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Homeland (part 1 chapter 17)

2006-08-28 22:09

  Chapter 17

  Homecoming

  Drizzt was graduated-formally-on schedule and with the highest honors in his class. Perhaps Matron Malice had whispered into the right ears, smoothing over her son's in- discretions, but Drizzt suspected that more likely none of those present at the Ceremony of Graduation even remem-bered that he had left.

  He moved through the decorated gate of House Do'Urden, drawing stares from the common soldiery, and over to the cavern floor below the balcony. “So I am home” he re-marked under his breath, “for whatever that means” After what had happened in the drider lair, Drizzt wondered if he would ever view House Do'Urden as his home again. Ma-tron Malice was expecting him. He didn't dare arrivp,.late.

  “It is good that you are home” Briza said to him when she saw him rise up over the balcony's railing.

  Drizzt stepped tentatively through the entryway beside his oldest sister, trying to get a firm grasp on his surround. ings. Home, Briza called it, but to Drizzt, House Do'Urden seemed as unfamiliar as the Academy had on his first day as a student. Thn years was not such a long time in the centu-ries of life a drow elf might know, but to Drizzt, more than the decade of absence now separated him from this place.

  Maya joined them in the great corridor leading to the chapel anteroom. “Greetings, Prince Drizzt” she said, and Drizzt couldn't tell if she was being sarcastic or not. “We have heard of the honors you achieved at Melee-Magthere.

  Your skill did House Do'Urden proud“ In spite of her words, Maya could not hide a derisive chuckle as she finished the thought. ”Glad, I am, that you did not become drider food“

  Drizzt's glare stole the smile from her face.

  Maya and Briza exchanged concerned glances. They knew of the punishment Vierna had put upon their younger brother, and of the vicious scolding he had received at the hands of Matron Malice. They each cautiously rested a hand on their snake whips, not knowing how foolish their dan-gerous young brother might have become.

  It was not Matron Malice or Drizzt's sisters that now had Drizzt measuring every step before he took it. He knew where he stood with his mother and knew what he had to do to keep her appeased. There was another member of the family, though, that evoked both confusion and anger in Drizzt. Of all his kin, only Zaknafein pretended to be what he was not. As Drizzt made his way to the chapel, he glanced anxiously down every side passage, wondering when Zak would make his appearance.

  “How long before you leave for patrol?” Maya asked, pull-ing Drizzt from his contemplations.

  “Two days” Drizzt replied absently, his eyes still darting from shadow to shadow. Then he was at the anteroom door, with no sign of Zak. Perhaps the weapon master was within, standing beside Malice.

  “We know of your indiscretions; Briza snapped, suddenly

  cold, as she placed her hand on the latch to the anteroom's door. Drizzt was not surprised by her outburst. He was be-ginning to expect such explosions from the high priestesses of the Spider Queen.

  “Why could you not just enjoy the pleasures of the cere-mony?” Maya added. “We are fortunate that the mistresses and the matron of the Academy were too involved in their own excitement to note your movements. You would have brought shame upon our entire house!”

  “You might have placed Matron Malice in Lloth's disfavor; Briza was quick to add.

  The best thing I could ever do for her, Drizzt thought. He quickly dismissed the notion, remembering Briza's uncanny proficiency at reading minds.

  “Let us hope he did not” Maya said grimly to her sister.

  “The tides of war hang thick in the air?'

  “I have learned my place” Drizzt assured them. He bowed low. “Forgive me, my sisters, and know that the truth of the drow world is fast opening before my young eyes. Never will I disappoint House Do'Urden in such a way again?' So pleased were his sisters at the proclamation that the ambiguity of Drizzt's words slipped right past them. Then Drizzt, not wanting to push his luck too far, also slipped past them, making his way through the door, noting with relief that Zaknafein was not in attendance.

  “All praises to the Spider Queen!” Briza yelled after him.

  Drizzt paused and turned to meet her gaze. He bowed low a second time. “As it should be” he muttered. Creeping behind the small group, Zak had studied Drizzt's every move, trying to measure the toll a decade at the Acad-emy had exacted on the young fighter.

