Jack laughed. “Oh, come on, señor, I thought you knew! After killing a ring dragon, you have to cut out its heart, roast it, and eat it!”
That’s when I lost my lunch.
SO FAR on our quest, I’d done well not puking. I was on my way to being a not-puking professional.
But the idea of eating a dragon’s heart—Alderman’s disgusting evil excuse for a heart—nope. That was too much.
I staggered into the woods and retched for so long I almost passed out. At last, Blitz clamped his hand on my shoulder and steered me away from the clearing. “Okay, kid. I know. Come on.”
By the time I was somewhat coherent again, I realized Blitzen was leading me toward the river where we’d met Andvari. I didn’t trust myself to speak, except for the occasional “Ow!” when I stepped barefoot on a rock or a branch or a nest of Alfheim fire ants.
Finally, we reached the water. Standing at the edge of a little waterfall, I peered down into Andvari’s pool. It hadn’t changed much since last time. It was impossible to tell if the slimy old dwarf still lived down there, disguised as a slimy old fish. Maybe after we robbed him, he’d given up, moved to Key West, and retired. If so, I was tempted to join him.
“You ready?” Blitz’s voice was strained. “I’m going to need your help.”
I squinted at him through the yellow film in my eyes. Blitz held the tote bag over the edge, ready to drop it into the pool, but his arm trembled. He yanked the bag back, as if to save the treasure from its fate, then extended his arm again with difficulty, like he was bench-pressing the entire weight of the gold.
“Going—to—fight—me,” Blitz grumbled. “Dwarves—throwing away—treasure. Not—easy.”
Somehow I managed to get my head out of eat-dragon-heart?-what-the-Helheim? mode. I grabbed the bag’s other strap. Immediately I felt what Blitz was talking about. My mind was flooded with glorious ideas about what I could do with all this treasure—buy a mansion! (But wait…I already had Uncle Randolph’s mansion, and I didn’t even want it.) Get a yacht! (I already had a big yellow boat. No thanks.) Save for retirement! (I was dead.) Send my kids to college! (Einherjar can’t have kids. We’re dead.)
The bag shuddered and kicked. It seemed to be rethinking its strategy. Okay, it whispered in my thoughts, how about helping the homeless? Think of all the good you could do with the gold, and this bagful is just the down payment! Put on that lovely ring, and you’ll get infinite wealth! You could build housing! Provide meals! Job-training!
These possibilities were more tempting….But I knew it was a trick. This treasure would never do anyone any good. I looked down at my bare legs, scraped and muddy. I remembered the suffocating smell of dragon belly. I recalled Hearthstone’s miserable expression as he said good-bye to his father.
I muttered, “Stupid treasure.”
“Yeah,” said Blitz. “On three? One, two—”
We tossed the bag into the pool. I resisted the urge to jump in after it.
“There you go, Andvari,” I said. “Enjoy.”
Or maybe Andvari was gone. In which case, we’d just made a family of trout billionaires.
Blitz sighed with relief. “Okay, that’s one burden gone. Now…the other thing.”
My stomach rebelled all over again. “I’m not really supposed to—?”
“Eat the dragon’s heart? You?” Blitz shook his head. “Well, you are the one who killed him….But in this case, no. You don’t eat the heart.”
“Thank the gods.”
“Hearth has to do that.”
Blitz’s shoulders slumped. “The dragon was Hearth’s kin, Magnus. When you kill a ring dragon, you can put its spirit to rest by destroying its heart. You can either burn it up—”
“Yeah, let’s do that.”
“—or you can consume it, in which case you inherit all the dragon’s memories and wisdom.”
I tried to imagine why Hearthstone would want any of his father’s memories or so-called wisdom. For that matter, why would he even feel obliged to put Alderman’s evil spirit to rest? Andiron had told him not to waste a minute longer worrying about dead old Dad, and that sounded like excellent brotherly advice.
“But if Hearth…I mean, isn’t that cannibalism, or dragonbalism or something?”
“I can’t answer that.” Blitz sounded like he badly wanted to answer that with a loud YES, I KNOW IT’S DISGUSTING. “Let’s go help him with…whatever he decides.”
