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Homeland (part 1 chapter 23)

2006-08-28 22:09

  Chapter 23 A Single Clean Blow

  “The gnomes took him” Masoj said to Dinin when the pa-trol leader returned to the cavern. The wizard lifted his arms over his head to give the high priestess and her assist-ants a better view of his predicament.

  “Where?” Dinin demanded. “Why did they let you live?”

  Masoj shrugged. “A secret door” he explained, “some- where on the wall behind you. I suspect that they would have taken me as well, except. . ” Masoj looked down at the floor, still holding him tightly up to the waist. “The gnomes would have killed me, but for your arrival”

  “You are fortunate, wizard” the high priestess said to Ma-soj. “I have memorized a spell this day that will release the stone's hold on you” She whispered some instructions to her assistants and they took out water skins and pouches of clay and began tracing a ten foot square on the floor around the trapped wizard. The high priestess moved over to the wall of the chamber and prepared for her prayers.

  “Some have escaped” Dinin said to her.

  The high priestess understood. She whispered a quick de-tection spell and studied the wall. “Right there” she said. Dinin and another male rushed over to the spot and soon found the almost imperceptible outline to the secret door.

  As the high priestess began her incantation, one of her cleric assistants threw the end of a rope to Masoj. “Hold on” the assistant teased, “and hold your breath!”

  “Wait -” Masoj began, but the stone floor all around him transformed into mud and the wizard slipped under.

  The clerics, laughing, pulled Masoj out a moment later.

  “Nice spell” the wizard remarked, spitting mud.

  “It has its purposes” replied the high priestess. “Especially when we fight against the gnomes and their tricks with the stone. I carried it as a safeguard against earth elementals” She looked at a piece of rubble at her feet, unmistakably one eye and the nose of such a creature. “I see that my spell was

  not needed in that manner“

  “I destroyed that one” Masoj lied.

  “Indeed” said the high priestess, unconvinced. She could tell by the cut of the rubble that a blade had made the wound. She let the issue drop when the scrape of sliding stone turned them all to the wall.

  “A maze” moaned the fighter beside Dinin when he peered into the tunnel. “How will we find them?” Dinin thought for a moment, then spun on Masoj. “They have my brother” he said, an idea coming to mind. “Where is your cat?”

  “ About” Masoj stalled, guessing Dinin's plan and not really wanting Drizzt rescued.

  “Bring it to me” Dinin ordered. “The cat can smell Drizzt”

  “I cannot. . . I mean” Masoj stuttered.

  “Now, wizard!” Dinin commanded. “Unless you wish me to tell the ruling council that some of the gnomes escaped because you refused to help!”

  Masoj tossed the figurine to the ground and called for Guenhwyvar, not really knowing what would happen next. Had the earth elemental really destroyed Guenhwyvar? The mist appeared, in seconds transforming into the panther's corporeal body.

  “Well” Dinin prompted, indicating the tunnel.

  “Go find Drizzt!” Masoj commanded the cat. Guenhwyvar sniffed around the area for a moment, then bounded off down the small tunnel, the drow patrol in silent pursuit.

  “Where. . ” Drizzt started when he finally began the long climb from the depths of unconsciousness. He understood that he was sitting, and knew, too, that his hands were bound in front of him.

  A small but undeniably strong hand caught him by the back of the hair and pulled his head back roughly.

  “Quiet!” Belwar whispered harshly, and Drizzt was sur-prised that the creature could speak his language. Belwar let go of Drizzt and turned to join other svirfnebli.

  From the chamber's low height and the gnomes' nervous movements, Drizzt realized that this group had taken flight.

  The gnomes began a quiet conversation in their own tongue, which Drizzt could not begin to understand. One of them asked the gnome who had ordered Drizzt to be quiet, apparently the leader, a heated question. Another grunted his accord and spoke some harsh words, turning on Drizzt with a dangerous look in his eyes.

  The leader slapped the other gnome hard on the back and sent him off through one of the two low exits in the cham-ber, then put the others into defensive positions. He walked over to Drizzt. “You come with us to Blingdenstone” he said in hesitant words.

  “Then?” Drizzt asked.

  Belwar shrugged. “The king'll decide. If you cause me no trouble, I'll tell him to let you go”

  Drizzt laughed cynically.

  “Well, then” said Belwar, “if the king says to kill you, I'll make sure it comes in a single clean blow” Again Drizzt laughed. “Do you believe that I believe?” he asked. “Torture me now and have your fun. That is your evil way!”

  Belwar started to slap him but held his hand in check.

  “Svirfnebli don't torture!” he declared, louder than he should have. “Drow elves torture!” He turned away but spun back, reiterating his promise.“ A single clean blow”

  Drizzt found that he believed the sincerity in the gnome's voice, and he had to accept that promise as a measure of mercy far greater than the gnome would have received if Dinin's patrol had captured him. Belwar turned to walk away, but Drizzt, intrigued, had to learn more of the curi-ous creature.

  “How have you learned my language?” he asked.

  “Gnomes are not stupid” Belwar retorted, unsure of what Drizzt was leading to.

