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Homeland (part 1 chapter 12)

2006-08-28 22:09

  Chapter 12 This Enemy,“They”

  Wearing the outfit of a noble son, and with a dagger con-cealed in one boot-a suggestion from Dinin-Drizzt as-cended the wide stone stairway that led to Tier Breche, the Academy of the drow. Drizzt reached the top and moved between the giant pillars, under the impassive gazes of two guards, last-year students of Melee-Magthere.

  Three dozen other young drow milled about the Academy compound, but Drizzt hardly noticed them. Three struc- tures dominated his vision and his thoughts. To his left stood the pointed stalagmite tower of Sorcere, the school of wiz- ardry. Drizzt would spend the first sixth months of his tenth and last year of study in there.

  Before him, at the back of the level, loomed the most im-pressive structure, Arach-Tinilith, the school of Lloth, carved from the stone into the likeness of a giant spider. By drow reckoning, this was the Academy's most important building and thus was normally reserved for females. Male students were housed within Arach-Tinilith only during their last six months of study.

  While Sorcere and Arach-Tinilith were the more graceful structures, the most important building for Drizzt at that tentative moment lined the wall to his right. The pyramidal structure of Melee-Magthere, the school of fighters. This

  building would be Drizzt's home for the next nine years. His companions, he now realized, were those other dark elves in the compound-fighters, like himself, about to begin their formal training. The class, at twenty-five, was unusu- ally large for the school of fighters.

  Even more unusual, several of the novice students were nobles. Drizzt wondered how his skills would measure up against theirs, how his sessions with Zaknafein compared to the battles these others had no doubt fought with the weapon masters of their respective families.

  Those thoughts inevitably led Drizzt back to his last encounter with his mentor. He quickly dismissed the memo-ries of that unpleasant duel, and, more pointedly, the dis-turbing questions Zak's observations had forced him to consider. There was no place for such doubts on this occa-sion. Melee-Magthere loomed before him, the greatest test and the greatest lesson of his young life.

  “My greetings” came a voice behind him. Drizzt turned to face a fellow novice, who wore a sword and dirk uncom-fortably on his belt and who appeared even more nervous than Drizzt-a comforting sight.

  “Kelnozz of House Kenafin, fifteenth house” the novice said.

  “Drizzt Do'Urden of Daermon N'a'shezbaernon, House Do'Urden, Ninth House of Menzoberranzan” Drizzt replied automatically, exactly as Matron Malice had instructed him.

  “A noble” remarked Kelnozz, understanding the signifi-cance of Drizzt bearing the same surname as his house. Kelnozz dropped into a low bow. “I am honored by your presence”

  Drizzt was starting to like this place already. With the treatment he normally received at home, he hardly thought of himself as a noble. Any self-important notions that might have occurred to him at Kelnozz's gracious greeting were dispelled a moment later, though, when the masters came out.

  Drizzt saw his brother, Dinin, among them but pretended-as Dinin had warned him to- not to notice, nor

  to expect any special treatment. Drizzt rushed inside Melee-Magthere along with the rest of the students when the whips began to snap and the masters started shouting of the dire consequences if they tarried. They were herded down a few side corridors and into an oval room.

  “Sit or stand as you will!” one of the masters growled. No- ticing two of the students whispering off to the side, the master took his whip out and-crack/-took one of the of- fenders off his feet.

  Drizzt couldn't believe how quickly the room then came to order.

  “I am Hatch'net” the master began in a resounding voice,

  “the master of Lore. This room will be your hall of instruc- tion for fifty cycles of Narbondel” He looked around at the adorned belts on every figure. “You will bring no weapons to this place!”

  Hatch'net paced the perimeter of the room, making cer-tain that every eye followed his movements attentively. “You are drow” he snapped suddenly. “Do you understand what that means? Do you know where you come from, and the history of our people? Menzoberranzan was not always our home, nor was any other cavern of the Underdark. Once we walked the surface of the world” He spun suddenly and came up right in Drizzt's face.

  “Do you know of the surface?” Master Hatch'net snarled. Drizzt recoiled and shook his head.