Jack and Hearthstone had built a campfire. Hearthstone turned a spit over the flames while Jack floated next to him singing “Roll Out the Barrel” at the top of his nonexistent lungs. Being deaf, Hearthstone was the ideal audience.
The scene would have been charming except for the six-ton dragon carcass rotting nearby, the sickly expression on Hearthstone’s pale face, and the basketball-size black glistening thing sizzling on the spit, filling the air with the smell of barbecue. The fact that Alderman’s heart actually smelled like food made me even sicker.
Hearthstone signaled with his free hand. Done?
Yeah, Blitzen signed back. Treasure and ring gone. Very wealthy fish.
Hearthstone nodded, apparently satisfied. His blond hair was speckled with mud and leaves, which reminded me, ridiculously, of parade confetti, like the forest was throwing him a grim celebration for his father’s death.
“Hearth, man…” I pointed at the heart. “You don’t have to do this. There’s got to be another way.”
“That’s what I told him!” Jack said. “Of course, he can’t hear me, but still!”
Hearth started to sign with one hand, which is like trying to talk without vowels. He gave up in frustration. He pointed to me, then to the spit: Take this for me.
I didn’t want to get anywhere close to that dragon heart, but I was the only one who could talk and turn the spit at the same time. Hearth could at least read my lips. Blitzen could sign, but his face was covered with netting. And Jack…well, he just wasn’t very helpful.
I took over organ-roasting duty. The heart seemed much too heavy and wobbly for the spit, which was placed across two makeshift tree-branch stakes. Keeping it balanced over the flames took a lot of concentration.
Hearthstone flexed his fingers, warming up for a long conversation. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as if his throat was already protesting tonight’s dinner special.
If I eat the heart, Hearthstone signed, it means Father’s knowledge not lost forever.
“Yeah,” I said, “but why would you want that?”
His fingers hesitated in the air. Memories of Mother, Andiron. Older family knowledge. Knowing my…
He made an H with two fingers extended, then whacked the back of his opposite hand. I guessed it was the sign for history, though it looked a lot like a teacher slapping a bad student with a ruler.
“But you’d know things only from your father’s perspective,” I said. “He was poison. Like Andiron told you, you don’t owe your father anything. He’s got no wisdom to give.”
Jack laughed. “Right? Dude collected rocks, after all!”
I decided it was just as well Hearth and my sword couldn’t communicate.
Hearth’s mouth tightened. He understood me just fine, but I could tell I wasn’t saying anything he didn’t already know. He didn’t want to eat that disgusting thing. But he felt…I didn’t know the right word in English or sign language. Obliged? Honor-bound? Maybe Hearth hoped against hope that if he knew his father’s inner thoughts, he would find some glimmer of love in there, something that could redeem his memory.
I knew better. I wasn’t about digging up the painful past. Look behind somebody’s horrible exterior, and you usually found a horrible interior, shaped by a horrible history. I didn’t want Alderman’s thoughts affecting Hearthstone, literally being ingested by him. There had to be a vegetarian option. Or a Buddhist one. I would even have settled for a green-hair-friendly meal.
Blitzen sat down, crossing his legs at the ankles
. He patted his friend’s knee. Your choice. But the soul will still rest if you make the other choice.
“Yes!” I asked. “Destroy the heart. Just let it go—”
That’s when I messed up. I got too excited. I was focusing on Hearth and not paying attention to my job as chef. I turned the spit a little too forcefully. The heart wobbled. The braces collapsed inward, and the whole thing toppled into the fire.
Oh, but wait. It gets worse. With my lightning-fast and incredibly stupid einherji reflexes, I grabbed for the heart. I almost caught it in one hand, but it rolled off my fingertips and crashed into the flames, combusting like its ventricles were filled with gasoline. In a red flash, the heart was gone.
Oh, but wait. It gets worse still. The sizzling heart left boiling grease on my fingertips. And dumb Magnus, incredibly gross Magnus—I did what most people do when they touch something hot. I instinctively put my fingers to my mouth.