  “Nor are drow” Drizzt replied earnestly, “but I have never heard the language of the svirfnebli spoken in my city”

  “There once was a drow in Blingdenstone” Belwar ex-plained, now nearly as curious about Drizzt as Drizzt was about him.

  “Slave” Drizzt reasoned.

  “Guest!” Belwar snapped. “Svirfnebli keep no slaves!”

  Again Drizzt found that he could not refute the sincerity in Belwar's voice. “What is your name?” he asked.

  The gnome laughed at him. “Do you think me stupid?”

  Belwar asked. “You desire my name that you might use its power in some dark magic against me!”

  “No” Drizzt protested.

  “I should kill you now for thinking me stupid!” Belwar growled, ominously lifting his heavy pick. Drizzt shifted un-comfortably, not knowing what the gnome would do next.

  “My offer remains” Belwar said, lowering the pick. “No trouble, and 1 tell the king to let you go” Belwar didn't be-lieve that would happen any more than did Drizzt, so the svirfneblin, with a helpless shrug, offered Drizzt the next best thing. “Or else, a single clean blow”

  A commotion from one of the tunnels turned Belwar away. “Belwar” called one of the other gnomes, rushing back into the small chamber. The gnome leader turned a wary eye on Drizzt to see if the drow had caught the men- tion of his name.

  Drizzt wisely kept his head turned away, pretending not to listen. He had indeed heard the name of the gnome leader who had shown him mercy. Belwar, the other svirfneblin had said. Belwar, a name that Drizzt would never forget.

  Fighting from down the passageway caught everyone's at-tention, then, and several svirfnebli scrambled back into the chamber. Drizzt knew from their excitement that the drow patrol was close behind.

  Belwar started barking out commands, mostly organizing the retreat down the chamber's other tunnel. Drizzt won. dered where he would fit into the gnome's thinking. Cer. tainly Belwar couldn't hope to outrun the drow patrol dragging along a prisoner.

  Then the gnome leader suddenly stopped talking and stopped moving. Too suddenly.

  The drow clerics had led the way in with their insidious, paralyzing spells. Belwar and another gnome were held fast by the dweomer, and the rest of the gnomes, realizing this, broke into a wild scramble for the rear exit.

  The drow warriors, Guenhwyvar leading the way, charged into the room. Any relief Drizzt might have felt at seeing his feline friend unharmed was buried under the en-suing slaughter. Dinin and his troops cut into the disorgan-ized gnomes with typical drow savagery.

  In seconds-horrible seconds that seemed like hours to Drizzt-only Belwar and the other gnome caught in the clerical spell remained alive in the chamber. Several of the svirfnebli had managed to flee down the back corridor, but most of the drow patrol was off in pursuit.

  Masoj came into the chamber last, looking thorougly wretched in his mud-covered clothing. He remained at the tunnel exit and did not even look Drizzt's way, except to note that his panther was standing protectively beside the secondboy of House Do'Urden.

  “Again you have found your measure of luck, and more” Dinin said to Drizzt as he cut his brother's bonds. Looking around at the carnage in the chamber, Drizzt wasn't so sure.

  Dinin handed him back his scimitars, then turned to the drow standing watch over the two paralyzed gnomes. “Fin-ish them” Dinin instructed.

  A wide smile spread over the other drow's face, and he pulled a jagged knife from his belt. He held it up in front of a gnome's face, teasing the helpless creature. “Can they see it?” he asked the high priestess.

  “That is the fun of the spell” the high priestess replied.

  “The svirfneblin understands what is about to happen. Even now he is struggling to break out of the hold”

  “Prisoners!” Drizzt blurted.

  Dillin and the others turned to him, the draw with the dagger wearing a scowl both angry and disappointed.

  “For House Do'Urden?” Drizzt asked Dinin hopefully. “We could benefit from-”

  “Svirfnebli do not make good slaves” Dinin replied.

  “No; agreed the high priestess, moving beside the dagger-wielding fighter. She nodded to the warrior and his smile re-turned tenfold. He struck hard. Only Belwar remained.

  The warrior waved his blood-stained dagger ominously and moved in front of the gnome leader.

  “Not that one!” Drizzt protested, unable to bear anymore.

  “Let him live!” Drizzt wanted to say that Belwar could do them no harm, and that killing the defenseless gnome would be a cowardly and vile act. Drizzt knew that appeal-ing to his kin for mercy would be a waste of time.

  Dinin's expression was more a look of anger than curios-ity this time.

  “If you kill him, then no gnomes will remain to return to their city and tell of our strength; Drizzt reasoned, grasp- ing at the one slim hope he could find. ”We should send him back to his people, send him back to tell them of their folly in entering the domain of the drow!“ Dinin looked back to the high priestess for advice.

  “It seems proper reasoning; she said with a nod.

  Dinin was not so certain of his brother's motives. Not tak-ing his eyes off Drizzt, he said to the warrior, “Then cut off the gnome's hands”

  Drizzt didn't flinch, realizing that if he did, Dinin would surely slaughter Belwar.

  The warrior replaced the dagger on his belt and took out his heavy sword.

