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Homeland (part 1 chapter 13)

2006-08-28 22:09

  Chapter 13 The Price of Winning

  “You deceived me” Drizzt said to Kelnozz that night in the barracks. The room was black around them and no other Stu- dents stirred in their cots, exhausted from the day's fighting and from their endless duties serving the older students.

  Kelnozz fully expected this encounter. He had guessed Drizzt's naivete early on, when Drizzt had actually queried him about the rules of engagement. An experienced drow warrior, particularly a noble, should have known better, should have understood that the only rule of his existence was the pursuit of victory. Now, Kelnozz knew I this foolish young Do'Urden would not strike at him for his earlier actions-vengeance fueled by anger was not one of Drizzt's traits.

  “Why?” Drizzt pressed, finding no answer forthcoming from the smug commoner of House Kenafin.

  The volume of Drizzt's voice caused Kelnozz to glance around nervously. They were supposed to be sleeping; if a master heard them arguing. . .

  “What is the mystery?” Kelnozz signaled back in the hand code, the warmth of his fingers glowing clearly to Drizzt's heat-sensing eyes. “I acted as I had to act, though I now be-lieve I should have held off a bit longer. Perhaps, if you had defeated a few more, I might have finished higher than third in the class”

  “If we had worked together, as we had agreed, you might have won, or finished second at the least” Drizzt signaled back, the sharp movements of his hands reflecting his anger.

  “Most assuredly second” Kelnozz replied. “I knew from the beginning that I would be no match for you. You are the finest swordsman I have ever seen”

  “Not by the masters' standing” Drizzt grumbled aloud.

  Eighth is not so low“ Kelnozz whispered back. Berg'inyon is only ranked tenth, and he is from the ruling house of Menzoberranzan. You should be glad that your standing is not to be envied by your classmates” A shuffle outside the room's door sent Kelnozz back into the silent mode. “Holding a higher rank means only that I have more fighters eyeing my back as a convenient place to rest their daggers”

  Drizzt let the implications of Kelnozz's statement slip by; he refused to consider such treachery in the Academy. “Berg'inyon was the finest fighter I saw in the grand melee” he signaled. “He had you beaten until I interceded on your behalf ”

  Kelnozz smiled the thought away. “Let Berg'inyon serve as cook in some lowly house for alii care” he whispered even more quietly than before-for the son of House Baenre's bunk was only a few yards away. “He is tenth, yet I, Kelnozz of Kenafin, am third!”

  “I am eighth” said Drizzt, an uncharacteristic edge on his voice, more anger than jealousy, “but I could defeat you with any weapon”

  Kelnozz shrugged, a strangely blurring movement to on-lookers seeing in the infrared spectrum. “You did not” he signaled. “I won our encounter”

  “Encounter?” Drizzt gasped. “You deceived me, that is all!”

  “Who was left standing?” Kelnozz pointedly reminded him. “Who wore the blue light of a master's wand?”

  “Honor demands that there be rules of engagement” growled Drizzt.

  “There is a rule” Kelnozz snapped back at him. “You may do whatever you can get away with. I won our encounter, Drizzt Do'Urden, and I hold the higher rank! That is all that matters!”

  In the heat of the argument, their voices had grown too loud. The door to the room swung wide, and a master stepped onto the threshold, his form vividly outlined by the hallway's blue lights. Both students promptly rolled over and closed their eyes-and their mouths.

  The finality of Kelnozz's last statement rocked Drizzt to some prudent observations. He realized then that his friendship with Kelnozz had come to an end-and, perhaps, that he and Kelnozz had never been friends at all.

  “You have seen him?” Alton asked, his fingers tapping anx-iously on the small table in the highest chamber of his pri- vate quarters. Alton had set the younger students of Sorcere to work repairing the blasted place, but the scorch marks on the stone walls remained, a legacy of Alton's fire-ball.

  “I have” replied Masoj. “I have heard of his skill with weapons”

  “Eighth in his class after the grand melee” said Alton, “a fine achievement”

  “By all accounts, he has the prowess to be first” said Ma-soj. “One day he will claim that title. I shall be careful around that one”

  “He will never live to claim it!” Alton promised. “House Do'Urden puts great pride in this purple-eyed youth, and thus 1 have decided upon Drizzt as my first target for re-venge. His death will bring pain to that treacherous Matron Malice!”

  Masoj saw a problem here and decided to put it to rest once and for all. “You will not harm him” he warned Alton.

  “You will not even go near him” Alton's tone became no less grim. “I have waited two decades-” he began.

  “You can wait a few more” Masoj snapped back. “I remind you that you accepted Matron SiNafay's invitation into House Hun'ell. Such an alliance requires obedience. Matron SiNafay-our matron mother-has placed upon my shoul-ders the task of handling Drizzt Do'Urden, and I will exe- cute her will”

  Alton rested back in his seat across the table and put what was left of his acid-torn chin into a slender palm, carefully weighing the words of his secret partner.

