The job seemed impossible. Probably because it was.
Time passed slowly in the muddy tunnel. My only companions were Jack and a few earthworms that were crawling across my calves, checking out my socks.
I started to think the dragon wouldn’t go out for dinner. Maybe he’d call for pizza instead. Then I’d end up with an elfish Domino’s delivery guy falling on my face. I was about to lose hope when Alderman’s putrid smell hit me like a thousand burning frogs kamikaze-diving into my nostrils.
Above, the woven branches rattled as the dragon emerged from his cave.
“I’m thirsty, Mr. Alderman,” he growled to himself. “And hungry, too. Inge hasn’t served me a proper dinner in days, weeks, months? Where is that worthless girl?”
He dragged himself closer to my hiding place. Dirt rained on my chest. My lungs constricted as I waited for the whole tunnel to collapse on top of me.
The dragon’s snout eclipsed my hole. All he had to do was look down and he’d see me. I’d be toasted like a nisser.
“I can’t leave,” Mr. Alderman muttered. “The treasure must be guarded! The neighbors, can’t trust them!”
He snarled in frustration. “Back, then, Mr. Alderman. Back to your duties!”
Before he could retreat, from somewhere in the woods a bright flash of light painted the dragon’s snout amber—the color of Hearthstone’s rune magic.
The dragon hissed. Smoke curled between his teeth. “What was that? Who is there?”
“Father.” The voice turned my marrow to ice. The sound echoed, weak and plaintive, like a child calling from the bottom of a well.
“NO!” The dragon stomped on the ground, shaking the earthworms off my socks. “Impossible! You are not here!”
“Come to me, Father,” the voice pleaded again.
I’d never known Andiron, Hearth’s dead brother, but I guessed I was hearing his voice. Had Hearthstone used the othala rune to summon an illusion, or had he managed something even more terrible? I wondered where elves went when they died, and if their spirits could be brought back to haunt the living….
“I have missed you,” said the child.
The dragon howled in agony. He blew fire across my hiding place, aiming for the sound of the voice. All the oxygen was sucked from my chest. I fought down the impulse to gasp. Jack buzzed gently against my side for moral support.
“I am here, Father,” the voice persisted. “I want to save you.”
“Save me?” The dragon edged forward.
Veins pulsed on the underside of his scaly green throat. I wondered if I could stab him in the gullet. It looked like a soft target. But it was too far above me, out of my blade’s reach. Also, Jack and Hearthstone had been very specific: I had to aim for the heart.
“Save me from what, my precious boy?” The dragon’s tone was tortured and ragged, almost human—or rather almost elfish. “How can you be here? He killed you!”
“No,” said the child. “He sent me to warn you.”
The dragon’s snout quivered. He lowered his head like a threatened dog. “He—he sent you? He is your enemy. My enemy!”
“No, Father,” said Andiron. “Please, listen. He has given me a chance to persuade you. We can be together in the next life. You can redeem yourself, save yourself, if you willingly give up the ring—”
“THE RING! I knew it! Show yourself, deceiver!”
The dragon’s neck was so close now. I could slide Jack’s blade right up to his carotid artery and—Jack hummed a warning in my mind: No. Not yet.
I wished I could see what was happening at the edge of the clearing. I realized Hearth had not just created a magic distraction. He had summoned the spirit of Andiron, hoping against hope that his brother might be able to save their father from his wretched fate. Even now, after all Alderman had done to him, Hearthstone was willing to give his dad a chance at redemption, even if it meant standing in his brother’s shadow one last time.
The clearing grew still and silent. In the distance, briars rustled.
Alderman hissed. “YOU.”
I could only imagine one person Alderman would address with so much familiar contempt. Hearthstone must have revealed himself.
“Father,” pleaded Andiron’s ghost. “Do not do this—”
“Worthless Hearthstone!” the dragon cried. “You dare use magic to sully your brother’s memory?”
A pause. Hearthstone must have signed something, because Alderman bellowed in reply, “Use your board!”
I clenched my teeth. As if Hearth would carry around that awful little board Alderman used to make him write on—not because Alderman couldn’t read ASL, but because he enjoyed making his son feel like a freak.
“I will kill you,” the dragon said. “You dare try to trick me with this grotesque charade?”
He barreled forward—too fast for me to react. His belly covered the nisser hole and plunged me into darkness. Jack lit his runes, illuminating the tunnel, but I was already disoriented from fear and shock. An opening in the dragon’s belly armor appeared just above me, but I had no idea how much of his body had charged past. If I struck now, would I hit his heart? His gallbladder? His lower intestine?
Jack hummed in my mind: No good! That’s the sixth chink! The dragon needs to back up!
I wondered if Mr. Alderman would respond to a politely worded request. I doubted it.
