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Homeland (part 2 chapter 25)

2006-08-28 22:23



  Matron Malice could not even scream her denial. A thousand explosions pounded her brain when Zaknafein went into the acid lake, a thousand realizations of impending and unavoidable disaster. She leaped from her stone throne, her slender hands twisting and clenching in the air as though she were trying to find something tangible to grasp, something that wasn't there.

  Her breath rasped in labored gasps and wordless snarls issued from her gulping mouth. After a moment in which she could not calm herself, Malice heard one sound more clearly than the din of her own contortions. Behind her came the slight hiss of the small, wicked snake heads of a high priestess's whip.

  Malice spun about, and there stood Briza, her face grimly and determinedly set and her whip's six living snake heads waving in the air.

  “I had hoped that my time of ascension would be many years away:' the eldest daughter said calmly. ”But you are weak, Malice, too weak to hold House Do'Urden together in the trials that will follow our-your-failure:'

  Malice wanted to laugh in the face of her daughter's foolishness, snake-headed whips were personal gifts from the Spider Queen and could not be used against

  matron mothers. For some reason, though, Malice could not find the courage or conviction to refute her daughter at that moment. She watched, mesmerized, as Briza's arm slowly reared back and then shot forward.

  The six snake heads uncoiled toward Malice. It was impossible! It went against all tenets of Lloth's doctrine! The fanged heads came on eagerly and dived into Malice's flesh with all the Spider Queen's fury behind them. Searing agony coursed through Malice's body, jolting and racking her and leaving an icy numbness in its wake.

  Malice teetered on the brink of consciousness, trying to hold firmly against her daughter, trying to show Briza the futility and stupidity of continuing the attack.

  The snake whip snapped again and the floor rushed up to swallow Malice. Briza muttered something, Malice heard, some curse or chant to the Spider Queen.

  Then came a third crack, and Malice knew nothing more. She was dead before the fifth strike, but Briza pounded on for many minutes, venting her fury to let the Spider Queen be assured that House Do'Urden truly had forsaken its failing matron mother.

  By the time Dinin, unexpectedly and unannounced, burst into the room, Briza had settled comfortably into the stone throne. The elderboy glanced over at his mother's battered body, then back to Briza, his head shaking in disbelief, and a wide, knowing grin splayed across his face.

  “What have you done, sis-Matron Briza?” Dinin asked, catching his slip of the tongue before Briza could react to it.

  “Zin-carla has failed:' Briza growled as she glared at him. ”Lloth would no longer accept Malice:'

  Dinin's laughter, which seemed founded in sarcasm, cut to the marrow of Briza's bones. Her eyes narrowed further and she let Dinin see her hand clearly as it moved down to the hilt of her whip.

  “You have chosen the perfect moment for ascension,' the elderboy explained calmly, apparently not at all worried that Briza would punish him. ”We are under attack:'

  “Fey-Branche?” Briza cried, springing excitedly from her seat. Five minutes in the throne as matron mother, and already Briza faced her first test. She would prove herself to the Spider Queen and redeem House Do'Urden from much of the damage that Malice's failures had caused.

  “No, sister:' Dinin said quickly, without pretense. ”Not House Fey-Branche:'

  Her brother's cool response put Briza back in the throne and twisted her grin of excitement into a grimace of pure dread.

  “Baenre:' Dinin, too, no longer smiled.

  Vierna and Maya looked out from House Do'Urden's balcony to the approaching forces beyond the adamantite gate. The sisters did not know their enemy, as Dinin had, but they understood from the sheer size of the force that some great house was involved. Still, House Do'Urden boasted two hundred fifty soldiers, many trained by Zaknafein himself. With two hundred more well-trained and well-armed troops on loan from Matron Baenre, both Vierna and Maya figured that their chances were not so bad. They quickly outlined defense strategies, and Maya swung one leg over the balcony railing, meaning to descend to the courtyard and relay the plans to her captains.

  Of course, when she and Vierna suddenly realized that they had two hundred enemies already within their gates-enemies they had accepted on loan from Matron Baenre- their plans meant little.

  Maya still straddled the railing when the first Baenre soldiers came up on the balcony. Vierna drew her whip and cried for Maya to do the same. But Maya was not moving, and Vierna, on closer inspection, noticed several tiny darts protruding from her sister's body.

