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Around the Heart of the Mountain


by schefflera

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Author's note: Set near the end of the Hannah and the Ice Caves plot, before everyone goes home.

The night was over at last. Kanrik felt it had been inordinately long, but he wasn't complaining. Galem was dead. The Bringer of Night had turned to ice, and he and his skeletal army were destroyed. The demon had almost taken Hannah with him, but between the Bori leader and the Snow Faerie, she was recovering.

The Bori leader, the Keeper of Time, had invited Kanrik and Hannah to return to the caves when he and Armin did. When they arrived, to Kanrik's surprise, the rest of the thieves were back, scattered singly or in groups about the cavern with Bori clustered around them, offering food, examining injuries, and chatting away. Other Bori were mopping at the remains of the Bringer. The Bori guards had gone to round up the thieves, they told their leader, since it wouldn't do to let them get in trouble after they fought the Bringer's army. Kanrik refrained from asking whether this meant trouble for the thieves or for the Bori.

Hannah was now propped against the great red gem, the Heart of the Mountain, with half a dozen Bori including Armin and the leader all fussing over her. She still looked wilted. Kanrik kept an eye in that direction, but no one called him away as he stalked from thief to thief. All but Galem seemed to be alive so far.

Masila was nowhere to be found.

Most of his former comrades glared at him. Kanrik finally glared back at Valin, the quick little blue Mynci. "Don't give me that look," he growled. "Let me see your foot."

"Why? You cut it. You're the one who betrayed us to go cozy up to that Usul."

Kanrik dropped to one knee and grabbed the foot. "You left me to freeze to death."

"After you sicced--" Valin began indignantly, then fell silent as the Bori leader's voice filled the cavern.

"The Heart of the Mountain is made whole." There was a pause as the assembled Bori made the ice ring with their cheers. The gem did have some new cracks from the Bringer's blade, but all the pieces were there. "Thanks to this Usul Hannah...."

***

Hannah slid down from the giant gemstone to give a wobbly curtsey, then tossed her hair back and grinned at the applause.

Arrogant little adventurer.

"To the Gelert Kanrik...."

Kanrik stood, rather warily, to more applause. Evidently the old Bori had a good memory for names.

"And to Armin the Small...."

Armin waved. More cheers.

The Bori leader chuckled, then raised his voice again. "And the Bringer of Night, this demon that plagued our people and would have destroyed us, is defeated! Thanks to them, and to all of you, my people--and even to those in our midst who brought him here, who came to rob us but turned and fought the beast when he showed his true nature. I, the Keeper of Time, and all my people thank the Thieves' Guild. Be welcome as our guests."

The cheer this time was a little ragged and confused. Kanrik didn't join in. What exactly were the Bori up to? They were being very hospitable--but they had effectively isolated the thieves from each other and put them under guard in the process.

As the cheering ended, the Keeper of Time added over the last few shouts and clatters, "But I'm afraid you still can't have the Heart of the Mountain."

The cave fell silent for a long moment. The thieves looked at each other uneasily.

"There is one question still remaining," the Keeper continued gravely. "Who released the monster?" Silence. "Who loosed the Bringer of Night? If among the fallen, let the name be spoken. If among the living... step forward." His paw rested against the glowing Heart; his eyes moved across the assembly, resting for a moment on each thief in turn.

Kanrik stood rigid, expecting every moment that someone would name him. The best thing for him to do would be to give Galem's name; the Bori saw him as an ally right now and might well believe him.

The Keeper's roving gaze fell on Valin; Kanrik stiffened, but the Mynci only squirmed and didn't speak.

The old Bori actually looked as if he expected a confession. What kind of idiot would confess, just for the asking?

Kanrik looked up from Valin just in time to meet the Keeper's eyes. The red gem-glow flared in his vision, and as he took a step forward, he opened his mouth to say "Galem" and found himself saying instead, "I did." He blinked and dropped his eyes to the floor, ice blue and white. If he looked ashamed, so be it, but he wasn't looking at the Keeper of Time or his magic gem again. So much for being an ally.

"I see." The Bori's voice was still grave, but didn't sound angry. That was probably a danger sign. "Why?"

The red glow reflected across the floor. "To challenge Galem. I thought I needed it. I thought I could control it." Kanrik wanted to add that it had been Masila's idea, but the words stuck in his throat.

"You were not with the rest when they drilled in alongside the creature."

"I told you, I challenged Galem. The guild leader. They threw me out." There were any number of more intelligent things he could have said on the subject, starting with the version he'd told Hannah. Either the gem or the Bori leader had the power to compel frankness. He could have handled being unable to lie.

"I see." The Keeper sounded a little puzzled. "Come over here and sit by Hannah. We can tend to your erstwhile comrades ourselves. And your arm."