  “An awful place” Hatch'net continued, turning back to the whole of the group. “Each day, as the glow begins its rise in Narbondel, a great ball of fire rises into the open sky above, bringing hours of a light greater than the punishing spells of the priestesses of Lloth!” He held his arms outstretched, with his eyes turned upward, and an unbelievable grimace spread across his face.

  Students' gasps rose up all about him.

  “Even in the night, when the ball of fire has gone below the far rim of the world” Hatch'net continued, weaving his words as if he were telling a horror tale, “one cannot escape

  the uncounted terrors of the surface. Reminders of what the next day will bring, dots of light-and sometimes a lesser ball of silvery fire-mar the sky's blessed darkness.

  “Once our people walked the surface of the world” he re-peated, his tone now one of lament, “in ages long past, even longer than the lines of the great houses. In that distant age, we walked beside the pale-skinned elves, the faeries!”

  “It cannot be true!” one student cried from the side.

  Hatch'net looked at him earnestly, considering whether more would be gained by beating the student for his unasked. for interruption or by allowing the group to partic-ipate. “It is!” he replied, choosing the latter course. “We thought the faeries our friends; we called them kin! We could not know, in our innocence, that they were the em-bodiments of deceit and evil. We could not know that they would turn on us suddenly and drive us from them, slaugh-tering our children and the eldest of our race!

  “Without mercy the evil faeries pursued us across the sur. face world. Always we asked for peace, and always we were answered by swords and killing arrows!”

  He paused, his face twisting into a widening, malicious smile. “Then we found the goddess!”

  “Praise Lloth!” came one anonymous cry. Again Hatch'net let the slip of tongue go by unpunished, knowing that every accenting comment only drew his audience deeper into his web of rhetoric.

  “Indeed” the master replied. “All praise to the Spider Queen. It was she who took our orphaned race to her side and helped us fight off our enemies. It was she who guided the forematrons of our race to the paradise of the Under-dark. It is she” he roared, a clenched fist rising into the air,

  “who now gives us the strength and the magic to pay back our enemies.

  “We are the drow!” Hatch'net cried. “You are the drow, never again to be downtrodden, rulers of all you desire, conquerors of lands you choose to inhabit!”

  “The surface?” came a question.

  “The surface?” echoed Hatch'net with a laugh. “Who would want to return to that vile place? Let the faeries have it! Let them burn under the fires of the open sky! We claim the Underdark, where we can feel the core of the world thrumming under our feet, and where the stones of the walls show the heat of the world's power!”

  Drizzt sat silent, absorbing every word of-the talented or-ator's often-rehearsed speech. Drizzt was caught, as were all the new students, in Hatch'net's hypnotic variations of in- flection and rallying cries. Hatch'net had been the master of Lore at the Academy for more than two centuries, owning more prestige in Menzoberranzan than nearly any other male drow, and many of the females. The matrons of the ruling families understood well the value of his practiced tongue.

  So it went every day, an endless stream of hate rhetoric di- rected against an enemy that none of the students had ever seen. The surface elves were not the only target of Hatch'net's sniping. Dwarves, gnomes, humans, halflings, and all of the surface races-and even subterranean races such as the duergar dwarves, which the drow often traded with and fought beside-each found an unpleasant spot in the master's ranting.

  Drizzt came to understand why no weapons were permit-ted in the oval chamber. When he left his lesson each day, he found his hands clenched by his sides in rage, uncon-sciously grasping for a scimitar hilt. It was obvious from the commonplace fights among the students that others felt the same way. Always, though, the overriding factor that kept some measure of control was the master's lie of the horrors of the outside world and the comforting bond of the stu. dents' common heritage-a heritage, the students would soon come to believe, that gave them enough enemies to battle beyond each other.

  The long, draining hours in the oval chamber left little time for the students to mingle. They shared common bar-racks, but their extensive duties outside of Hatch'net's lessons-serving the older students and masters, preparing meals, and cleaning the building-gave them barely enough time for rest. By the end of the first week, they walked on

  the edge of exhaustion, a condition, Drizzt realized, that only increased the stirring effect of Master Hatch'net's les sons.

