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Homeland (part 1 chapter 9)

2006-08-28 22:09

  Chapter 9 Families

  “Come quickly” Zak instructed Drizzt one evening after they had finished their sparring. By the urgency of the weapon master's tone, and by the fact that Zak didn't even pause to wait for Drizzt, Drizzt knew that something impor-tant was happening.

  He finally caught up to Zak on the balcony of House Do'Urden, where Maya and Briza already stood.

  “What is it?” Drizzt asked.

  Zak pulled him close and pointed out across the great ca-vern, to the northeastern reaches of the city. Lights flashed and faded in sudden bursts, a pillar of fire rose into the air, then disappeared.

  “A raid” Briza said offhandedly. “Minor houses, and of no concern to us” Zak saw that Drizzt did not understand.

  “One house has attacked another” he explained. “Re-venge, perhaps, but most likely an attempt to climb to a higher rank in the city”

  “The battle has been long” Briza remarked, “and still the lights flash”

  Zak continued to clarify the event for the confused se-condboy of the house. “The attackers should have blocked the battle within rings of darkness. Their inability to do so might indicate that the defending house was ready for the raid”

  “All cannot be going well for the attackers” Maya agreed. Drizzt could hardly believe what he was hearing. Even more alarming than the news itself was the way his family talked about the event. They were so calm in their descrip-tions, as if this was an expected occurrence.

  “The attackers must leave no witnesses” Zak explained to Drizzt, “else they will face the wrath of the ruling council”

  “But we are witnesses” Drizzt reasoned.

  “No” Zak replied. “We are onlookers; this battle is none of our affair. Only the nobles of the defending house are awarded the right to place accusations against their attack-ers”

  “If any nobles are left alive” Briza added, obviously enjoy-ing the drama.

  At that moment, Drizzt wasn't sure if he liked this new revelation. However he might have felt, he found that he could not tear his gaze from the continuing spectacle of drow battle. All the Do'Urden compound was astir now, sol-diers and slaves running about in search of a better vantage point and shouting out descriptions of the action and ru-mors of the perpetrators.

  This was drow society in all its macabre play, and while it seemed ultimately wrong in the heart of the youngest mem-ber of House Do'Urden, Drizzt could not deny the excite- ment of the night. Nor could Drizzt deny the expressions of obvious pleasure stamped upon the faces of the three who shared the balcony with him.

  Alton made his way through his private chambers one fi-nal time, to make certain that any artifacts or tomes that might seem even the least bit sacrilegious were safely hid-den. He was expecting a visit from a matron mother, a rare occasion for a master of the Academy not connected with Arach- Tinilith, the School of Lloth. Alton was more than a little anxious about the motives of this particular visitor, Ma- tron SiNafay Hun'ett, head of the city's fifth house and mother of Masoj, Alton's partner in conspiracy.

  A bang on the stone door of the outermost chamber in his complex told Alton that his guest had arrived. He straight-ened his robes and took yet another glance around the room. The door swung open before Alton could get there, and Matron SiNafay swept into the room. How easily she made the transformation-walking from the absolute dark of the outside corridor into the candlelight of Alton's chamber-without so much as a flinch.

  SiNafay was smaller than Alton had imagined, diminutive

  even by the standards of the drow. She stood barely more than four feet high and weighed, by Alton's estimation, no more than fifty pounds. She was a matron mother, though, and Alton reminded himself that she could strike him dead with a single spell.

  Alton averted his gaze obediently and tried to convince himself that there was nothing unusual about this visit. He grew less at ease, however, when Masoj trotted in and to his mother's side, a smug smile on his face.

  “Greetings from House Hun'ett, Gelroos” Matron SiNafay said. “Seventy-five years and more it has been since we last talked”

  “Gelroos?” Alton mumbled under his breath. He cleared his throat to cover his surprise. “My greetings to you, Ma- tron SiNafay” he managed to stammer. “Has it been so very long?”

  “You should come to the house” the matron said. “Your chambers remain empty”

  My chambers? Alton began to feel very sick.

  SiNafay did not miss the look. A scowl crossed her face and her eyes narrowed evilly.

  Alton suspected that his secret was out. If the Faceless One had been a member of the Hun'ett family, how could Al-ton hope to fool the matron mother of the house? He scanned for the best escape route, or for some way he could at least kill the traitorous Masoj before SiNafay struck him down.