There wasn't anything wrong with his arm, was there? When he looked down, however, he saw a cut parting his sleeve and fur lengthwise. Between the cold and the adrenaline of battle, he hadn't noticed.

Warily, he obeyed, keeping a watch on the Bori he passed as he made his way around to where Hannah now lounged on a large, thick blanket with a steaming mug in her paws and her dagger lying carelessly at her side. She smiled and scooted over to occupy only about half the space. "Have a seat."

Kanrik sat, just in time for Armin to thrust another mug between his paws. The heat nearly made him drop it. "None of the Bori seem to be resting."

Hannah shrugged. "They've been in ice for centuries, apparently. I guess they've had enough of being still for a while. Funny, Armin doesn't look that old." She grinned at Armin, who grinned back.

Kanrik sighed and gingerly tried sipping from his mug. Odd taste. Somewhere between tomato soup and borovan. And just who had been cooking since the end of the battle? Evidently the Bori could work quickly when they chose -- which didn't explain why they were waiting to deal with him or the other thieves.

"Armin," said the Keeper of Time suddenly. "Come here, please."

Armin hopped up at once, looking incredulous. "Me?"

"We have healing to be done, and many matters to discuss among ourselves, and you were the first to awaken." The Keeper smiled down at him. "And the first to meet any of our guests."

Kanrik watched, troubled, as the Bori around them strode or trotted off, talking among themselves, and began a circuit to examine each of the other thieves. "Are we guests," he asked, half under his breath, "or prisoners?"

Hannah took her nose out of her mug to regard him curiously. "Us here, or the thieves?"

"I am a thief." And the Bori might think him the worst of them, now.

"You notice they're not letting any of the others close to the gem," Hannah pointed out. She set her mug down and leaned back on her elbows, wincing a little.

"So they aren't."

"Or maybe you're saying they shouldn't have let you near it?"

He leaned back on one hand and gestured with the mug. "I'm not fool enough to try anything, Hannah. Even if it isn't set as firmly as it looks, it's far too unwieldy to run off with alone, even if the cavern weren't full of people." The little amulet she'd been carrying might be a different matter, especially if its removal were to lock the Bori in ice again -- but he couldn't count on that and there was certainly no reason to bring it up. It might be worth trying as a last resort. Not before, not after what had happened to the Bringer of Night. Kanrik looked down at Hannah's arm, where the curse mark lay black on her fur. "Are you feeling better?"

Hannah nodded at the Heart of the Mountain. "I think it's helping. What about you? Who cut you, anyway?"

"I don't know. Probably Galem." It would make sense not to have killed Galem unscathed. "I didn't feel it." He felt it now, the ache and a line of sharper pain starting as he grew warmer. On the other hand.... He set his mug down and prodded carefully at the injury. It hurt, but it had already started to close. "It's... an improvement."

"Good." Hannah sat up and picked up her mug again, resting it on her knees. "You know, if you set the Bringer on their leader, I can see why the rest of the thieves 'betrayed' you. How come you decided to drop in on us instead?"

"I saw the light from your fire. I'd been drugged and left out in the snow. I thought it might be worth investigating."

"Why did you tell me you didn't want to fight?"

Kanrik blinked at her. "Because I didn't." He'd thought that not fighting her would have made that fairly obvious.

Hannah rolled her eyes. "Why didn't you? Armin got the hang of fighting pretty fast, but you probably could have taken us right then." She frowned at him. "Especially if you'd kept quiet. The fire would've been there afterward."

"I--didn't want to." Why not, indeed? "I'm more used to working in groups. And believe it or not, I do like you, Hannah."

"Thank you." Hannah was looking thoughtfully into her mug. "So, why didn't you like Galem? Anything personal, or just professional rivalry?" Her voice was far too casual.

Kanrik frowned this time. "I didn't like having him in charge of the guild."

"Oh, is that all?" And now she had that same maddening tone Masila had used sometimes, without the sweetness.

"No."

"No?" Still the same tone.

"No. But that's all I'm going to tell you." Kanrik glared at her, then added insincerely, "Sorry."

"You apologize for all the wrong things."

"Do I?"

"I believe you didn't know about the curse." Hannah stretched, then picked up her dagger and sheathed it. "When you're breaking into a tomb, though, curses are a standard professional hazard. I should've been more careful. The annoying part," she went on with a scowl, "was having you deliberately ignore me while I fell over a ledge. And you definitely knew about that." A pause. "You know, there were easier ways to get out of paying me."

"It was nothing personal," Kanrik said rather sullenly. "We couldn't have you interfering."

