“Oh, good.” My voice sounded higher and softer than usual. “Alderman has a lair now. And, uh, did you see him?”
Hearthstone shook his head. Only smelled him.
“Okay,” I said. “That’s not creepy.”
“You’ll see,” Blitz said. “It’s easiest just to show you.”
That was one offer I definitely wanted to refuse, but there was no way I would let Hearth and Blitz go through those gates again without me.
“W-why haven’t the local elves done something about the estate?” I asked. “Last time we were here, they wouldn’t even tolerate us loitering. Haven’t the neighbors complained?”
I waved at the ruins. An eyesore like this, especially if it killed swans, rodents, and the occasional door-to-door sales elf, had to be against the rules of the neighborhood association.
“We talked to the authorities,” Blitz said. “Half the time we’ve been gone, we’ve been dealing with elfish bureaucracy.” He shuddered in his heavy coat. “Would it surprise you that the police didn’t want to listen to us? We can’t prove Alderman is dead or missing. Hearthstone doesn’t have any legal rights to the land. As for clearing the property, the best the police would do is put up those stupid warning signs. They aren’t going to risk their necks, no matter how much the neighbors complain. Elves pretend to be sophisticated, but they’re as superstitious as they are arrogant. Not all elves, of course. Sorry, Hearth.”
Hearthstone shrugged. Can’t blame the police, he signed. Would you go in there if you didn’t have to?
He had a point. Just the thought of traipsing through the property, unable to see whatever lurked in the tall grass, made jumping beans hop around in my stomach. The Alfheim police were great at bullying transients out of the neighborhood. Facing an actual threat in the ruins of a madman’s mansion…maybe not so much.
Blitzen sighed. “Well, no sense waiting. Let’s go find dear old Dad.”
I would have preferred another dinner with Aegir’s murderous daughters, or a battle to the death with a pile of pottery. Heck, I would have even shared guava juice with a pack of wolves on Uncle Randolph’s roof deck.
We climbed the gates and picked our way through the tall grass. Mosquitoes and gnats swarmed in our faces. The sunlight made my skin prickle and my pores pop with sweat. I decided Alfheim was a pretty world as long as it was manicured and trimmed and kept up by the servants. Allowed to go wild, it went wild in a big way. I wondered if elves were similar. Calm, delicate, and formal on the outside, but if they let loose…I really did not want to meet the new-and-unimproved Mr. Alderman.
We skirted the ruins of the house, which was fine by me. I remembered too well the blue fur rug in Hearthstone’s old room, which we’d been forced to cover with gold to pay the wergild for his brother’s death. I remembered the menu board of infractions on Hearthstone’s wall, keeping tally of his never-ending debt to his dad. I didn’t want to get near that place again, even if it was in ruins.
As we picked our way through the backyard, something crunched under my foot. I looked down. My shoe had gone straight through the rib cage of a small deer skeleton.
“Ugh,” I said.
Hearthstone frowned at the desiccated remains. Nothing but a few strips of meat and fur clung to the bones.
Eaten, he signed, putting his closed fingertips under his mouth. The sign was very similar to hoard/treasure. Sometimes sign language was a little too accurate for my liking.
With a silent apology to the poor deer, I freed my foot. I couldn’t tell what might have devoured the animal, but I hoped the prey hadn’t suffered much. I was surprised wildlife that large was even allowed to exist in the tonier neighborhoods of Alfheim. I wondered if the cops harassed the deer for loitering, maybe cuffing their little hooves and shoving them into the backs of squad cars.
We made our way toward the woods at the back of the property. The grounds had become so overgrown I couldn’t tell where the lawn stopped and the underbrush began. Gradually, the canopy of trees grew thicker, until the sunlight was reduced to yellow buckshot across the forest floor.
I estimated we weren’t far from the old well where Hearthstone’s brother had died—another place high on my Never Visit Again list. So, naturally, we stumbled right into it.
A cairn of stones covered the spot where the well had been filled in. Not a weed or blade of grass grew in the barren dirt, as if even they didn’t want to invade such a poisoned clearing. Still, I had no trouble imagining Hearthstone and Andiron playing here as children—Hearth’s back turned as he happily stacked rocks, not hearing his brother scream when the brunnmigi, the beast who lived in the well, rose from the darkness.
I started to say, “We don’t have to be here—”
Hearth walked to the cairn as if in a trance. Sitting at the top of the pile, where Hearthstone had left it during our last visit, was a runestone:
Othala, the rune of family inheritance. Hearthstone had insisted he would never use that rune again. Its meaning had died for him in this place. Even his new set of rowan runes, the ones he’d received as a gift from the goddess Sif, did not contain othala. Sif had warned him this would cause him trouble. Eventually, she’d said, he would have to return here to reclaim his missing piece.