  When he looked back toward Matron SiNafay, she had al-ready begun a quiet spell. Her eyes popped wide at its com-pletion, her suspicions confirmed.

  “Who are you?” she asked, her voice sounding more curi-ous than concerned.

  There was no escape, no way to get at Masoj, standing prudently close to his powerful mother's side.

  “Who are you?” SiNafay asked again, taking a three-

  headed instrument from her belt, the dreaded snake-headed whip that injected the most painful and incapacitating poison known to drow.

  “ Alton” he stuttered, having no choice but to answer. He knew that since she now was on her guard, SiNafay would use simple magic to detect any lies he might concoct. “I am Alton DeVir”

  “DeVir?” Matron SiNafay appeared at least intrigued. “Of the House DeVir that died some years ago?”

  “I am the only survivor” Alton admitted.

  “And you killed Gelroos-Gelroos Hun'ett-and took his place as master in Sorcere” the matron reasoned, her voice a snarl. Doom closed in all around Alton.

  “I did not. . . I could not know his name. . . He would have killed me!” Alton stuttered.

  “I killed Gelroos” came a voice from the side. SiNafay and Alton turned to Masoj, who once again held his favorite two-handed crossbow.

  “With this” the young Hun'ett explained. “On the night House DeVir fell. I found my excuse in Gelroos's battle with that one” He pointed to Alton.

  “Gelroos was your brother” Matron SiNafay reminded Masoj.

  “Damn his bones!” Masoj spat. “For four miserable years I served him-served him as if he were a matron mother! He would have kept me from Sorcere, would have forced me into the Melee-Magthere instead”

  The matron looked from Masoj to Alton and back to her son. “ And you let this one live” she reasoned, a smile again on her lips. “You killed your enemy and forged an alliance with a new master in a single move”

  “ As I was taught” Masoj said through clenched teeth, not knowing whether punishment or praise would follow.

  “You were just a child” SiNafay remarked, suddenly real-

  izing the timetable involved.

  Masoj accepted the compliment silently. Alton watched it all anxiously. “Then what of me?” he cried. “Is my life forfeit?”

  SiNafay turned a glare on him. “Your life as Alton DeVir ended, so it would seem, on the night House DeVir fell. Thus you remain the Faceless One, Gelroos Hun'ett. I can use your eyes in the Academy-to watch over my son and my enemies”

  Alton could hardly breathe. To so suddenly find himself allied with one of the most powerful houses in Menzober-ranzan! A jumble of possibilities and questions flooded his mind, one in particular, which had haunted him for nearly two decades.

  His adopted matron mother recognized his excitement.

  “Speak your thoughts” she commanded.

  “You are a high priestess of Lloth” Alton said boldly, that one notion overpowering all caution. “It is within your power to grant me my fondest desire”

  “You dare to ask a favor?” Matron SiNafay balked, though she saw the torment on Alton's face and was intrigued by the apparent importance of this mystery. “Very well”

  “What house destroyed my family?” Alton growled. “Ask the nether world, I beg, Matron SiNafay” SiNafay considered the question carefully, and the possi-bilities of Alton's apparent thirst for vengeance. Another benefit of allowing this one into the family? SiNafay won-dered.

  “This is known to me already” she replied. “Perhaps when you have proven your value, I will tell-”

  “No!” Alton cried. He stopped short, realizing that he had interrupted a matron mother, a crime that could invoke a punishment of death.

  SiNafay held back her angry urges. “This question must be very important for you to act so foolishly” she said.

  “Please” Alton begged. “I must know. Kill me if you will, but tell me first who it was”

  SiNafay liked his courage, and his obsession could only prove of value to her. “House Do'Urden” she said.

  “Do'Urden?” Alton echoed, hardly believing that a house so far back in the city hierarchy could have defeated House DeVir.

  “You will take no actions against them” Matron SiNafay warned. “And I will forgive your insolence-this time. You are a son of House Hun'ett now; remember always your place!” She let it stay at that, knowing that one who had been clever enough to carry out such a deception for the better part of two decades would not be foolish enough to disobey the matron mother of his house.

  “Come Masoj” SiNafay said to her son, “let us leave this one alone so that he may consider his new identity”

  “I must tell you, Matron SiNafay” Masoj dared to say as he and his mother made their way out of Sorcere, “ Alton DeVir is a buffoon. He might bring harm to House Hun'ett”

  “He survived the fall of his own house” SiNafay replied, “and has played through the ruse as the Faceless One for nineteen years. A buffoon? Perhaps, but a resourceful buf-foon at the least”

  Masoj unconsciously rubbed the area of his eyebrow that had never grown back. “I have suffered the antics of Alton DeVir for all these years” he said. “He does have a fair share of luck, I admit, and can get himself out of trouble-though he is usually the one who puts himself into it!”

