fashioned key, though doing so made her wince as if the door was hot.
“Apologies,” she told us. “The house’s locks are all made of iron. They’re uncomfortable for sprites like me.”
Judging from the clammy look on her face, I think she meant torturous. I guessed Mr. Alderman didn’t want Inge unlocking too many doors—or maybe he just didn’t care if she suffered.
Inside, the room was almost as large as my suite in Valhalla, but whereas my suite was designed to be everything I could want, this place was designed to be nothing Hearthstone would want. Unlike every other part of the house I’d seen, there were no windows. Rows of fluorescent lights glowed harshly overhead, providing all the ambiance of a discount-furniture store. On the floor in one corner lay a twin mattress covered in white sheets. No blanket, no comforter, no pillows. To the left, a doorway led to what I assumed was the bathroom. To the right, a closet stood open, revealing exactly one set of clothes: a white suit roughly Hearth’s size but otherwise an exact match for the suit in the portrait of Andiron downstairs.
Mounted on the walls, classroom-size whiteboards displayed to-do lists written in neat block letters.
Some lists were in black:
YOUR OWN LAUNDRY, TWICE WEEKLY = +2 GOLD
SWEEP THE FLOORS, BOTH LEVELS = +2 GOLD
WORTHY TASKS = +5 GOLD
Others were in red:
EACH MEAL = –3 GOLD
ONE HOUR OF FREE TIME = –3 GOLD
EMBARRASSING FAILURES = –10 GOLD
I counted maybe a dozen lists like this, along with hundreds of motivational statements like: NEVER FORGET YOUR RESPONSIBILITY. STRIVE TO BE WORTHY. NORMALCY IS THE KEY TO SUCCESS.
I felt as if I were surrounded by towering adults all wagging their fingers at me, heaping shame, making me smaller and smaller. And I’d only been here for a minute. I couldn’t imagine living here.
Even the Ten Commandments whiteboards weren’t the strangest thing. Stretched across the floor was the furry blue hide of a large animal. Its head had been removed, but its four paws still had the claws attached—curved ivory barbs that would’ve made perfect fishing hooks for catching great white sharks. Strewn across the rug were gold coins—maybe two or three hundred of them, glittering like islands in a sea of thick blue fur.
Hearthstone set Blitzen down gently at the foot of the mattress. He scanned the whiteboards, his face a mask of anxiety, as if looking for his name on a list of exam scores.
“Hearth?” I was so shocked by the room I couldn’t form a coherent question like, Why? or, May I please kick your father’s teeth in?
He made one of the first signs he’d ever taught me—back on the streets, when he was teaching me how to stay out of trouble with the police. He crossed two fingers and ran them down his opposite palm like he was writing a ticket: Rules.