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Homeland (part 1 chapter 4)

2006-08-28 22:09

  Chapter 4 Tbe First House

  Four cycles of Narbondel-four days-later, a glowing blue disk floated up the mushroom-lined stone path to the spider-covered gate of House Do'Urden. The sentries

  watched it from the windows of the two outer towers and from the compound as it hovered patiently three feet off the ground. Word came to the ruling family only seconds later.

  “What can it be?” Briza asked Zaknafein when she, the weapon master, Dinin, and Maya assembled on the balcony of the upper level.

  “A summons?” Zak asked as much as answered. “We will not know until we investigate” Zak stepped up on the rail- ing and out into the empty air, then levitated down to the compound floor. Briza motioned to Maya, and the youngest Do'Urden daughter followed Zak.

  “It bears the standard of House Baenre” Zak called up af-ter he had moved closer. He and Maya opened the large gates, and the disk slipped in, showing no hostile move-ments.

  “Baenre” Briza repeated over her shoulder, down the house's corridor to where Matron Malice and Rizzen waited.

  “It seems that you are requested in audience, Matron Mother” Dinin put in nervously. Malice moved out to the balcony, and her husband obedi-ently followed.

  “Do they know of our attack?” Briza asked in the silent code, and every member of House Do'Urden, noble and commoner alike, shared that unpleasant thought. House DeVir had been eliminated only a few days before, and a calling card from the First Matron Mother of Menzoberran-zan could hardly be viewed as a coincidence.

  “Every house knows” Malice replied aloud, not believing the silence to be a necessary precaution within the bounda-ries of her own complex. “Is the evidence against us so over-whelming that the ruling council will be forced to action?” She stared hard at Briza, her dark eyes alternating between the red glow of infravision and the deep green they showed in the aura of normal light. “That is the question we must ask” Malice stepped up onto the balcony, but Briza grabbed the back of her heavy black robe to stay her.

  “You do not mean to go with the thing?” Briza asked. Malice's answering look showed even more startlement. “Of course” she replied. “Matron Baenre would not openly call upon me if she meant me harm. Even her power is not so great that she can ignore the tenets of the city”

  “You are certain that you will be safe?” Rizzen asked, truly concerned. If Malice was killed, Briza would take over the house, and Rizzen doubted that the eldest daughter would want any male by her side. Even if the vicious female did de-sire a patron, Rizzen would not want to be the one in that position. He was not Briza's father, was not even as old as Briza. Clearly, the present patron of the house had a lot at stake in Matron Malice's continued good health.

  “Your concern touches me” Malice replied, knowing her husband's true fears. She pulled out of Briza's grasp and stepped off the railing, straightening her robes as she slowly descended. Briza shook her head disdainfully and motioned Rizzen to follow her back inside the house, not thinking it wise that the bulk of the family be so exposed to unfriendly eyes.

  “Do you want an escort?” Zak asked as Malice sat on the disk.

  “I am certain that I will find one as soon as I am beyond the perimeter of our compound” Malice replied. “Matron Baenre would not risk exposing me to any danger while I am in the care of her house”

  “Agreed” said Zak, “but do you want an escort from House Do'Urden?”

  “If one was wanted, two disks would have floated in” Mal. ice said in a tone of finality. The matron was beginning to find the concerns of those around her stifling. She was the matron mother, after all, the strongest, the oldest, and the wisest, and did not appreciate others second-guessing her. To the disk, Malice said, “Execute your appointed task, and let us be done with it!”

  Zak nearly snickered at Malice's choice of words.

  “Matron Malice Do'Urden” came a magical voice from the disk, “Matron Baenre offers her greetings. So long has it

  been since last you two have sat in audience“

  “Never” Malice signaled to Zak. “Then take me to House Baenre!” Malice demanded. “I do not wish to waste my time conversing with a magical mouth!” Apparently, Matron Baenre had anticipated Malice's impatience, for without an. other word, the disk floated back out of the Do'Urden com. pound.

  Zak shut the gate as it left, then quickly signaled his sok diers into motion. Malice did not want any open company, but the Do'Urden spy network would covertly track every movement of the Baenre sled, to the very gates of the ruling house's grand compound.

  Malice's guess about an escort was correct. As soon as the disk swept down from the pathway to the Do'Urden com-pound, twenty soldiers of House Baenre, all female, moved out from concealment along the sides of the boulevard. They formed a defensive diamond around the guest matron mother. The guard at each point of the formation wore black robes emblazoned on the back with a large purple- and-red spider design-the robes of a high priestess.

  “Baenre's own daughters” Malice mused, for only the daughters of a noble could attain such a rank. How careful the First Matron Mother had been to ensure Malice's safety on the trip!

  Slaves and drow commoners tripped over themselves in a frantic effort to get far out of the way of the approaching entourage as the group made its way through the curving streets toward the mushroom grove. The soldiers of House Baenre alone wore their house insignia in open view, and no one wanted to invoke the anger of Matron Baenre in any way.

  Malice just rolled her eyes in disbelief and hoped that she might know such power before she died.