  “Matron SiNafay has plans that will bring you all the re-venge you could possibly desire” Masoj continued. “I warn you now, Alton DeVir” he snarled, emphasizing the sur-name that was not Hun'ett, “that if you begin a war with House Do'Urden, or even put them on the defensive with any act of violence unsanctioned by Matron SiNafay, you will incur the wrath of House Hun'ett. Matron SiNafay will expose you as a murderous imposter and will exact every punishment allowable by the ruling council upon your piti-ful bones!”

  Alton had no way to refute the threat. He was a rogue, without family beyond the adopted Hun'etts. If SiNafay turned against him, he would find no allies. “What plan does SiNafay . . . Matron SiNafay . . . have for House Do'Urden?” he asked calmly. “Tell me of my revenge so that I may sur-vive these torturous years of waiting”

  Masoj knew that he had to act carefully at this point. His mother had not forbidden him to tell Alton of the future course of action, but if she had wanted the volatile DeVir to know, Masoj realized, she would have told him herself.

  “Let us just say that House Do'Urden's power has grown, and continues to grow, to the point where it has become a very real threat to all the great houses” Masoj purred, lov-ing the intrigue of positioning before a war. “Witness the fall of House DeVir, perfectly executed with no obvious trail. Many of Menzoberranzan's nobles would rest easier if . . . ”

  He let it go at that, deciding that he probably had said too much already.

  By the hot glimmer in Alton's eyes, Masoj could tell that the lure had been strong enough to buy Alton's patience.

  The Academy held many disappointments for young Drizzt, particularly in that first year, when so many of the dark realities of drow society, realities that Zaknafein had barely hinted at, remained on the edges of Drizzt's cogni-zance with stubborn resilience. He weighed the masters' lectures of hatred and mistrust in both hands, one side hold- ing the masters' views in the context of the lectures, the other bending those same words into the very different logic assumed by his old mentor. The truth seemed so am-biguous, so hard to define. Through all of the examination, Drizzt found that he could not escape one pervading fact: In his entire young life, the only treachery he had ever witnessed-and so often!-was at the hands of drow elves. The physical training of the Academy, hours on end of du- eling exercises and stealth techniques, was more to Drizzt's liking. Here, with his weapons so readily in his hands, he freed himself of the disturbing questions of truth and per-ceived truth.

  Here he excelled. If Drizzt had come into the Academy with a higher level of training and expertise than that of his classmates, the gap grew only wider as the grueling months passed. He learned to look beyond the accepted defense and attack routines put forth by the masters and create his own methods, innovations that almost always at least equaled-and usually outdid-the standard techniques.

  At first, Dinin listened with increasing pride as his peers exalted in his younger brother's fighting prowess. So glow- ing came the compliments that the eldest son of Matron Malice soon took on a nervous wariness. Dinin was the elderboy of House Do'Urden, a title he had gained by elimi-

  nating Nalfein. Drizzt, showing the potential to become one of the finest swordsmen in all of Menzoberranzan, was now the secondboy of the house, eyeing, perhaps, Dinin's title. Similarly, Drizzt's fellow students did not miss the grow- ing brilliance of his fighting dance. Often they viewed it too close for their liking! They looked upon Drizzt with seeth-ing jealousy, wondering if they could ever measure up against his whirling scimitars. Pragmatism was ever a strong trait in drow elves. These young students had spent the bulk of their years observing the elders of their families twisting every situation into a favorable light. Everyone of them recognized the value of Drizzt Do'Urden as an ally, and thus, when the grand melee came around the next year,

  Drizzt was inundated with offers of partnership.

  The most surprising query came from Kelnozz of House Kenafin, who had downed Drizzt through deceit the pre-vious year. “Do we join again, this time to the very top of the class?” the haughty young fighter asked as he moved beside Drizzt down the tunnel to the prepared cavern. He moved around and stood before Drizzt easily, as if they were the best of friends, his forearms resting across the hilts of his belted weapons and an overly friendly smile spread across his face.

  Dnzzt could not even answer. He turned and walked away, pointedly keeping his eye over one shoulder as he left.

  “Why are you so amazed?” Kelnozz pressed, stepping quickly to keep up.

  Drizzt spun on him. “How could I join again with one who so deceived me?” he snarled. “I have not forgotten your trick!”

  “That is the point” Kelnozz argued. “You are more wary this year; certainly I would be a fool to attempt such a move again!”

  “How else could you win?” said Drizzt. “You cannot defeat me in open battle” His words were not a boast, just a fact that Kelnozz accepted as readily as Drizzt.

  “Second rank is highly honored” Kelnozz reasoned. Drizzt glared at him. He knew that Kelnozz would not set-

  tle for anything less than ultimate victory. “If we meet in the melee” he said with cold finality, “it will be as opponents” He walked off again, and this time Kelnozz did not follow.