  Drizzt accepted the existence stoically, considering it far better than the six years he had served his mother and sis-ters as page prince. Still, there was one great disappoint-ment to Dnzzt in his first weeks at Melee-Magthere. He found himself longing for his practice sessions.

  He sat on the edge of his bedroll late one night, holding a scimitar up before his shining eyes, remembering those many hours engaged in battle-play with Zaknafein.

  “We go to the lesson in two hours” Kelnozz, in the next bunk, reminded him. “Get some rest”

  “I feel the edge leaving my hands” Drizzt replied quietly.

  “The blade feels heavier, unbalanced”

  “The grand melee is barely ten cycles of Narbondel away” Kelnozz said. “You will get all the practice you desire there! Fear not, whatever edge has been dulled by the days with the master of Lore will soon be regained. For the next nine years, that fine blade of yours will rarely leave your hands!”

  Drizzt slid the scimitar back into its scabbard and reclined on his bunk. As with so many aspects of his life so far-and, he was beginning to fear, with so many aspects of his future in Menzoberranzan-he had no choice but to accept the cir-cumstances of his existence.

  “This segment of your training is at an end” Master Hatch'net announced on the morning of the fiftieth day. An-other master, Dinin, entered the room, leading a magically suspended iron box filled with meagerly padded wooden poles of every length and design comparable to drow weap-ons.

  “Choose the sparring pole that most resembles your own weapon of choice” Hatch'net explained as Dinin made his way around the room. He came to his brother, and Drizzt's eyes settled at once on his choice: two slightly curving poles about three-and-a-half feet long. Drizzt lifted them out and put them through a simple cut. Their weight and balance

  closely resembled the scimitars that had become so familiar to his hands.

  “For the pride of Daermon N'a'shezbaernon” Dinin whis-pered, then moved along.

  Drizzt twirled the mock weapons again. It was time to measure the value of his sessions with Zak.

  “Your class must have an order” Hatch'net was saying as Drizzt turned his attention beyond the scope of his new weapons. “Thus the grand melee. Remember, there can be only one victor!”

  Hatch'net and Dinin herded the students out of the oval chamber and out of Melee-Magthere altogether, down the tunnel between the two guardian spider statues at the back of Tier Breche. For all of the students, this was the first time they had ever been out of Menzoberranzan.

  “What are the rules?” Drizzt asked Kelnozz, in line at his side.

  “If a master calls you out, then you are out” Kelnozz re-plied.

  “The rules of engagement?” asked Drizzt. Kelnozz cast him an incredulous glance. “Win” he said simply, as though there could be no other answer.

  A short time later they came into a fairly large cavern, the arena for the grand melee. Pointed stalactites leered down at them from the ceiling and stalagmite mounds broke the floor into a twisting maze filled with ambush holes and blind corners.

  “Choose your strategies and find your starting point” Master Hatch'net said to them. “The grand melee begins in a count of one hundred!”

  The twenty-five students set off into action, some pausing to consider the landscape laid out before them, others sprinting off into the gloom of the maze.

  Drizzt decided to find a narrow corridor, to ensure that he would fight off one-against-one, and he just started off in

  his search when he was grabbed from behind.

  “A team?” Kelnozz offered.

  Drizzt did not respond, unsure of the other's fighting worth and the accepted practices of this traditional encoun-ter.

  “Others are forming into teams” Kelnozz pressed. “Some in threes. Together we might have a chance”

  “The master said there could be only one victor” Drizzt reasoned.

  “Who better than you, if not me” Kelnozz replied with a sly wink. “Let us defeat the others, then we can decide the issue between ourselves”

  The reasoning seemed prudent, and with Hatch'net's count already approaching seventy-five, Drizzt had little time to ponder the possibilities. He clapped Kelnozz on the shoulder and led his new ally into the maze.

  Catwalks had been constructed all around the room's pe-rimeter, even crossing through the center of the chamber, to give the judging masters a good view of all the action be-low. A dozen of them were up there now, all eagerly await- ing the first battles so that they might measure the talent of this young class.

  “One hundred!” cried Hatch'net from his high perch. Kelnozz began to move, but Drizzt stopped him, keeping him back in the narrow corridor between two long stalag-mite mounds.