  Vierna's own snake-headed whip turned on her then, its fangs slicing across her delicate face. Vierna understood at once that House Do'Urden's downfall had been decreed by Lloth herself. 'Zin-carla,' Vierna mumbled, realizing the source of the disaster. Blood blurred her vision and a wave of dizziness overtook her as darkness closed in all about her.

  “This cannot be!” Briza cried. “House Baenre attacks? Lloth has not given me-”

  “We had our chance!” Dinin yelled at her. “Zaknafein was our chance-” Dinin looked to his mother's torn body- “and the wraith has failed, I would assume:'

  Briza growled and lashed out with her whip. Dinin expected the strike, though-he knew Briza so very well- and he darted beyond the weapon's range. Briza took a step toward him.

  “Does your anger require more enemies?” Dinin asked, swords in hand. “Go out to the balcony, dear sister, where you will find a thousand awaiting you!”

  Briza cried out in frustration but turned away from Dinin and rushed from the room, hoping to salvage something out of this terrible predicament.

  Dinin did not follow. He stooped over Matron Malice and looked one final time into the eyes of the tyrant who had ruled his entire life. Malice had been a powerful figure, confident and wicked, but how fragile her rule had proved, broken by the antics of a renegade child.

  Dinin heard a commotion out in the corridor, then the anteroom door swung open again. The elderboy did not have to look to know that enemies were in the room. He continued to stare at his dead mother, knowing that he soon would share the same fate.

  The expected blow did not fall, however, and, several agonizing moments later, Dinin dared to glance back over his shoulder.

  Jarlaxle sat comfortably on the stone throne.

  “You are not surprised?” the mercenary asked, noting that Dinin's expression did not change.

  “Bregan D'aerthe was among the Baenre troops, perhaps all of the Baenre troops,' Dinin said casually. He covertly glanced around the room at the dozen or so soldiers who had followed Jarlaxle in. If only he could get to the mercenary leader before they killed him! Dinin thought. Watching the death of the treacherous Jarlaxle might bring some measure of satisfaction to this whole disaster.

  “Observant,' Jarlaxle said to him. ”I hold to my suspicions that you knew all along that your house was doomed:'

  “If Zin-carla failed,' Dinin replied.

  “And you knew it would?” the mercenary asked, almost rhetorically.

  Dinin nodded. “Ten years ago,' he began, wondering why he was telling all this to Jarlaxle, ”I watched as Zaknafein was sacrificed to the Spider Queen. Rarely has any house in all of Menzoberranzan seen a greater waste:'

  “The weapon master of House Do'Urden had a mighty reputation,' the mercenary put in.

  “Well earned, do not doubt,' replied Dinin. ”Then Drizzt, my brother-“

  “Another mighty warrior:'

  Again Dinin nodded. “Drizzt deserted us, with war at our gates. Matron Malice's miscalculation could not be ignored. I knew then that House Do'Urden was doomed:'

  “Your house defeated House Hun'ett, no small feat,' reasoned Jarlaxle.

  “Only with the help of Bregan D'aerthe,' Dinin corrected. ”For most of my life, I have watched House Do'Urden, under Matron Malice's steady guidance, ascend through the city hierarchy. Every year, our power and influence grew. For the last decade, though, I have seen us spiral down. I have watched the foundations of House Do'Urden crumble. The structure had to follow the descent:'

  “As wise as you are skilled with the blade,' the mercenary remarked. ”I have said that before of Dinin Do'Urden, and it seems that I am proved correct once again:'

  “If I have pleased you, I ask one favor,' Dinin said, rising to his feet. ”Grant it if you will:'

  “Kill you quickly and without pain?” Jarlaxle asked through a widening smile.

  Dinin nodded for the third time.

  “No,' Jarlaxle said simply. Not understanding, Dinin brought his sword flashing up and ready.

  “I'll not kill you at all,' Jarlaxle explained. Dinin kept his sword up high and studied the mercenary's face, looking for some hint as to his intent. ”I am a noble of the house,' Dinin said. “A witness to the attack. No house elimination is complete if nobles remain alive:'

  “A witness?” Jarlaxle laughed. “Against House Baenre? To what gain?”