"That's what I thought." At his look of surprise, Hannah huffed and added, "You aren't the first person to hire me and then try to off me, you know. Just... the first one I liked." This last was quieter, but she continued in a more normal tone, "Most of them do wait until whatever they wanted is out of the cave, though." She stopped for a long gulp of tomato borovan, or whatever it was. "Funny. I wouldn't have been 'interfering' at all if it hadn't been for the curse. I was just chasing you down...." She trailed off and frowned up at the Heart of the Mountain, then into her mug. "Well, up until I met Armin."

Kanrik took his weight carefully off the arm he'd been leaning on and slid her dagger back out of its sheath and around to his other side. Pickpocketing wasn't really his area of expertise, but for someone who claimed to have been chasing him down, Hannah no longer seemed to be paying him a great deal of attention. After a short silence, he offered, "Priorities change, I suppose. Though if you're still planning revenge, perhaps I should keep your dagger."

Hannah started, and her paw went to the sheath. She spotted her blade on the other side of Kanrik quickly enough -- he hadn't actually hidden it -- and her tail fluffed out angrily.

Kanrik met her eyes.

Hannah's narrowed, but her tail slowly unfluffed. "Braggart."

Kanrik arched both eyebrows. "Was I the one dancing on tables?"

"I have to advertise, don't I? They eat it up." Hannah smirked. "Sometimes even when it was their treasure. Besides, it's fun." She studied his eyes. "Look, like you said, it was business." Her voice softened a little. "And you didn't have to carry me to Taelia this morning. I'm not going to stab you. Now give it back."

Kanrik weighed the likely outcomes if she decided to make a fuss, then sighed and slapped the hilt into her hand.

Hannah had held out her right hand, and that was the arm the curse had hit. She winced again, but didn't drop the dagger.

"Sorry."

She sheathed the short blade without looking at him. "Don't bother."

"Don't bother what?"

"Apologizing when you don't mean it."

Kanrik shrugged and turned back to his mug. He really hadn't intended to hurt her, but it didn't matter that much. After a moment, he caught his breath and set the mug down abruptly; his eyes squeezed shut and his muzzle wrinkled involuntarily, and he sneezed.

And then froze, because that was how the plague had started....

He wasn't sure how long he had sat there, thoughts whirling with nonsense, before something softly prodded his shoulder and reminded him where he was and why he should be more alert. He straightened and glared at Hannah, who raised her eyebrows at him. "Are you all right?"

"Don't bother asking when you don't mean it," he snapped.

Hannah shrugged and took her paw from his shoulder. "Fine." After a short silence, she added, "Go back to sleep."

"I wasn't napping." It was foolish to worry, really. Kanrik picked up his mug again. It was only one sneeze. He'd been poisoned and dropped unconscious in the snow with nothing warmer than his cloak. He had to admit, even as he wondered if she had set him up, that Masila had probably saved his life -- he might have surprised Galem by attacking at his own execution, but the odds hadn't been good. Still, it wouldn't be any wonder if her method had left him in worse shape than this.

Besides, worrying hadn't done any of the others any good. Neither had anything else. He'd worry if his strength left him, not before. It was too distracting.

"I think I'll head back to Krawk Island before too long," Hannah said idly. Kanrik wondered whether she talked to herself in the pirate caves when there was no one else to listen. "No point wearing out my welcome here. It's nice, though." She actually sounded a little wistful, though he wasn't sure why. "What about you? Taking over the Thieves' Guild?"

He could do that, couldn't he? He flipped his long ears forward, thinking. He had killed Galem. They thought he had been willing to set the Bringer of Night on all of them to get at one. He might have to change their impressions a little, but he might well have time before anyone dared to challenge him. The image of Hannah sprawled limp on cold stone rose in his mind, though, and gave way to the older memory of his sister curled weakly on her bed. "I should probably go back to my village first," he said, half to himself and mostly into his mug.

"Oh, I was wondering if that was real," Hannah remarked. "Do you really have a sister?"

Kanrik nearly spilled his drink and turned to stare at her. "What, you think I made her up?"

"Well, I didn't know!"

"If you didn't believe me, why did you--" He didn't have a lot of room, exactly, to complain if she had offered false sympathy for a true, but irrelevant, story he'd been using to get her help. "Come?" he finished, a bit lamely.

"You paid me to," she pointed out reasonably.

"You sounded--"

"I hear all kinds of sob stories," Hannah interrupted, which was just as well. He didn't know what he'd been about to say. "And a tomb known only by some strange markings would be a pretty funny place to find a cure for a plague. You talked about it enough later that I thought you might be telling the truth after all, but I changed my mind once I heard you tell somebody else what you were really looking for."

Kanrik forced himself to hold his tongue for a moment and consider his words. "What I told you of my village, of the plague, and of my sister, was all true," he said slowly. "They are real. I don't know whether she's still alive." He sighed and looked away. "You are right, of course, that I was not seeking the cure. I...despaired of that some time ago. Stealing treasure was easier, making a life for myself. The cure? I'm not even sure it exists."