I hated it when goddesses were right.
Should you take it? I signed. In a pla
ce like this, silent conversation seemed better than using my voice.
Hearthstone frowned, his gaze defiant. He made a quick chopping gesture—sideways then down, like he was tracing a backward question mark. Never.
Blitzen sniffed the air. We’re close now. Smell it?
I smelled nothing except the faint scent of rotting plant matter. What?
“Yeesh,” he said aloud. Human noses are pathetic.
Useless, Hearthstone agreed. He led the way deeper into the forest.
We didn’t make for the river, as we had last time to find Andvari’s gold. This time we moved roughly parallel to the water, picking our way through briars and the gnarled roots of giant oak trees.
After another quarter mile, I started to smell what Hearth and Blitz had talked about. I had a flashback to my eighth-grade biology class, when Joey Kelso hid our teacher’s frog habitat in the ceiling tiles. It wasn’t discovered until a month later, when the glass terrarium crashed back into the classroom and broke all over the teacher’s desk, spraying the front row with glass, mold, slime, and rancid amphibian bodies.
What I smelled in the forest reminded me of that, except much worse.
Hearthstone stopped at the edge of another clearing. He crouched behind a fallen tree and gestured for us to join him.
In there, he signed. Only place he could have gone.
I peered through the gloom. The trees around the clearing had been reduced to charcoal stick figures. The ground was thick with rotting mulch and animal bones. About fifty feet from our hiding place rose an outcropping of boulders, two of the largest rocks leaning together to form what looked like the entrance of a cave.
“Now we wait,” Blitz whispered as he signed, “for what passes for nighttime in this dwarf-forsaken place.”
Hearth nodded. He will emerge at night. Then we see.
I was having a hard time breathing, much less thinking in the miasma of dead-frog stench. Staying here sounded like a terrible idea.
Who’s going to emerge? I signed. Your dad? From there? Why?
Hearthstone looked away. I got the feeling he was trying to be merciful by not answering my questions.
“We’ll find out,” Blitz murmured. “If it’s what we fear…Well, let’s enjoy our ignorance while we still can.”
WHILE WE waited, Hearthstone provided us with dinner.
From his rune bag, he drew this symbol:
It looked like a regular X to me, but Hearthstone explained it was gebo, the rune of gifts. In a flash of gold light, a picnic basket appeared, overflowing with fresh bread, grapes, a wheel of cheese, and several bottles of sparkling water.
“I like gifts,” I said, keeping my voice low. “But won’t the smell draw…uh, unwanted attention?” I pointed to the cave entrance.
“Doubtful,” said Blitzen. “The smell coming out of that cave is more powerful than anything in this basket. But just to be safe, let’s eat everything quickly.”
“I like the way you think,” I said.
Blitzen and I dug in, but Hearth merely settled himself behind the fallen tree trunk and watched us.
“Not eating?” I asked him.
He shook his head. Not hungry, he signed. Also, g-e-b-o makes gifts. Not for the giver. For giver, it must be sacrifice.
“Oh.” I looked down at the wedge of cheese I’d been about to shove in my mouth. “That doesn’t seem fair.”
Hearthstone shrugged, then motioned for us to continue. I didn’t like the idea of him sacrificing so we could eat dinner. Just him being back home, waiting for his father to emerge from a cave, seemed like sacrifice enough. He didn’t need his very own Ramadan rune.
On the other hand, it would’ve been rude to refuse his gift. So, I ate.
As the sun sank, the shadows lengthened. I knew from experience that Alfheim never got fully dark. Like Alaska in summer, the sun would just dip to the horizon and pop back up again. Elves were creatures of light, which was proof that light did not equal good. I’d met plenty of elves (Hearth excepted) who proved that.
The gloom intensified, but not enough for Blitz to take off his anti-sun gear. It must have been a thousand degrees inside that heavy jacket, but he didn’t complain. Once in a while he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed under his netting, wiping the sweat from his neck.
Hearthstone fidgeted with something on his wrist—a bracelet of woven blond hair that I’d never seen before. The color of the locks seemed vaguely familiar….
I tapped his hand for attention. Is that from Inge?
Hearth winced, like this was an awkward subject. On our last visit, Mr. Alderman’s long-suffering house servant Inge had helped us a lot. A hulder, a sort of elf with the tail of a cow, she’d known Hearth since they were both kids. As it turned out, she also had a massive crush on him, even kissing him on the cheek and declaring her love before she fled the chaos of Mr. Alderman’s last