The dragon had stopped moving. Why? The only reason I could think of: Alderman was in the process of chewing Hearthstone’s face off. I panicked. I almost stabbed the beast in the sixth chink, desperate to get the dragon off my friend. Then, through the muffling bulk of the monster’s body, I heard a mighty voice yell:
My first thought: Odin himself had appeared in front of the dragon. He had intervened to save Hearthstone’s life so that his rune-magic training sessions would not go to waste. That commanding roar was so loud it had to be Odin. I’d heard jotun war horns less forceful.
The voice boomed again: “GET AWAY, YOU FOUL, SMELLY EXCUSE FOR A FATHER!”
Now I recognized the accent—a little Southie with a hint of Svartalf.
Oh, no. No, no, no. It wasn’t Odin.
“YOU’RE NOT GETTING ANYWHERE CLOSE TO MY FRIEND, SO PUT YOUR SMELLY DEAD-FROG CARCASS IN REVERSE!”
With crystal clarity, I envisioned the scene: the dragon, stunned and perplexed, stopped cold in his tracks by a new opponent. How such small lungs could possibly produce so much volume, I had no idea. But I was certain that the only thing standing between Hearthstone and fiery death was a well-dressed dwarf in a pith helmet.
I should have been amazed, impressed, inspired. Instead, I wanted to cry. As soon as the dragon recovered his senses, I knew he would kill my friends. He would blowtorch Blitzen and Hearthstone and leave nothing for me to clean up but a pile of fashionable ashes.
“GO!” Blitz bellowed.
Amazingly, Alderman slid backward, revealing the fifth chink in his armor.
Maybe he wasn’t used to being spoken to in such a manner. Perhaps he feared some sort of terrible demon was hiding under Blitz’s black mosquito netting.
“BACK TO YOUR SMELLY CAVE!” Blitzen yelled. “HYAH!”
The dragon snarled, but he retreated one more chink. Jack hummed in my hands, ready to do our job. Just one more section of belly armor to go…
“He’s only a stupid dwarf, Mr. Alderman,” the dragon muttered to himself. “He wants your ring.”
“I DON’T CARE ABOUT YOUR STUPID RING!” Blitz yelled. “SCAT!”
Maybe the dragon was stunned by Blitzen’s earnestness. Or maybe Alderman was confused by the sight of Blitzen standing in front of Hearthstone and the ghost of Andiron, like a father protecting his young. That instinct would have made as little sense to Alderman as a person who wasn’t motivated by greed.
He scooted back another few inches. Almost there…
“The dwarf is no threat, sir,” the dragon assured himself. “He’ll make a tasty dinn
“YOU THINK SO?” Blitz roared. “TRY ME!”
Alderman retreated another inch. The third chink came into view.
Fumbling and panicked, I positioned Jack’s point against the weak spot in the hide.
Then, with all my strength, I drove the sword into the dragon’s chest.
I’D LIKE TO tell you I had qualms about leaving Jack buried up to his hilt in dragon flesh.
I didn’t. My hand left the grip and I was out of there—scrambling down the tunnel like a brownie on fire. The dragon roared and stomped above me, shaking the earth. The tunnel collapsed behind me, sucking at my feet, filling the air with acidic fumes.
Yikes! I thought. Yikes, yikes, yikes!
I am eloquent in times of danger.
The crawl seemed to take much longer than twenty-one seconds. I didn’t dare breathe. I imagined that my legs were burning off. If I made it out, I would look down and realize I was a sawed-off Magnus.
Finally, black spots dancing in my eyes, I clawed my way out of the tunnel. I gasped and flailed, kicking off my shoes and jeans as if they were poison. Because they were. As I’d feared, dragon blood had splattered my pants and was sizzling through the denim. My shoes smoked. I dragged my bare legs across the forest floor, hoping to smear off any remaining drops of blood. When I checked my feet and the backs of my calves, I saw nothing wrong. No new craters in my flesh. No smoke. No smell of burning einherji.
I could only guess that the collapsing tunnel had saved me, the mud mixing with the acid to slow down the tide of corrosion. Or maybe I’d just used up my luck for the next century.
My heart hammered at a less frantic pace. I staggered into the clearing and found the green dragon Alderman lying on his side, tail flopping, legs twitching. He vomited up a feeble blast of napalm, torching a swath of dead leaves and squirrel skeletons.
Jack’s hilt protruded from the dragon’s chest. My former hiding place was now a steaming sinkhole, slowly eating its way to the core of Alfheim.
At the dragon’s snout stood Hearthstone and Blitzen, both unharmed. Next to them, flickering like a weak candle flame, was the specter of Andiron. I’d only seen Hearth’s brother once before, in the portrait above their father’s fireplace. That painting had made him look like a young god, perfect and confident, tragically beautiful. What I saw in front of me, though, was just a boy—fair-haired, skinny, knobby-kneed. I wouldn’t have picked him out of a lineup of elementary schoolers unless I was trying to identify kids likely to be bullied.
Blitz had raised the front of his anti-sun netting, despite the risk of petrification. The skin around his eyes was starting to turn gray. His expression was grim.
The dragon managed to draw a ragged breath. “Traitor. Murderer.”