  Gone now was the customary smile that lit Drizzt's face.

  Gone, too, Zak supposed, was the innocence that had kept this one apart from the rest of Menzoberranzan.

  Zak leaned back heavily against the wall in a side passage.

  He had caught only portions of the conversation at the ante-room door. Most clearly he had heard Drizzt's heartfelt ac-cord with Briza's honoring of Lloth.

  “What have I done?” the weapon master asked himself. He looked back around the bend in the main corridor, but the door to the anteroom had already closed.

  “Truly, when I look upon the drow-the drow warrior!-that was my most treasured, I shame for my cowardice” Zak lamented. “What has Drizzt lost that I might have saved?”

  He drew his smooth sword from its scabbard, his sensitive fingers running the length of the razor edge. “A finer blade you would be had you tasted the blood of Drizzt Do'Urden, to deny this world, our world, another soul for its taking, to free that one from the unending torments of life!” He low- ered the weapon's tip to the floor.

  “But I am a coward” he said. “I have failed in the one act that could have brought meaning to my pitiful existence. The secondboy of House Do'Urden lives, it would appear, but Drizzt Do'Urden, my 'Two-hands, is long dead” Zak looked back to the emptiness where Drizzt had been stand- ing, the weapon master's expression suddenly a grimace.

  “Yet this pretender lives.

  “A drow warrior”

  Zak's weapon clanged to the stone floor and his head slumped down to be caught by the embrace of his open palms, the only shield Zaknafein Do'Urden had ever found. Drizzt spent the next day at rest, mostly in his room, try-ing to keep out of the way of the other members of his im- mediate family. Malice had dismissed him without a word in their initial meeting, but Drizzt did not want to confront her again. Likewise, he had little to say to Briza and Maya, fear-ing that sooner or later they would begin to understand the true connotations of his continuing stream of blasphemous responses. Most of all, though, Drizzt did not want to see Zaknafein, the mentor he had once thought of as his salva- tion against the realities around him, the one glowing light in the darkness that was Menzoberranzan.

  That, too, Drizzt believed, had been only a lie.

  On his second day home, when Narbondel, the time clock of the city, had just begun its cycle of light, the door to Drizzfs small chamber swung open and Briza walked in.

  “An audience with Matron Malice” she said grimly.

  A thousand thoughts rushed through Drizzts mind as he grabbed his boots and followed his oldest sister down the passageways to the house chapel. Had Malice and the others discovered his true feelings toward their evil deity? What punishments did they now have waiting for him? Uncon-sciously, Drizzt eyed the spider carvings on the chapel's arched entrance.

  “You should be more familiar and more at ease with this place” Briza scolded, noting his discomfort. “It is the place of our people's highest glories”

  Drizzt lowered his gaze and did not respond-and was careful not to even think of the many stinging retorts he felt in his heart.

  His confusion doubled when they entered the chapel, for Rizzen, Maya, and Zaknafein stood before the matron mother, as expected. Beside them, though, stood Dinin and Vierna.

  “We are all present” Briza said, taking her place at her mother's side.

  “Kneel” Malice commanded, and the whole family fell to its knees. The matron mother paced slowly around them all, each pointedly dropping his or her eyes in reverence, or just in common sense, as the great lady walked by.

  Malice stopped beside Drizzt. “You are confused by the presence of Dinin and Vierna” she said. Drizzt looked up at her. “Do you not yet understand the subtle methods of our survival?”

  “I had thought that my brother and sister were to con- tinue on at the Academy” Drizzt explained.

  “That would not be to our advantage” Malice replied.

  “Does it not bring a house strength to have mistresses and masters seated at the Academy?” Drizzt dared to ask.

  “It does” replied Malice, “but it separates the power. You have heard tidings of war?”

  “I have heard hinting of trouble” said Drizzt, looking over at Vierna, “though nothing more tangible”

  “Hinting?” Malice huffed, angered that her son could not understand the importance. “They are more than most houses ever hear before the blade falls!” She spun away from Drizzt and addressed the whole group. “The rumors hold truth” she declared.