  “Do not fear” SiNafay laughed. “ Alton brings value to our house”

  “What can we hope to gain?”

  “He is a master of the Academy” SiNafay replied. “He gives me eyes where I now need them” She stopped her son and turned him to face her so that he might understand the im-plications of her every word. “Alton DeVir's claim against House Do'Urden may work in our favor. He was a noble of

  the house, with rights of accusation“

  “You mean to use Alton DeVir's charge to rally the great houses into punishing House Do'Urden?” Masoj asked.

  “The great houses would hardly be willing to strike out for an incident that occurred almost twenty years ago” SiNafay replied. “House Do'Urden executed House DeVir's destruction nearly to perfection-a clean kill. To so much as speak an open charge against the Do'Urdens now would be to invite the wrath of the great houses on ourselves”

  “What good then is Alton DeVir?” Masoj asked. “His claim is useless to us”

  The matron replied, “You are only a male and cannot un-derstand the complexities of the ruling hierarchy. With Al-ton DeVir's charge whispered into the proper ears, the ruling council might look the other way if a single house took revenge on Alton's behalf”

  “To what end?” Masoj remarked, not understanding the importance. “You would risk the losses of such a battle for the destruction of a lesser house?”

  “So thought House DeVir of House Do'Urden” explained SiNafay. “In our world, we must be as concerned with the lower houses as with the higher ones. All of the great houses would be wise now to watch closely the moves of Daermon N'a'shezbaernon, the ninth house that is known as Do'Urden. It now has both a master and a mistress serving in the Academy and three high priestesses, with a fourth nearing the goal”

  “Four high priestesses?” Masoj pondered. “In a single house” Only three of the top eight houses could claim more than that. Normally, sisters aspiring to such heights inspired rivalries that inevitably thinned the ranks.

  “And the legions of House Do'Urden number more than three hundred fifty” SiNafay continued, “all of them trained by perhaps the finest weapon master in all the city”

  “Zaknafein Do'Urden, of course!” Masoj recalled.

  “You have heard of him?”

  “His name is often spoken at the Academy, even in Sor-cere”

  “Good” SiNafay purred. “Then you will understand the fun weight of the mission I have chosen for you” An eager light came into Masoj's eyes.

  “Another Do'Urden is soon to begin there” SiNafay ex-plained. “Not a master, but a student. By the words of those few who have seen this boy, Drizzt, at training, he will be as fine a fighter as Zaknafein. We should not allow this”

  “You want me to kill the boy?” Masoj asked eagerly.

  “No” SiNafay replied, “not yet. I want you to learn of him, to understand the motivations of his every move. If the time to strike does come, you must be ready”

  Masoj liked the devious assignment, but one thing still bothered him more than a little. “We still have Alton to con-sider” he said. “He is impatient and daring. What are the consequences to House Hun'ett if he strikes House Do'Ur-den before the proper time? Might we invoke open war in the city, with House Hun'ett viewed as the perpetrator?”

  “Do not worry, my son” Matron SiNafay replied. “If Alton DeVir makes a grievous error while in the guise of Gelroos. Hun'ett, we expose him as a murderous imposter and no member of our family. He will be an unhoused rogue with an executioner facing him from every direction”

  Her casual explanation put Masoj at ease, but Matron SiNafay, so knowledgeable in the ways of drow society, had understood the risk she was taking from the moment she had accepted Alton DeVir into her house. Her plan seemed foolproof, and the possible gain-the elimination of this growing House Do'Urden-was a tempting piece of bait.

  But the dangers, too, were very real. While it was per-fectly acceptable for one house to covertly destroy another, the consequences of failure could not be ignored. Earlier that very night, a lesser house had struck out against a rival and, if the rumors held true, had failed. The illuminations of the next day would probably force the ruling council to en-act a pretense of justice, to make an example of the unsuc-

  cessful attackers. In her long life, Matron SiNafay had witnessed this “justice” several times.

  Not a single member of any of the aggressor houses-she was not even allowed to remember their names-had ever survived.