  “Wait; said Dinin, still eyeing Drizzt. ”Release him from the spell first; I want to hear his screams“

  Several drow moved over to put the tips of their swords at Belwar's neck as the high priestess released her magical hold. Belwar made no moves.

  The appointed drow warrior grasped his sword in both hands, and Belwar, brave Belwar, held his arms straight out and motionless in front of him.

  Drizzt averted his gaze, unable to watch and awaiting, fearing, the gnome's cry.

  Belwar noted Drizzt's reaction. Was it compassion?

  The drow warrior then swung his sword. Belwar never took his stare off Drizzt as the sword cut across his wrists, lighting a million fires of agony in his arms.

  Neither did Belwar scream. He wouldn't give Dinin the satisfaction. The gnome leader looked back to Drizzt one fi-nal time as two drow fighters ushered him out of the cham-ber, and he recognized the true anguish, and the apology, behind the young drow's feigned impassive facade.

  Even as Belwar was leaving, the dark elves who had chased off after the fleeing gnomes returned from the other tunnel. “We could not catch them in these tiny passage-ways” one of them complained.

  “Damn!” Dinin growled. Sending a handless gnome victim back to Blingdenstone was one thing, but letting healthy members of the gnome expedition escape was quite an-other. “I want them caught!”

  “Guenhwyvar can catch them” Masoj proclaimed, then he called the cat to his side and eyed Drizzt all the while. Drizzt's heart raced as the wizard patted the great cat.

  “Come, my pet” Masoj said. “There is hunting left to be done!” The wizard watched Drizzt squirm at the words, knowing that Drizzt did not approve of Guenhwyvar engag- ing in such tactics.

  “They are gone?” Drizzt asked Dinin, his voice on the edge of desperation.

  “Running all the way back to Blingdenstone” Dinin replied calmly. “If we let them”

  “ And will they return?”

  Dinin's sour scowl reflected the absurdity of his brother's question. “Would you?”

  “Our task is complete, then” Drizzt reasoned, trying vainly to find some way out of Masoj's ignoble designs for the panther.

  “We have won the day” Dinin agreed, “though our own losses have been great. We may find still more fun, with the help of the wizard's pet?'

  “Fun” Masoj echoed pointedly at Drizzt. “Be gone, Guenhwyvar, into the tunnels. Let us learn how fast a frightened gnome may run!”

  Only a few minutes later, Guenhwyvar came back into the chamber, dragging a dead gnome in its mouth.

  “Return!” Masoj commanded as Guenhwyvar dropped the body at his feet. “Bring me more!”

  Drizzt's heart dropped at the sound of the corpse flopping to the stone floor. He looked into Guenhwyvar's eyes and saw a sadness as profound as his own. The panther was a hunter, as honorable in its own way as was Drizzt. To the evil Masoj, though, Guenhwyvar was a toy and nothing more, an instrument for his perverted pleasures, killing for no reason other than its master's joy of killing.

  In the hands of the wizard, Guenhwyvar was no more than a murderer.

  Guenhwyvar paused at the entrance to the small tunnel and looked to Drizzt almost apologetically.

  “Return!” Masoj screamed, and he kicked the cat in the rear. Then Masoj, too, turned an eye back on Drizzt, a vin-dictive eye. Masoj had missed his chance to kill the young Do'Urden; he would have to be careful how he explained such a mistake to his unforgiving mother. Masoj decided to worry about that unpleasant encounter later. For now, at least, he had the satisfaction of watching Drizzt suffer.

  Dinin and the others were oblivious to the unfolding drama between Masoj and Drizzt; too engaged in their wait for Guenhwyvar's return; too engaged in their speculations of the expressions of terror the gnomes would cast back at such a perfect killer; too caught up in the macabre humor of the moment, that perverted drow humor that brought laughter when tears were needed.

  Part 5 Zaknafein

  Zaknafein Do'Urden: mentor; teacher; friend. I, in the blind agony of my own frustrations, more than once came to recognize Zaknafein as none of these. Did I ask of him more than he could give? Did I expect perfection of a tor-mented soul; hold Zaknafein up to standards beyond his ex-periences, or standards impossible in the face of his experiences?

  I might have been him. I might have lived, trapped within the helpless rage, buried under the daily assault of the wick- edness that is Menzoberranzan and the pervading evil that is my own family; never in life to find escape.

  It seems a logical assumption that we learn from the mis-takes of our elders. This, I believe, was my salvation. With-out the example of Zaknafein, I, too, would have found no escape-not in life.

  Is this course I have chosen a better way than the life Zaknafein knew? I think, yes, though I find despair often

  enough sometimes to long for that other way. It would have been easier. Truth, though, is nothing in the face of self- falsehood, and principles are of no value if the idealist can- not live up to his own standards.

  This, then, is a better way.

  I live with many laments, for my people, for myself, but mostly for that weapon master; lost to me now, who showed me how-and why-to use a blade.

  There is no pain greater than this; not the cut of a jagged- edged dagger nor the fire of a dragon's breath. Nothing burns in your heart like the emptiness of losing something, someone, before you truly have learned of its value. Often now I lift my cup in a futile toast, an apology to ears that cannot hear:

  To Zak, the one who inspired my courage.

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