"You found it, though."

This made so little sense that Kanrik looked over at her again in bewilderment, only to find Hannah gazing up at the Heart of the Mountain.

A massive, magical gem, yes. A gem that had preserved an entire people, an entire species, alive within ice for centuries. Kanrik looked down at his arm, where the only trace of the wound was a dark line in his fur, before his eyes were drawn back up to the red gleam. A gem that healed.

It was no wonder, really, that Galem hadn't told them what they were looking for.

He dragged his gaze down and away again. "We already discussed this, Hannah. It isn't exactly portable." And it was dangerous.

"That's not what I meant. You could bring them here, couldn't you?"

"The whole village?" Kanrik asked incredulously.

"Why not?" Hannah was up and jumping over him, on her way to the Keeper of Time.

"Hannah!" Kanrik started up himself. "What part of 'too weak to whisper' don't you understand?" he shouted in frustration, then realized the Bori leader was staring at him. He gave up and followed her.

"I wanted to ask you a favor. Kanrik's home village has a problem with some kind of plague," Hannah was explaining, very quickly, to the Keeper and the group of Bori around him, "and they don't know any cure for it." She looked around as Kanrik, scowling, caught up to her. "Would it be all right if we brought them here to see if the Heart of the Mountain could help them?"

"The Heart of the Mountain has healing powers among others," the ancient Bori said, stroking his beard, "but the curing of disease is not its main function. I have heard that there are Healing Springs in Faerieland, outside the queen's city, and that they are open and free to all. Have you tried there?" he asked, looking past Hannah at Kanrik.

"No. I couldn't get them there either." Kanrik stressed the last word with a certain amount of bitterness, glowering at Hannah in lieu of meeting the Keeper's eyes again. "I do not believe Hannah understands the situation." He hesitated, then added, "My lord." It couldn't hurt. Probably. "If my people are alive, the only ones in any condition to travel lack the need. I did not come here to ask favors, nor to bring contagion among your people." He told himself that he didn't care; he only wanted to get away safely before they decided that having let loose the Bringer of Night outweighed anything he'd done that might have seemed to be on the Bori's behalf. "I am sure you have far more pressing affairs than anything to do with me."

He wanted out. He wanted the shadows again, and preferably something solid at his back.

He had not wanted his village's story told under circumstances not of his choosing.

"Most of our affairs have waited for hundreds of years," the Keeper said, "though certainly they're somewhat more urgent now." Kanrik tried not to flinch as a heavy-clawed hand slid under his chin and tilted his face up. "You came to rob us, and afterward for revenge on another. You released the Bringer of Night. I know this. Still, whatever your reasons at the time, you then chose to help make the Heart of the Mountain whole again, to awaken my people, and you helped to rid us of our ancient enemy."

The Keeper of Time released him, and Kanrik turned in confusion to watch as the Bori walked slowly back over to the glowing red gem and pried free the smaller piece Hannah had been wearing, then paced back to him and threw the leather thong over his head. "What...?"

"The keystone partakes of the nature of the whole Heart," the Keeper said, "and it will be drawn back here and so help you and your people reach us. We shall be waiting."

Kanrik stared down at the amulet glowing against his chest. First he'd been made to speak openly; now he was at a loss for words. Nobody was supposed to just... hand something like this to a thief and expect him to bring it back. Except....

"You want a hand?" Hannah's voice was for once oddly subdued. "The whole village ill, it sounds like a big job for just one."

"There were a few others still healthy when I left." Kanrik looked down at her. She could want the amulet back. She could still want revenge. On the other hand, she hadn't had to help the Bori, and she hadn't had to ask them anything for him. There would be a lot to do at home, if there was anyone alive at all. "I... would appreciate the help."

*****

They had made it down the mountainside and were tramping southward over deep, packed, but mostly level snow when Kanrik asked Hannah, "Why are you coming with me?"

"You said you'd pay me more when you got back to your village, remember?"

So he had. Kanrik's eyes narrowed as he looked down his muzzle. "You don't know if there's really anything left."

"That's right. I don't."

"Is it worth the extra journey for the chance?"

"It's worth the extra journey because you weren't expecting anything when you told me this time. Even though you'd looked after me." She was staring straight ahead. "If your family's been ill longer than you've been a thief, they probably need whatever they've got."

Kanrik stared down at her. "You aren't expecting anything now."

"If anybody else asks, I am," Hannah muttered. "The last thing I need is more people thinking I'm a soft touch." She glanced up at him slyly. "Not that the gems would hurt...."

Kanrik laughed.

It was a good time for new beginnings.

The End

Feedback welcome; please Neomail Schefflera.

 
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