Mr. Alderman forgot that he wasn’t supposed to acknowledge sign language. He asked, “Payment? But how—?”
“Come upstairs and we’ll show you.” I glanced behind Alderman, where Inge stood wide-eyed, a grin slowly spreading across her face. “We’ve got a demon-skin rug to cover.”
Ah, the sound of golden Monopoly tokens cascading across a fur rug…There is nothing sweeter, I promise you. Hearthstone tipped over the canvas sack and walked around the rug, hosing it down with a torrent of wealth. Mr. Alderman’s face got paler. In the doorway, Inge jumped up and down, clapping with excitement, heedless of the fact that she hadn’t paid her master for the privilege.
When the last of the gold was out, Hearthstone stepped back and threw down the empty bag. He signed, Wergild paid.
Mr. Alderman looked stunned. He did not say Good job, son! Or Oh, boy, I’m richer! Or Did you rob the Elfish Treasury Department?
He crouched and inspected the pile, coin by coin, dagger by dagger. “There are miniature dogs and steam trains,” he noted. “Why?”
I coughed. “I think the, uh, previous owner liked board games. Solid-gold board games.”
“Hmm.” Alderman continued his inspection, making sure that the entire rug was covered. His expression turned more and more sour. “Did you leave the property to acquire this? Because I did not give you permission—”
“Nope,” I said. “You own the wilderness behind the backyard, right?”
“Yes, he does!” Inge said. The master glared at her, and she hastily added, “Because, ah, Mr. Alderman is a very important man.”
“Look, sir,” I said, “it’s obvious Hearthstone succeeded. The rug is covered. Just admit it.”
“I will be the judge!” he snarled. “This is all about responsibility, something you younger folks do not understand.”
“You want Hearthstone to fail, don’t you?”
Alderman scowled. “I expect him to fail. There is a difference. This boy earned his punishment. I am not convinced he has the potential to pay it off.”
I almost screamed, Hearthstone has been paying his entire life! I wanted to pour Andvari’s treasure straight down Alderman’s throat and see if that convinced him of his son’s potential.
Hearthstone brushed his fingers against my arm. He signed, Calm. Ready with the ring.
I tried to control my breathing. I didn’t understand how Hearth could endure his father’s insults. He’d had a lot of practice, sure, but the old elf was intolerable. I was glad Jack was back in pendant form, because I would’ve ordered him to give Mr. Alderman the full Brazilian treatment.
In the pocket of my jeans, Andvari’s ring was so light I could barely feel it. I had to resist the urge to check on it every few seconds. I realized that was one reason I felt so irritated with Mr. Alderman. I wanted him to say that the debt was paid. I didn’t want Hearthstone to be right about needing the ring, too.
I kind of wanted to keep it. No, wait. That’s not right. I wanted to return it to Andvari so we didn’t have to deal with the curse. My thoughts on the subject were starting to get muddled, as though my head was full of river sludge.
“Aha!” Mr. Alderman cried triumphantly. He pointed to the top of rug, at the nape of its neck, where the fur was thickest. A single blue hair sprouted from the treasure like a stubborn weed.
“Oh, come on,” I said. “That’ll just take a minor adjustment.”
I shifted the treasure so the hair was covered. But as soon as I succeeded, another hair popped up from the spot where I’d taken the gold. It was like the same stupid blue hair was following me around, defying my efforts.
“This is no problem,” I insisted. “Let me get out my sword. Or, if you have a pair of scissors—”
“The debt is not paid!” Mr. Alderman insisted. “Unless you can cover that last hair right now, with more gold, I am going to charge you for disappointing me and wasting my time. Say…half this treasure.”
Hearthstone turned to me—no surprise in his face, just glum resignation. The ring.
A wave of murderous resentment washed over me. I didn’t want to give up the ring. But then I looked at the whiteboards around the room: all the rules and menu items, all the expectations that Mr. Alderman expected Hearthstone not to meet. The curse of Andvari’s ring was pretty strong. It whispered to me, telling me to keep it and get filthy rich. But the urge to see Hearthstone free of his father, reunited with Blitzen, and out of this toxic house…that was stronger.
I brought out our secret last bit of treasure.
A hungry light kindled in Mr. Alderman’s space-alien eyes. “Very well. Place it on the pile.”
Father, Hearthstone signed. Warning: the ring is cursed.
“I will not listen to your hand gestures!”
“You know what he’s saying.” I held up the ring. “This thing taints whoever owns it. It’ll ruin you. Heck, I’ve only had it for a few minutes and it’s already messing with my mind. Take the gold that’s already on the rug. Call the debt paid. Show some forgiveness, and we’ll return this ring to its previous owner.”
Mr. Alderman laughed bitterly. “Forgiveness? What can I buy with forgiveness? Will it bring Andiron back to me?”
