Once we were sure he’d fully un-petrified, Hearth shut off the water. Blitzen was too weak to move, so we slid him into a sitting position right there in the shower.
Inge rushed into the bathroom with a stack of towels and some fresh clothes. From Hearth’s bedroom came the sound of spilling coins, like a dozen slot machines paying out, punctuated by the occasional crazy laugh.
“You might want to take your time in here,” Inge warned us, glancing nervously behind her. “It’s a bit…hectic out there.” Then she left, closing the door behind her.
We did our best to get ourselves cleaned up. I used an extra belt to make a strap for the Skofnung Stone and tied it around my waist, tucking my shirt over it so it wouldn’t be too obvious if Mr. Alderman got a case of takesy-backsies.
Blitzen’s wound had closed nicely, leaving just a small white scar, but he bemoaned the damage to his suit—the sword slash in the vest, the heavy bloodstains. “No amount of lemon juice will get these out,” he said. “Once fabric turns to granite and back again, well, the discoloration is permanent.”
I didn’t bother pointing out that at least he was alive. I knew he was in shock and dealing with it by concentrating on things he understood and could fix—such as his wardrobe.
We sat together on the bathroom floor. Blitzen used his mending kit to stitch together bath towels for extra Alfheim sun protection, while Hearthstone and I took turns filling him in on what had been happening.
Blitzen shook his head in amazement. “You did all that for me? You crazy, wonderful idiots, you could’ve gotten yourselves killed! And Hearth, you subjected yourself to your father? I never would have asked you to do that. You swore you’d never come back here, and for good reason!”
I also swore to protect you, Hearth signed. My fault you were stabbed. And Samirah’s.
“Stop that right now,” Blitz said. “It wasn’t your fault or hers. You can’t cheat a prophecy. That mortal wound was bound to happen, but now you’ve fixed it, so we can stop worrying about it! Besides, if you want to blame someone, blame that fool Randolph.” He glanced at me. “No offense, kid, but I have a strong desire to murder your uncle with extreme prejudice.”
“No offense taken,” I said. “I’m tempted to help you.”
And yet I remembered Randolph’s horrified cry when he’d stabbed Blitzen, and the way he’d followed Loki like an abused dog. As much as I wanted to hate my uncle, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. Now that I’d met Mr. Alderman, I was starting to realize that no matter how bad your family is, it could always be worse.
Hearth finished bringing Blitzen up to speed in sign language, explaining how we’d robbed Andvari and been threatened with multiple Powerball jackpots.
“You were both out of your minds to face that dwarf,” Blitzen said. “He’s infamous in Nidavellir—even craftier and greedier than Eitri Junior!”
“Could we please not mention him?” I pleaded. I still had nightmares about the old dwarf who had challenged Blitz to a crafting contest last January. I never wanted to see another rocket-powered granny-walker as long as I lived.
Blitzen frowned at Hearth. “And you say your father has the ring now?”
Hearthstone nodded. I tried to warn him.
“Yes, but still…that thing can warp its owner’s mind beyond recognition. After what happened to Hreidmar, Fafnir, Regin, and all those lottery winners…well, there’s an endless list of people that ring has destroyed.”
“Who are they?” I asked. “Those people you mentioned?”
Blitzen held up his bath-towel creation—a sort of terrycloth burka with sunglasses taped over the eyeholes. “Long, tragic story, kid. Lots of death. The important thing is, we must convince Mr. Alderman to give up that ring before it’s too late. We have to stay at this party of his for a while, right? That’ll give us a chance. Maybe he’ll be in a good mood and we can make him see sense.”
Hearthstone grunted. My father? Doubtful.
“Yeah,” I said. “And if he won’t see sense?”
“Then we run,” Blitz said. “And we hope Alderman doesn’t—”
From the next room, Inge called, “Mr. Hearthstone?”
Her tone verged on panic.
We stumbled out of the bath and found that Hearth’s bedroom had been completely stripped. The mattress was gone. The whiteboards had been removed, leaving bright white shadows on only slightly less white walls. The pile of treasure and the blue fur rug had vanished as if the wergild had never happened.
Inge stood in the doorway, her bonnet askew on her head. Her face was flushed, and she was anxiously pulling tufts from the end of her tail. “Master Hearth, the—the guests have arrived. The party has started. Your father is asking for you, but…”
Hearthstone signed, What’s wrong?
Inge tried to speak. No words came out. She shrugged helplessly, as if she could not describe the horrors she had witnessed at Mr. Alderman’s mix-and-mingle. “It’s—it’s probably best you see for yourself.”
ALDERMAN KNEW how to throw a party. He also knew how to throw things at a party.