  “Let them come to us” Drizzt signaled in the silent hand and facial expression code. He crouched in battle readiness.

  “Let them fight each other to weariness. Patience is our ally!”

  Kelnozz relaxed, thinking he had made a good choice in Drizzt.

  Their patience was not tested severely, though, for a mo-ment later, a tall and aggressive student burst into their de- fensive position, wielding a long spear-shaped pole. He

  came right in on Drizzt, slapping with the butt of his weapon, then spinning it over full in a brutal thrust de-signed for a quick kill, a strong move perfectly executed.

  Drizzt, though, it seemed the most basic of attack routines-too basic, almost, for Drizzt hardly believed that a trained student would attack another skilled fighter in such a straightforward manner. Drizzt convinced himself in time that this was indeed the chosen method of attack, and no feint, and he launched the proper parry. His scimitar poles spun counterclockwise in front of him, striking the thrusting spear in succession and driving the weapon's tip harmlessly above the striking line of its wielder's shoulder.

  The aggressive attacker, stunned by the advanced parry, found himself open and off balance. Barely a split second later, before the attacker could even begin to recover, Drizzt's counter poked one, then the other scimitar pole into his chest.

  A soft blue light appeared on the stunned student's face, and he and Drizzt followed its line up to see a wand-wielding master looking down at them from the catwalk.

  “You are defeated” the master said to the tall student. “Fall where you stand!”

  The student shot an angry glare at Drizzt and obediently dropped to the stone.

  “Come” Drizzt said to Kelnozz, casting a glance up at the master's revealing light. “Any others in the area will know of our position now. We must seek a new defensible area”

  Kelnozz paused a moment to watch the graceful hunting strides of his comrade. He had indeed made a good choice in selecting Drizzt, but he knew already, after only a single quick encounter, that if he and this skilled swordsman were the last two standing-a distinct possibility-he would have no chance at all of claiming victory.

  Together they rushed around a blind corner, right into two opponents. Kelnozz chased after one, who fled in fright, and Drizzt faced off against the other, who wielded sword and dirk poles.

  A wide smile of growing confidence crossed Drizzt's face as his opponent took the offensive, launching routines simi-larly basic to those of the spear wielder that Drizzt had eas- ily dispatched.

  A few deft twists and turns of his scimitars, a few slaps on the inside edges of his opponent's weapons, had the sword and dirk flying wide. Drizzt's attack came right up the mid-dle, where he executed another double-poke into his oppo-nent's chest.

  The expected blue light appeared. “You are defeated” came the master's call. “Fall where you stand”

  Outraged, the stubborn student chopped viciously at Drizzt. Drizzt blocked with one weapon and snapped the other against his attacker's wrist, sending the sword pole flying to the floor.

  The attacker clenched his bruised wrist, but that was the least of his troubles. A blinding flash of lightning exploded from the observing master's wand, catching him full in the chest and hurtling him ten feet backward to crash into a stalagmite mound. He crumpled to the floor, groaning in ag- ony, and a line of glowing heat rose from his scorched body, which lay against the cool gray stone.

  “You are defeated!” the master said again. Drizzt started to the fallen drow's aid, but the master is- sued an emphatic, “No!”

  Then Kelnozz was back at Drizzt's side. “He got away” Kelnozz began, but he broke into a laugh when he saw the downed student. “If a master calls you out, then you are out!” Kelnozz repeated into Drizzt's blank stare.

  “Come” Kelnozz continued. “The battle is in full now. Let us find some fun! ”

  Drizzt thought his companion quite cocky for one who had yet to lift his weapons. He only shrugged and followed. Their next encounter was not so easy. They came into a double passage turning in and out of several rock forma-tions and found themselves faced off against a group of three-nobles from leading houses, both Drizzt and Kelnozz realized.

  Drizzt rushed the two on his left, both of whom wielded single swords, while Kelnozz worked to fend off the third. Drizzt had little experience against multiple opponents, but Zak had taught him the techniques of such a battle quite well. His movements were solely defensive at first, then he settled into a comfortable rhythm and allowed his oppo-nents to tire themselves out, and to make the critical mis-takes.