Personally, I would’ve punched the old dude in the face, but Hearthstone stepped toward his father. He looked genuinely worried. Curse of F-A-F-N-I-R, he signed. Do not.
Andvari had mentioned that name. It sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place it. Maybe Fafnir was a Powerball lottery winner?
Hearthstone gestured please—hand flat against the chest, making a circle. It struck me that please was just a more relaxed, less angry version of sorry.
The two elves stared at each across the pile of gold. I could almost feel Alfheim swaying in the branches of the World Tree. Despite everything Alderman had done to him, Hearthstone still wanted to help his father…he was making one last effort to pull his dad out of a hole much deeper than Andvari’s.
“No,” Mr. Alderman decided. “Pay the wergild or stay in my debt—both of you.”
Hearthstone bowed his head in defeat. He motioned at me to give up the ring.
“First the Skofnung Stone,” I said. “Let me see that you’re keeping your side of the bargain.”
Alderman grunted. “Inge, bring the Skofnung Stone from its case. The security code is Greta.”
Hearthstone flinched. I guessed Greta was his mother’s name.
The hulder scurried off.
For a few tense moments, Hearthstone, Alderman, and I stood around the rug and stared at each other. No one suggested a game of Monopoly. No one yelled “Yippee!” and jumped in the pile of gold (though I’ll admit I was tempted).
Finally, Inge came back, the blue-gray whetstone cupped in her hands. She offered it to Alderman with a curtsey.
Alderman took it and handed it to his son. “I give this to you freely, Hearthstone, to do with as you please. Let its powers be yours.” He glowered at me. “Now, the ring.”
I was out of reasons to delay, but it was still difficult. With a deep breath, I knelt and added Andvari’s ring to the treasure, covering the last bit of fur.
“The deal is done,” I said.
“Eh?” Alderman’s gaze was fixed on the treasure. “Yes, yes, except for one thing. You promised me media exposure, Magnus Chase. I have arranged a little party for tonight. Inge!”
The hulder jumped. “Yes, sir! Preparations are coming along. All four hundred guests have RSVP’d.”
“Four hundred?” I asked. “How did you have time to set that up? How did you know we’d succeed?”
“Ha!” The crazy light in Mr. Alderman’s eyes did not calm my nerves. “I didn’t know you’d succeed, and I didn’t care. I planned on arranging parties every night while you stayed here, Magnus, preferably forever. But since you have paid the wergild so quickly, we’ll have to make tonight count. As for how, I am Alderman of House Alderman. No one would dare turn down my invitation!”
Behind his back
, Inge gave me a frantic nod and drew a line across her neck.
“And now…” Mr. Alderman snatched the cursed ring out of the hoard. He placed it on his finger and held it out to admire it like someone newly engaged. “Yes, this will look lovely with my formal attire. Hearthstone, I will expect you and your guest—Hearthstone, where are you going?”
Apparently Hearth had had enough of his father. With the Skofnung Stone in one hand, he hauled Blitzen upright by the scarf harness and lugged him into the bathroom.
A moment later, I heard the shower running.
“I, uh, should go help them,” I said.
“What?” Alderman snapped. “Yes, fine. Such a lovely ring. Inge, make sure our young scoundrels are dressed appropriately for the party, and send some of the staff to help me with this gold. I must have every piece of treasure weighed and counted. And polished! It will look wonderful polished. And while you’re at it…”
I didn’t want to leave Inge alone in the same room with Mr. Crazy Ring, but I was getting nauseated watching Alderman flirt with his fortune. I ran to join my friends in the bathroom.
The only thing more disturbing than a severed god’s head in your bubble bath? A bleeding granite dwarf in your shower.
Hearth propped Blitzen under the showerhead. As soon as the running water cascaded over Blitz’s head, his form began to soften. His cold gray face darkened into warm brown flesh. Blood flowed from his wounded gut and swirled around the drain. His knees buckled. I lurched into the stall to hold him up.
Hearthstone fumbled with the Skofnung Stone. He pressed it against the gushing wound and Blitz gasped. The flow of blood stopped instantly.
“I’m a goner!” Blitz croaked. “Don’t worry about me, you crazy elf! Just—” He spit out water. “Why is it raining?”
Hearthstone hugged him fiercely, crushing Blitz’s face against his chest.
“Hey!” Blitz complained. “Can’t breathe here!”
Hearth, of course, couldn’t hear him and didn’t seem to care. He rocked back and forth with the dwarf in his arms.
“Okay, buddy.” Blitz patted him weakly. “There, there.” He looked up at me and silently asked several thousand questions with his eyes, including: Why are the three of us taking a shower together? Why am I not dead? Why do you smell like pond scum? What is wrong with my elf?