  “Who?” asked Briza. “What house conspires against House Do'Urden?”

  “None behind us in rank” Dinin replied, though the ques-tion had not been asked to him and it was not his place to speak unbidden.

  “How do you know this?” Malice asked, letting the over-sight pass. Malice understood Dinin's value and knew that his contributions to this discussion would be important.

  “We are the ninth house of the city” Dinin reasoned, “but among our ranks we claim four high priestesses, two of them former mistresses of Arach- Tinilith” He looked at Zak.

  “We have, as well, two former masters of Melee-Magthere, and Drizzt was awarded the highest laurels from the school of fighters. Our soldiers number nearly four hundred, all skilled and battle-tested. Only a few houses claim more”

  “What is your point?” Briza asked sharply.

  “We are the ninth house” Dinin laughed, “but few above us could defeat us. . . ”

  “ And none behind” Matron Malice finished for him. “You show good judgment, Elderboy. I have come to the same conclusions”

  “One of the great houses fears House Do'Urden” Vierna

  concluded. “It needs us gone to protect its own position”

  “That is my belief” Malice answered. “An uncommon practice, for family wars usually are initiated by the lower-ranking house, desiring a better position within the city hi-erarchy”

  “Then we must take great care” Briza said.

  Drizzt listened carefully to their words, trying to make sense of it all. His eyes never left Zaknafein, though, who knelt impassively at the side. What did the callous weapon master think of all this? Drizzt wondered. Did the thought of such a war thrill him, that he might be able to kill more dark elves?

  Whatever his feelings, Zak gave no outward clue. He sat quietly and by all appearances was not even listening to the conversation.

  “It would not be Baenre” Briza said, her words sounding like a plea for confirmation. “Certainly we have not yet be-come a threat to them!”

  “We must hope you are correct” Malice replied grimly, re-membering vividly her tour of the ruling house. “Likely, it is one of the weaker houses above us, fearing its own un-steady position. I have not yet been able to learn any incrim-inating information against any in particular, so we must prepare for the worst. Thus, I have called Vierna and Dinin back to my side”

  “If we learn of our enemies, . . ” Drizzt began impulsively.

  All eyes snapped upon him. It was bad enough for the elder-boy to speak without being addressed, but for the second-boy, just graduated from the Academy, the act could be considered blasphemous.

  Wanting all perspectives, Matron Malice again let the oversight pass. “Continue” she prompted.

  “If we discover which house plots against us” Drizzt said quietly, “could we not expose it?”

  “To what end?” Briza snarled at him. “Conspiracy without

  action is no crime“

  “Then might we use reason?” Drizzt pressed, continuing against the barrage of incredulous glares that came at him from every face in the room-except from Zak's. “If we are the stronger, then let them submit without battle. Rank House Do'Urden as it should be and let the assumed threat to the weaker house be ended”

  Malice grabbed Drizzt by the front of his cloak and heaved him to his feet. “I forgive your foolish thoughts” she growled, “this time!” She dropped him back to the floor, and the silent reprimands of his siblings descended upon him. Again, though, Zak's expression did not match the others in the room. Indeed, Zak put a hand up over his mouth to hide his amusement. Perhaps there remained a bit of the Drizzt Do'Urden he had known, he dared to hope. Perhaps the Academy had not fully tainted the young fighter's spirit. Malice whirled on the rest of the family, simmering fury and lust glowing in her eyes. “This is not the time to fear! This” she cried, a slender finger pointing out from in front of her face, “is the time to dream! We are House Do'Urden, Daermon N'a'shezbaernon, of power beyond the under-standing of the great houses. We are the unknown entity of this war. We hold every advantage!

  “Ninth house?” she laughed. “In short time, only seven houses will remain ahead of us!”

  “What of the patrol?” Briza cut in. “Are we to allow the se-condboy to go off alone, exposed?”

  “The patrol will begin our advantage” the conniving ma-tron explained. “Drizzt will go, and included in his group will be a member of at least four of the houses above us”

  “One may strike at him” Briza reasoned.