  Dinin's sword dropped low.

  “Then what is my fate?” he asked. “Will Matron Baenre take me in?” Dinin's tone showed that he was not excited about that possibility.

  “Matron Baenre has little use for males,' Jarlaxle replied.

  “If any of your sisters survive-and I believe the one named Vierna has-they may find themselves in Matron Baenre's chapel. But the withered old mother of House Baenre would never see the value of a male such as Dinin, I fear:'

  “Then what?” Dinin demanded.

  “I know your value,' Jarlaxle stated casually. He led Dinin's gaze around to the concurring grins of his troops.

  “Bregan D'aerthe?” Dinin balked. “Me, a noble, to become a rogue?” Quicker than Dinin's eye could follow, Jarlaxle whipped a dagger into the body at his feet. The blade buried itself up to the hilt in Malice's back.

  “A rogue or a corpse,' Jarlaxle casually explained. It was not so difficult a choice.

  A few days later, Jarlaxle and Dinin looked back on the ruined adamantite gate of House Do'Urden. Once it had stood so proud and strong, with its intricate carvings of spiders and the two formidable stalagmite pillars that served as guard towers.

  “How fast it changed,' Dinin remarked. ”I see all my former life before me, yet it is all gone:'

  “Forget what has gone before,' Jarlaxle suggested. The mercenary's sly wink told Dinin that he had something specific in mind as he completed the thought. ”Except that which may aid in your future:'

  Dinin did a quick visual inspection of himself and the ruins. “My battle gear?” he asked, fishing for Jarlaxle's intent. “My training?

  “Your brother:'

  “Drizzt?” Again the cursed name reared up to bring anguish to Dinin!

  “It would seem that there is still the matter of Drizzt Do'Urden to be reconciled,' Jarlaxle explained. ”He's a high prize in the eyes of the Spider Queen:'

  “Drizzt?” Dinin asked again, hardly believing Jarlaxle's words.

  “Why are you so surprised?” Jarlaxle asked. “Your brother is still alive, else why was Matron Malice brought down?”

  “What house could be interested in him?” Dinin asked bluntly. “Another mission for Matron Baenre?” Jarlaxle's laugh belittled him. “Bregan D'aerthe may act without the guidance-or the purse-of a recognized house,' he replied.

  “You plan to go after my brother?”

  “It may be the perfect opportunity for Dinin to show his value to my little family,' said Jarlaxle to no one in particular.

  “Who better to catch the renegade that brought down House Do'Urden? Your brother's value increased many times over with the failure of Zin-carla:'

  “I have seen what Drizzt has become,' said Dinin. ”The cost will be great:'

  “My resources are limitless,' Jarlaxle answered smugly, ”and no cost is too high if the gain is higher:' The eccentric mercenary went silent for a short while, allowing Dinin's gaze to linger over the ruins of his once proud house.

  “No,' Dinin said suddenly.

  Jarlaxle turned a wary eye on him.

  “I'll not go after Drizzt,' Dinin explained.

  “You serve Jarlaxle, the master of Bregan D'aerthe,' the mercenary calmly reminded him.

  “As I once served Malice, the matron of House Do'Urden,' Dinin replied with equal calm. ”I would not venture out again after Drizzt for my mother-“ He looked at Jarlaxle squarely, unafraid of the consequences-”and I shall not do it again for you:'

  Jarlaxle spent a long moment studying his companion. Normally the mercenary leader would not tolerate such brazen insubordination, but Dinin was sincere and adamant, beyond doubt. Jarlaxle had accepted Dinin into Bregan D'aerthe because he valued the elderboy's experience and skill, he could not now readily dismiss Dinin's judgment.

  “I could have you put to a slow death,' Jarlaxle replied, more to see Dinin's reaction than to make any promises. He had no intention of destroying one as valuable as Dinin.

  “No worse than the death and disgrace I would find at Drizzt's hands,' Dinin answered calmly.

  Another long moment passed as Jarlaxle considered the implications of Dinin's words. Perhaps Bregan D'aerthe should rethink its plans for hunting the renegade, perhaps the price would prove too high.

  “Come, my soldier,' Jarlaxle said at length. ”Let us return to our home, to the streets, where we might learn what adventures our futures hold:'

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