  Zak awakened Drizzt early the next morning. “Come” he said. “We are bid to go out of the house this day”

  All thoughts of sleep washed away from Drizzt at the news. “Outside the house?” he echoed. In all of his nineteen years, Drizzt had never once walked beyond the adaman- tite fence of the Do'Urden complex. He had only watched that outside world of Menzoberranzan from the balcony.

  While Zak waited, Drizzt quickly collected his soft boots and his piwafwi. “Will there be no lesson this day?” Drizzt asked.

  “We shall see” was all that Zak replied, but in his thoughts, the weapon master figured that Drizzt might be in for one of the most startling revelations of his life. A house had failed in a raid, and the ruling council had requested the presence of all the nobles of the city, to bear witness to the weight of justice.

  Briza appeared in the corridor outside the practice room's door. “Hurry” she scolded. “Matron Malice does not wish our house to be among the last groups joining the gather-ing!”

  The matron mother herself, floating atop a blue-glowing disk-for matron mothers rarely walked through the city-led the procession out of House Do'Urden's grand gate. Briza walked at her mother's side, with Maya and Rizzen in the second rank and Drizzt and Zak taking up the rear. Vierna and Dinin, attending to the duties of their positions in the Academy, had gone to the ruling council's summons with a different group.

  All the city was astir this morning, rumbling in the ru. mors of the failed raid. Drizzt walked through the bustle wide-eyed, staring in wonderment at the close-up view of the decorated drow houses. Slaves of every inferior race-goblins, orcs, even giants-scrambled out of the way, recog- nizing Malice, riding her enchanted carriage, as a matron

  mother. Drow commoners halted conversations and re-mained respectfully silent as the noble family passed.

  As they made their way toward the northwestern section, the location of the guilty house, they came into a lane blocked by a squabbling caravan of duergar, gray dwarves. A dozen carts had been overturned or locked together-apparently, two groups of duergar had come into the nar-row lane together, neither relinquishing the right-of-way.

  Briza pulled the snake-headed whip from her belt and chased off a few of the creatures, clearing the way for Mal-ice to float up to the apparent leaders of the two groups. The dwarves turned on her angrily-until they realized her station.

  “Beggin' yer pardon, Madam” one of them stammered.

  “Unfortunate accident is all” Malice eyed the contents of one of the nearest carts, crates of giant crab legs and other delicacies.

  “You have slowed my journey” Malice said calmly.

  “We have come to your city in hopes of trade” the other duergar explained. He cast an angry glare at his counter-part, and Malice understood that the two were rivals, probably bartering the same goods to the same drow house.

  “I will forgive your insolence. . ” she offered graciously, still eyeing the crates.

  The two duergar suspected what was forthcoming. So did Zak. “We eat well tonight” he whispered to Drizzt with a sly wink. “Matron Malice would not let such an opportunity slip by without gain”

  “。 . . if you can see your way to deliver half of these carts to the gate of House Do'Urden this night” Malice finished. The duergar started to protest but quickly dismissed the foolish notion. How they hated dealing with drow elves!

  “You will be compensated appropriately” Malice contin-ued. “House Do'Urden is not a poor house. Between both of your caravans, you will still have enough goods to satisfy

  the house you came to see“

  Neither of the duergar could refute the simple logic, but under these trading circumstances, where they had of-fended a matron mother, they knew the compensation for their valuable foods would hardly be appropriate. Still, the gray dwarves could only accept it all as a risk of doing busi-ness in Menzoberranzan. They bowed politely and set their troops to clearing the way for the drow procession.

  House Thken'duis, the unsuccessful raiders of the pre-vious night, had barricaded themselves within their two-stalagmite structure, fully expecting what was to come. Outside their gates, all of the nobles of Menzoberranzan, more than a thousand drow, had gathered, with Matron

  Baenre and the other seven matron mothers of the ruling council at their head. More disastrous for the guilty house, the entirety of the three schools of the Academy, students and instructors, had surrounded the Thken'duis compound. Matron Malice led her group to the front line behind the ruling matrons. As she was matron of the ninth house, only one step from the council, other drow nobles readily stepped out of her way.

  “House Thken'duis has angered the Spider Queen!” Ma. tron Baenre proclaimed in a voice amplified by magical spells.

  “Only because they failed” Zak whispered to Drizzt. Briza cast both males an angry glare. Matron Baenre bade three young drow, two females and a male, to her side'. “These are all that remain of House Freth” she explained. “Can you tell us, orphans of House Freth” she asked of them, “who it was that attacked your home?”