  “No” Malice assured her. “Our enemies in the coming war would not reveal themselves so clearly-not yet. The ap-pointed assassin would have to defeat two Do'Urdens in such a confrontation”

  “Two?” asked Vierna.

  “Again, Lloth has shown us her favor” explained Malice.

  “Dinin will lead Drizzt's patrol group”

  The elderboy's eyes lit up at the news. “Then Drizzt and I might become the assassins in this conflict” he purred.

  The smile disappeared from the matron mother's face.

  “You will not strike without my consent” she warned in a tone so cold that Dinin fully understood the consequences of disobedience, ''as you have done in the past“

  Drizzt did not miss the reference to Nalfein, his murdered brother. His mother knew! Malice had done nothing to pun-ish her murderous son. Now Drizzt's hand went up to his face, to hide an expression of horror that only could have brought him trouble in this setting.

  “You are there to learn” Matron Malice said to Dinin, “to protect your brother, as Drizzt is there to protect you. Do not destroy our advantage for the gain of a single kill” An evil smile found its way back onto her bone-hued face. “But, if you learn of our enemy, . . ” she said.

  “If the proper opportunity presents itself, . . ” Briza fin-ished, guessing her mother's wicked thoughts and throwing an equally vile smile the matron's way.

  Malice looked upon her eldest daughter with approval.

  Briza would prove a fine successor for the house!

  Dinin's smile became wide and lascivious. Nothing pleased the elderboy of House Do'Urden more than the opportunity for an assassination.

  “Go, then, my family” Malice said. “Remember that un-friendly eyes are upon us, watching our every move, wait-ing for the time to strike”

  Zak was the first out of the chapel, as always, this time with an added spring in his step. It wasn't the prospect of fighting another war that guided his moves, though the thought of killing more clerics of the Spider Queen certainly pleased him. Rather, Drizzt's display of naivete, his contin-ued misconceptions of the common weal of drow existence,

  brought Zak hope.

  Drizzt watched him go, thinking Zak's strides reflected his desire to kill. Drizzt didn't know whether to follow and confront the weapon master here and now or to let it pass, to shrug it away as readily as he had dismissed most of the cruel world around him. The decision was made for him when Matron Malice stepped in front of him and kept him in the chapel.

  “To you, I say this” she began when they were alone. “You have heard the mission I placed upon your shoulders. I will not tolerate failure!”

  Drizzt shrank back from the power of her voice.

  “Protect your brother” came the grim warning, “or I shall give you to Lloth for judgment”

  Drizzt understood the implications, but the matron took the pleasure to spell them out anyway.

  “You would not enjoy your life as a drider”

  A lightning blast cut across the still black waters of the un-derground lake, searing the heads of the approaching wa-ter trolls. Sounds of battle echoed through the cavern. Drizzt had one monster-scrags, they were called-cornered on a small peninsula, blocking the wretched thing's path back to the water. Normally, a single drow faced off evenly against a water troll would not have the advan-tage, but as the others of his patrol group had come to see in the past few weeks, Drizzt was no ordinary young drow.

  The scrag came on, oblivious to its peril. A single, blinding movement from Drizzt lopped off the creature's reaching arms. Drizzt moved in quickly for the kill, knowing too well the regenerative powers of trolls.

  Then another scrag slipped out of the water at his back.

  Drizzt had expected this, but he gave no outward indica-tion that he saw the second scrag coming. He kept his con-centration ahead of him, driving deep slashes into the maimed and all but defenseless troll's torso.

  Just as the monster behind him was about to latch its claws onto him, Drizzt fell to his knees and cried, “Now!”

  The concealed panther, crouched in the shadows at the peninsula's base, did not hesitate. One great stride brought Guenhwyvar into position, and it sprang, crashing heavily onto the unsuspecting scrag, tearing the life from the thing before it could respond to the attack.

  Drizzt finished off his troll and turned to admire the pan-ther's work. He extended his hand, and the great cat nuz-zled it. How well the two fighters had come to know each other! thought Drizzt.

