Posted by Jennifer
Stennar heaved a sigh of relief when the guards waved her through. While there was little outright animosity between dwarves and humans, the cloudheads were unpredictable. She dimly heard the guards warning that kid Aidan off and shrugged. He was among his own kind now. Responsibility discharged.
The gates opened into a wide flagstone courtyard. The stonework was beautiful, unlike the crude work most humans produced. Each flag was cut into a gently curved triangular shape and fitted so closely with its neighbors that even a fumbling ancient couldn’t find enough of a gap to trip over. No two stones were quite the same color, and Stennar was sure the pattern would be lovely if most of it wasn’t drifted over with snow. She didn’t have time to dwell on it, anyway. The guards at the side gate that led to the town proper were eying her, so she hurried toward the wide, shallow stairs ahead of her and climbed up to the massive stone doors that led into the side of the Creag. They were closed, but the sally port was open. An armored head peeked out occasionally, grimaced at the weather, and retreated.
“Excuse me,” Stennar said brightly. The man turned his grimace on her. “I would like to go inside, please,” she pronounced carefully.
“A bit late in the year for this, aren’t you?” he asked. “You’d best hurry or you’ll be trapped here for the winter.”
“I thank you for your concern. I admit I was not expecting the weather to change so quickly.”
The human shrugged. “It’s the mountains. These storms come and go. It’ll be gone in a few days, when the clouds clear. Let me send for someone to show you around.”
Stennar shook her head and chuckled. “Dwarf. Underground. What part of this confuses you?”
He snorted. “Some of the pilgrims who come to look through the place ask for guides, but I think it’s mainly because they like the idea of having a human at their beck and call for a few hours. The Steward won’t want you wandering around unescorted.”
She felt her stomach clench. The last thing she needed was some human hanging about and getting in the way. “Seriously? You’re going to saddle me with some whiny bored human while I’m looking at stonework? What do you think I’m going to do, steal the silverware?”
“I don’t know, are you?” Stennar almost winced. He was suspicious. She’d protested too much. She forced her face into a wide grin as quickly as she could.
“Absolutely. I’ve always wanted to own an enormous pile of inferior human metalworking. Maybe I’ll pretend I’m a dragon and sleep on it.”
The man laughed. “You know that’s just a story. Dragons don’t actually sleep on piles of gold.”
Stennar stuck out her tongue in mock-disgust. “No, I think they probably eat the stuff.” She surveyed the human’s face as best she could. He didn’t have a beard, which always made the expression much more difficult to read. Too soon to push? Probably. Better make another joke to be sure. “You wouldn’t happen to know where the Steward keeps the silverware, would you? And gems? What about gems?” She leaned closer and waggled her eyebrows suggestively. “I like gems. In such a very personal way.”
The guard threw back his head and roared. “That sounds uncomfortable.”
“You’re kinda cute, maybe I’ll let you help.” He snorted, recovering from his paroxysm and wiping tears from his face. “C’mon, I’ll be no trouble, I promise.”
“All right, all right, get along with you. If anyone asks, just tell them your guide got bored and wandered off.” He grinned again, suddenly. “Tell them it was Vaughan, maybe you’ll get him in trouble.”
Stennar grinned in genuine relief and clouted the man on the shoulder, having to reach up a fair ways to do so. “Thanks, you’re a pal. Don’t think I caught your name, actually.”
“Reyland, ma’am. Turner Reyland. And, hey, if the weather doesn’t clear soon and you need a place to stay, I can probably help you out. No, no, nothing like that,” he said as one of Stennar’s eyebrows shot skyward. “My aunt’s husband has a few extra rooms, might be willing to let one to you for a while if I vouch for you. But don’t wait too long, otherwise some other traveler will take it.”
“I’ll think about it,” she said, passing him and heading into the main hall. Humans really were so unpredictable. One minute they were grasping, cruel, violent—like the dwarves that still lived underground, if Stennar’s mother was to be believed—and the next moment they were willing to give you the shirt off their backs and swear lifelong friendship. They were just so emotional, swinging this way and that with hardly any warning.
She made a show of looking around for a while in the entry hall, passing several other humans doing whatever it was humans did. They were, as she expected, completely disinterested in her, so she slipped away down a dusty and obviously little-used side passage and descended rapidly into the very bowels of the structure. The hallways down here were only occasionally lit, but it was enough for Stennar to find her destination, the massive cauldron of fire that burned eternally at the very heart of the granite Creag. She stopped at the lip of the pit and pulled off her pack. She took out a scroll case and reverently unfolded a piece of bronto parchment. Then she hesitated. It might look a bit suspicious if she left this place quickly. Her shaking hands decided her. She was nervous now, and she couldn’t afford nervousness. If she waited, it would only get worse.
Following the instructions on the parchment, she began placing lead weights around the room: one on this stone, one on that stone, one stuck to the wall or ceiling here with a bit of putty. The ceiling took a bit of work, but fortunately Stennar had brought along a telescoping rod with some cunning metal fingers. She felt a bit foolish doing all this, but she had to admit that her mother was right yet again. If there were buttons or levers or plates that recessed into the floor, someone would be bound to discover them by sheer accident no matter how cleverly they were concealed.
There wasn’t even a noise or rumble or anything when she finished, just a metal arm that emerged from the fire—glowing red-hot and smoking in the cool air—and placed a fist-sized irregular piece of glass in front of her. Stennar picked it up with bare hands and stuffed it quickly into her pack. She then knocked the weights into a pile and kicked them into the pool of fire, where they promptly vanished. The rod arrangement followed.
Now she just had to return this to her mother without being noticed.