  These were cunning foes, though, and familiar with each other's movements. Their attacks complemented each other, slicing in at Drizzt from widely opposing angles.

  “Two-hands” Zak had once called Drizzt, and now he lived up to the title. His scimitars worked independently, yet in perfect harmony, foiling every attack.

  From a nearby perch on the catwalk, Masters Hatch'net and Dinin looked on, Hatch'net more than a little impressed, and Dinin swelling with pride.

  Drizzt saw the frustration mounting on his opponents' faces, and he knew that his opportunity to strike would soon be at hand. Then they crossed up, coming in together with identical thrusts, their sword poles barely inches apart.

  Drizzt spun to the side and launched a blinding uppercut slice with his left scimitar, deflecting both attacks. Then he reversed his body's momentum, dropped to one knee, back in line with his opponents, and thrust in low with two snaps of his free right arm. His jabbing scimitar pole caught the first, and then the second, squarely in the groin.

  They dropped their weapons in unison, clutched their bruised parts, and slumped to their knees. Drizzt leaped up before them, trying to find the words for an apology. Hatch'net nodded his approval at Dinin as the two mas-ters set their lights on the two losers.

  “Help me!” Kelnozz cried from beyond the dividing wall of stalagmites.

  Drizzt dove into a roll through a break in the wall, came up quickly, and downed a fourth opponent, who was con-cealed for a back-stab surprise, with a backhand chop to the

  chest. Drizzt stopped to consider his latest victim. He hadn't even consciously known that the drow was there, but his aim had been perfect!

  Hatch'net blew a low whistle as he shifted his light to the most recent loser's face. “He is good!” the master breathed.

  Drizzt saw Kelnozz a short distance away, practically forced down to his back by his opponent's skilled maneu-vers. Drizzt leaped between the two and deflected an attack that surely would have finished Kelnozz.

  This newest opponent, wielding two sword poles, proved Drizzt's toughest challenge yet. He came at Drizzt with com-plicated feints and twists, forcing him on his heels more than once.

  “Berg'inyon of House Baenre” Hatch'net whispered to Dinin. Dinin understood the significance and hoped that his young brother was up to the test.

  Berg'inyon was not a disappointment to his distinguished kin. His moves came skilled and measured, and he and Drizzt danced about for many minutes with neither finding any advantage. The daring Berg'inyon then came in with the attack routine perhaps most familiar to Drizzt: the double-thrust low.

  Drizzt executed the cross-down to perfection, the appro- priate parry as Zaknafein had so pointedly proved to him. Never satisfied, though, Drizzt then reacted on an impulse, agilely snapping a foot up between the hilts of his crossed blades and into his opponent's face. The stunned son of House Baenre fell back against the wall.

  “I knew the parry was wrong!” Drizzt cried, already sa-voring the next time he would get the opportunity to foil the double-thrust low in a session against Zak.

  “He is good” Hatch'net gasped again to his glowing com-panion.

  Dazed, Berg'inyon could not fight his way out of the disad-vantage. He put a globe of darkness around himself, but Drizzt waded right in, more than willing to fight blindly.

  Drizzt put the son of House Baenre through a quick series

  of attacks, ending with one of Drizzt's scimitar poles against Berg'inyon's exposed neck.

  “I am defeated” the young Baenre conceded, feeling the pole. Hearing the call, Master Hatch'net dispelled the dark- ness. Berg'inyon set both his weapons on the stone and slumped down, and the blue light appeared on his face. Drizzt couldn't hold back the widening grin. Were there any here that he could not defeat? he wondered.

  Drizzt then felt an explosion on the back of his head that dropped him to his knees. He managed to look back in time to see Kelnozz walking away.

  “A fool” Hatch'net chuckled, putting his light on Drizzt, then turning his gaze upon Dinin. “ A good fool”

  Dinin crossed his arms in front of his chest, his face glow-ing brightly now in a flush of embarrassment and anger.

  Drizzt felt the cool stone against his cheek, but his only thoughts at that moment were rooted in the past, locked onto Zaknafein's sarcastic, but painfully accurate, state-ment: “It is our way!”

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