  Another blast of lightning thundered in, this one close enough to steal Drizzt's sight.

  “Guenhwyvar!” Masoj Hun'ett, the bolt's caster, cried. “To my side!”

  The panther managed to brush against Drizzt's leg as it moved to obey. When his vision returned, Drizzt walked off in the other direction, not wanting to view the scolding that Guenhwyvar always seemed to receive when he and the cat worked together.

  Masoj watched Drizzt's back as he went, wanting to put a third bolt right between the young Do'Urden's shoulder blades. The wizard of House Hun'ett did not miss the spec-ter of Dinin Do'Urden, off to the side, watching with more than casual glances.

  “Learn your loyalties!” Masoj snarled at Guenhwyvar. To often, the panther left the wizard's side to join in combat with Drizzt. Masoj knew that the cat was better comple-mented by the moves of a fighter, but he knew, too, the vul- nerability of a wizard involved in spellcasting. Masoj wanted Guenhwyvar at his side, protecting him from enemies-he shot another glance at Dinin-and “friends” alike.

  He threw the statuette to the ground at his feet. “Begone!” he commanded.

  In the distance, Drizzt had engaged another scrag and made short work of it as well. Masoj shook his head as he

  watched the display of swordsmanship. Every day, Drizzt grew stronger.

  “Give the order to kill him soon, Matron SiNafay” Masoj whispered. The young wizard did not know how much longer he would be able to carry out the task. Masoj won-dered whether he could win the fight even now. Drizzt shielded his eyes as he struck a torch to seal a dead troll's wounds. Only fire ensured that trolls would not recu-perate, even from the grave.

  The other battles had died away as well, Drizzt noted, and he saw the flames of torches springing up all across the bank of the lake. He wondered if all of his twelve drow com-panions had survived, though he also wondered if he truly cared. Others were more than ready to take their places. Drizzt knew that the only companion who really mattered-Guenhwyvar-was safely back in its home on the Astral Plane.

  “Form a guard!” came Dinin's echoing command as the slaves, goblins, and orcs moved in to search for troll trea-sure, and to salvage whatever they might of the scrags.

  When the fires had consumed the scrag he'd set ablaze, Drizzt dipped his torch in the black water, then paused for a ' moment to let his eyes readjust to the darkness. “Another day” he said softly, “another enemy defeated”

  He liked the excitement of patrolling, the thrill of the edge of danger, and the knowledge that he was now putting his weapons to use against vile monsters.

  Even here, though, Drizzt could not escape the lethargy that had come to pervade his life, the general resignation that marked his every step. For, though his battles these days were fought against the horrors of the Underdark, monsters killed of necessity, Drizzt had not forgotten the meeting in the chapel of House Do'Urden.

  He knew that his scimitars soon would be put to use against the flesh of drow elves.

  Zaknafein looked out over Menzoberranzan, as he so of-ten did when Drizzt's patrol group was out of the city. Zak was torn between wanting to sneak out of the house to fight

  at Drizzt's side, and hoping that the patrol would return with the news that Drizzt had been slain.

  Would Zak ever find the answer to the dilemma of the youngest Do'Urden? he wondered. Zak knew that he could not leave the house; Matron Malice was keeping a very close eye on him. She sensed his anguish over Drizzt, Zak knew, and she most definitely did not approve. Zak was often her lover, but they shared little other than that.

  Zak thought back to the battles he and Malice had fought over Vierna, another child of common concern, centuries before. Vierna was a female, her fate sealed from the mo-ment of her birth, and Zak could do nothing to halt the as-sault of the Spider Queen's overwhelming religion.

  Did Malice fear that he might have better luck influencing the actions of a male child? Apparently the matron did, but even Zak was not so certain if her fears were justified; even he couldn't measure his influence over Drizzt.

  He peered out over the city now, silently watching for the patrol group's return-waiting, as always, for Drizzt's safe return, but secretly hoping, that his dilemma would be ended by the claws and fangs of a lurking monster.

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