From the top of the staircase, we gazed down at a living room jammed with well-groomed elves in elegant white, gold, and silver outfits. Their pale eyes, fair hair, and expensive jewelry gleamed in the evening sunlight streaming through the windows. Dozens of hulder servants moved through the crowd, offering drinks and hors d’oeuvres. And in all the cases and niches, where artifacts and minerals were once displayed, piles of Andvari’s treasure glittered, making the whole room look like a jewelry warehouse after a tornado.
Above the fireplace mantel, across t
he foot of Andiron’s portrait, hung a golden banner with red letters: WELCOME, MAGNUS CHASE, SON OF FREY, SPONSORED BY HOUSE ALDERMAN! And under that in smaller print: HEARTHSTONE HAS BEEN BROUGHT BACK.
Not “returned.” Been brought back. As if the elfish marshal service had apprehended him and hauled him home in chains.
Alderman himself circulated through the crowd at double-speed, tossing gold coins to his guests, accosting them with jewelry, and muttering, “Can you believe all this treasure? Amazing, isn’t it? Would you like a golden choo choo train? May I interest you in a dagger?”
In his white tuxedo, with his wild eyes and brilliant smile, he looked like a diabolical maître d’ seating parties at Chez Mass Murder. His guests laughed nervously as he threw treasure at them. Once he passed, they muttered to one another, perhaps wondering how soon they could flee the party without seeming impolite. Alderman wove through the room, distributing golden trinkets, and the crowd moved away from him like cats avoiding an out-of-control Roomba.
Behind us, Inge murmured, “Oh, dear. He’s getting worse.”
Hearthstone signed: The ring is affecting him.
I nodded, though I wondered how strained Mr. Alderman’s sanity had already been. For decades, he had been living off resentment, blaming Hearthstone for Andiron’s death. Now, suddenly, Hearthstone had freed himself from that debt. Andvari’s ring simply moved in to fill the void with a whole bunch of crazy.
Blitzen gripped the staircase with his gloved hands. “This isn’t good.”
He was wearing his bath-towel burka to protect himself from the Alfheim light. He’d explained to us that his usual pith helmet netting and sunscreen would not be sufficient, as he was still weak from petrification. Still, the outfit was a little disturbing. He looked like a miniature version of Cousin Itt from the Addams Family.
“Aha!” Mr. Alderman spotted us on the stairs and grinned even wider. “Behold, my son and his companions! The dwarf—at least I assume that’s the dwarf under those towels. And Magnus Chase, son of Frey!”
The crowd turned and looked up at us, emitting a fair number of oohs and ahhs. I’ve never liked being the center of attention. I hated it at school, and later in Valhalla. I hated even more these glamorous elves ogling me like I was a delectable chocolate fountain that had just opened for business.
“Yes, yes!” Mr. Alderman cackled like a maniac. “All this treasure you see, my friends? That is nothing compared to Magnus Chase! My son finally did something right. He brought me a child of Frey as part of his wergild payment. And now this boy Magnus Chase will be my permanent houseguest! We will start a line for photo ops at the bar—”
“Hold up,” I said. “That was not the deal, Alderman. We’re not staying past this party.”
Hearthstone signed: Father, the ring. Dangerous. Take it off.
The crowd stirred restlessly, not sure what to make of this.
Alderman’s smile eroded. His eyes narrowed. “My son is asking me to take off my new ring.” He held up his hand and wiggled his finger, letting the gold band catch the light. “Now, why would he ask that? And why would Magnus Chase threaten to leave…unless these scoundrels are planning to steal my treasure?”
Blitzen scoffed. “They just brought you that treasure, you daft elf. Why would they steal it again?”
“So you admit it!” Alderman clapped his hands. All the doors to the living room slammed shut. Around the perimeter of the room, a dozen columns of water erupted from the floor and formed vaguely humanoid shapes, like balloon animals filled with water…minus the balloons.
Blitzen yelped. “Those are security nøkks.”
“What?” I asked.
“Also called nixies,” he said. “Water spirits. Bad news.”
Hearthstone caught Inge’s arm. He signed: You still have family in woods?
“Y-yes,” she said.
Go now, he said. I release you from my family’s service. Don’t come back. Also, call police.
Inge looked stunned and hurt, but then she glanced at the water spirits surrounding the crowd below.
She pecked Hearthstone on the cheek. “I—I love you.”
She vanished in a puff of fresh laundry-scented smoke.
Blitzen arched his eyebrow. “Did I miss something?”
Hearthstone shot him an irritated look, but he didn’t have time to explain.
Down in the living room, an older elf shouted, “Alderman, what is the meaning of this?”
“The meaning, Lord Mayor?” Alderman grinned with an intensity that was not at all sane. “I now understand why you all came here. You meant to steal my treasure, but I’ve caught you gold-handed! Security nøkks, subdue these thieves! No one leaves here alive!”
Etiquette tip: If you’re looking for the right time to leave a party, when