  Luck bestowed a measure of justice upon Drizzt that day, for his first opponent, and first victim, in the grand melee was none other than his former partner. Drizzt found Kelnozz in the same corridor they had used as a defensible starting point the previous year and took him down with his very first attack combination. Drizzt somehow managed to hold back on his winning thrust, though he truly wanted to jab his scimitar pole into Kelnozz's ribs with all his strength.

  Then Drizzt was off into the shadows, picking his way carefully until the numbers of surviving students began to dwindle. With his reputation, Drizzt had to be extra wary, for his classmates recognized a common advantage in elimi-nating one of his prowess early in the competition. Working alone, Drizzt had to fully scope out every battle before he engaged, to ensure that each opponent had no secret com-panions lurking nearby.

  This was Drizzt's arena, the place where he felt most comfortable, and he was up to the challenge. In two hours, only five competitors remained, and after another two hours of cat and mouse, it came down to only two: Drizzt and Berg'inyon Baenre.

  Drizzt moved out into an open stretch of the cavern.

  “Come out, then, student Baenre!” he called. “Let us settle this challenge openly and with honor!” Watching from the catwalk, Dinin shook his head in disbe-lief.

  “He has relinquished all advantage” said Master Hat-ch'net, standing beside the elderboy of House Do'Urden. “ As the better swordsman, he had Berg'inyon worried and un-sure of his moves. Now your brother stands out in the open, showing his position”

  “Still a fool” Dinin muttered.

  Hatch'net spotted Berg'inyon slipping behind a stalagmite mound a few yards behind Drizzt. “It should be settled soon”

  “Are you afraid?” Drizzt yelled into the gloom. “If you truly deserve the top rank, as you freely boast, then come out and face me openly. Prove your words, Berg'inyon Baenre, or never speak them again!”

  The expected rush of motion from behind sent Drizzt into a sidelong roll.

  “Fighting is more than swordplay!” the son of House Baenre cried as he came on, his eyes gleaming at the advan-tage he now seemed to hold.

  Berg'inyon stumbled then, tripped up by a wire Drizzt had set out, and fell flat to his face. Drizzt was on him in a flash, scimitar pole tip in at Berg'inyon's throat.

  “So I have learned” Drizzt replied grimly.

  “Thus a Do'Urden becomes the champion” Hatch'net ob-served, putting his blue light on the face of House Baenre's defeated son. Hatch'net then stole Dinin's widening smile with a prudent reminder: “Elderboys should beware se-condboys with such skills”

  While Drizzt took little pride in his victory that second year, he took great satisfaction in the continued growth of his fighting skills. He practiced every waking hour when he was not busy in the many serving duties of a young student. Those duties were reduced as the years passed-the young-est students were worked the hardest-and Drizzt found more and more time in private training. He reveled in the dance of his blades and the harmony of his movements. His scimitars became his only friends, the only things he dared to trust.

  He won the grand melee again the third year, and the year after that, despite the conspiracies of many others against him. To the masters, it became obvious that none in Drizzt's class would ever defeat him, and the next year they placed him into the grand melee of students three years his senior.

  He won that one, too.

  The Academy, above anything else in Menzoberranzan, was a structured place, and though Drizzt's advanced skill

  defied that structure in terms of battle prowess, his tenure as a student would not be lessened. As a fighter, he would spend ten years in the Academy, not such a long time con-sidering the thirty years of study a wizard endured in Sor-cere, or the fifty years a budding priestess would spend in Arach- Tinilith. While fighters began their training at the young age of twenty, wizards could not start until their twenty-fifth birthday, and clerics had to wait until the age of forty.

  The first four years in Melee-Magthere were devoted to singular combat, the handling of weapons. In this, the mas-ters could teach Drizzt little that Zaknafein had not already shown him.

  After that, though, the lessons became more involved.

  The young drow warriors spent two full years learning group fighting tactics with other warriors, and the subse- quent three years incorporated those tactics into warfare techniques beside, and against, wizards and clerics.

  The final year of the Academy rounded out the fighters' education. The first six months were spent in Sorcere, learning the basics of magic use, and the last six, the prelude to graduation, saw the fighters in tutelage under the priest- esses of Arach- Tinilith.

  All the while there remained the rhetoric, the hammering in of those precepts that the Spider Queen held so dear, those lies of hatred that held the drow in a state of controlla- ble chaos.

  Drizzt, the Academy became a personal challenge, a private classroom within the impenetrable womb of his whirling scimitars. Inside the adamantite walls he formed with those blades, Drizzt found he could ignore the many injustices he observed all around him, and could somewhat insulate himself against words that would have poisoned his heart. The Academy was a place of constant ambition and deceit, a breeding ground for the ravenous, consuming hunger for power that marked the life of all the drow. Drizzt would survive it unscathed, he promised himself.

  As the years passed, though, as the battles began to take on the edge of brutal reality, Drizzt found himself caught up

  time and again in the heated throes of situations he could not so easily brush away.

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