  “House Thken'duis!” they shouted together. “Rehearsed” Zak commented. Briza turned around again. “Silence!” she whispered harshly.

  Zak slapped Drizzt on the back of the head. “Yes” he agreed. “Do be quiet!”

  Drizzt started to protest, but Briza had already turned

  away and Zak's smile was too wide to argue against.

  “Then it is the will of the ruling council” Matron Baenre was saying, “that House Thken'duis suffer the consequences of their actions!”

  “What of the orphans of House Freth?” came a call from the crowd.

  Matron Baenre stroked the head of the oldest female, a cleric recently finished in her studies at the Academy. “No- bles they were born, and nobles they remain” Baenre said.

  “House Baenre accepts them into its protection; they bear the name of Baenre now”

  Disgruntled whispers filtered through the gathering.

  Three young nobles, two of them female, was quite a prize.

  Any house in the city gladly would have taken them in.

  “Baenre” Briza whispered to Malice. “Just what the first house needs, more clerics!”

  “Sixteen high priestesses is not enough, it seems” Malice I answered. ;

  “ And no doubt, Baenre will take any surviving soldiers of House Freth” Briza reasoned.

  Malice was not so certain. Matron Baenre was walking a thin line by taking even the surviving nobles. If House Baenre got too powerful, Lloth surely would take exception.

  In situations such as this, where a house had been almost eradicated, surviving common soldiers were normally pooled out to bidding houses. Malice would have to watch for such an auction. Soldiers did not come cheaply, but at this time, Malice would welcome the opportunity to add to her forces, particularly if there were any magic-users to be had.

  Matron Baenre addressed the guilty house. “House Thken-duis!” she called. “You have broken our laws and have been rightfully caught. Fight if you will, but know that you have

  brought this doom upon yourselfl“ With a wave of her hand, she set the Academy, the dispatcher of justice, into motion.

  Great braziers had been placed in eight positions around House Thken'duis, attended by mistresses of Arach- Tinilith and the highest-ranking clerical students. Flames roared to life and shot into the air as the high priestesses opened gates to the lower planes. Drizzt watched closely, mesmerized c: and hoping to catch a glimpse of either Dinin or Vierna.

  Denizens of the lower planes, huge, many-armed mon-sters, slime covered and spitting fire, stepped through the flames. Even the nearest high priestesses backed away from the grotesque horde. The creatures gladly accepted such servitude. When the signal from Matron Baenre came, they eagerly descended upon House Teken'duis.

  Glyphs and wards exploded at every corner of the house's feeble gate, but these were mere inconveniences to the summoned creatures.

  The wizards and students of Sorcere then went into action, slamming at the top of House Teken'duis with con-jured lightning bolts, balls of acid, and fireballs. Students and masters of Melee-Magthere, the school of fighters, rushed about with heavy crossbows, firing into windows where the doomed family might try to escape.

  The horde of monsters bashed through the doors. Light-ning flashed and thunder boomed.

  Zak looked at Drizzt, and a frown replaced the master's smile. Caught up in the excitement-and it certainly was exciting-Drizzt bore an expression of awe.

  The first screams of the doomed family rolled out from the house, screams so terrible and agonized that they stole any macabre pleasure that Drizzt might have been experi- encing. He grabbed Zak's shoulder, spinning the weapon master to him, begging for an explanation.

  One of the sons of House Teken'duis, fleeing a ten-armed giant monster, stepped out onto the balcony of a high win-dow. A dozen crossbow quarrels struck him simultane-ously, and before he even fell dead, three separate lightning bolts alternately lifted him from the balcony, then dropped

  him back onto it.

  Scorched and mutilated, the drow corpse started to tum-ble from its high perch, but the grotesque monster reached out a huge, clawed hand from the window and pulled it back in to devour it.

  “Drow justice” Zak said coldly. He didn't offer Drizzt any consolation; he wanted the brutality of this moment to stick in the young drow's mind for the rest of his life.

  The siege went on for more than an hour, and when it was finished, when the denizens of the lower planes were dis-missed through the braziers' gates and the students and in-structors of the Academy started their march back to Tier Breche, House Teken'duis was no more than a glowing lump of lifeless, molten stone.

  Drizzt watched it all, horrified, but too afraid of the con- sequences to run away. He did not notice the artistry of Menzoberranzan on the return trip to House Do'Urden.

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