  She rolled her eyes again a few minutes later, when the group approached the ruling house. House Baenre encom-passed twenty tall and majestic stalagmites, all intercon-nected with gracefully sweeping and arching bridges and parapets. Magic and faerie fire glowed from a thousand sep- arate sculptures and a hundred regally adorned guardsmen

  paced about in perfect formations.

  Even more striking were the inverse structures, the thirty smaller stalactites of House Baenre. They hung down from the ceiling of the cavern, their roots lost in the high dark- ness. Some of them connected tip-to-tip with the stalagmite mounds, while others hung freely like poised spears. Ring-ing balconies, curving up like the edging of a screw, had been built along the length of all of these, glowing with an overabundance of magic and highlighted design.

  Magic, too, was the fence that connected the bases of the outer stalagmites, encircling the whole of the compound. It was a giant web, silver against the general blue of the rest of the outer compound. Some said it had been a gift from Lloth herself, with iron-strong strands as thick as a drow elf's arm. Anything touching Baenre's fence, even the sharpest of drow weapons, would simply stick fast until the matron mother willed the fence to let it free.

  Malice and her escorts moved straight toward a symmet-rical and circular section of this fence, between the tallest of the outer towers. As they neared, the gate spiraled and wound out, leaving a gap large enough for the caravan to step through.

  Malice sat through it all, trying to appear unimpressed.

  Hundreds of curious soldiers watched the procession as it made its way to the central structure of House Baenre, the great purple-glowing chapel dome. The common soldiers left the entourage, leaving only the four high priestesses to: escort Matron Malice inside.

  The sights beyond the great doors to the chapel did not disappoint her. A central altar dominated the place with a row of benches spiraling out in several dozen circuits to the perimeter of the great hall. Several thousand drow could sit there with room to stretch. Statues and idols too numerous to count stood all about the place, glowing in a quiet black light. In the air high above the altar loomed a gigantic glow-ing image, a red-and-black illusion that slowly and contin- ually shifted between the forms of a spider and a beautiful drow female.

  “ A work of Gomph, my principal wizard” Matron Baenre

  explained from her perch on the altar, guessing that Malice, like everyone else who ever came to Chapel Baenre, was awestruck by the sight. “Even wizards have their place”

  “As long as they remember their place” Malice replied, slipping down from the now stationary disk.

  “Agreed” said Matron Baenre. “Males can get so presump- tuous at times, especially wizards! Still, I wish that I had Gomph at my side more often these days. He has been ap-pointed Archmage of Menzoberranzan, you know, and seems always at work on Narbondel or some other such tasks”

  Malice just nodded and held her tongue. Of course, she knew that Baenre's son was the city's chief wizard. Every-body knew. Everybody knew, too, that Baenre's daughter Triel was the Matron Mistress of the Academy, a position of honor in Menzoberranzan second only to the title of ma-tron mother of an individual family. Malice had little doubt that Matron Baenre would somehow work that fact into the conversation before too long.

  Before Malice took a step toward the stairs to the altar, her newest escort stepped out from the shadows. Malice scowled openly when she saw the thing, a creature known as an illithid, a mind fIayer. It stood about six feet tall, fully a foot taller than Malice, most of the difference being the re-sult of the creature's enormous head. Glistening with slime, he head resembled an octopus with pupil-less, milky white eyes.

  Malice composed herself quickly. Mind fIayers were not mknown in Menzoberranzan, and rumors said that one had befriended Matron Baenre. These creatures, though, nore intelligent and more evil than even the drow, almost always inspired shudders of revulsion.

  “You may call him Methil” Matron Baenre explained. “His true name is beyond my pronunciation. He is a friend!'

  Before Malice could reply, Baenre added, “Of course, Methil gives me the advantage in our discussion, and you are not accustomed to illithids!' Then, as Malice's mouth drooped open in disbelief, Matron Baenre dismissed the ill-ithid.

  “You read my thought” Malice protested. Few could insin- uate themselves through the mental barriers of a high priestess well enough to read her thoughts, and the practice was a crime of the highest order in drow society.

  “No!” Matron Baenre explained, immediately on the de-fensive. “Your pardon, Matron Malice. Methil reads thoughts, even the thoughts of a high priestess, as easily as you or I hear words. He communicates telepathically. On my word, I did not even realize that you had not yet spoken your thoughts!'

  Malice waited to watch the creature depart the great hall, then walked up the steps to the altar. In spite of her efforts against the action, she could not help peeking up at the transforming spider-and-drow image every now and then.

  “How fares House Do'Urden?” Matron Baenre asked, feigning politeness.

  “Well enough” replied Malice, more interested at that mo-ment in studying her counterpart than in conversing. They were alone atop the altar, though no doubt a dozen or so clerics wandered through the shadows of the great hall, keeping a watchful eye on the situation.

  Malice had all that she could handle in hiding her con-tempt for Matron Baenre. Malice was old, nearly five hun-dred, but Matron Baenre was ancient. Her eyes had seen the rise and fall of a millennium, by some accounts, though drow rarely lived past their seventh-and certainly not their eighth-century. While drow normally did not show their age-Malice was as beautiful and vibrant now as she had been on her one-hundredth birthday-Matron Baenre was withered and worn. The wrinkles surrounding her mouth resembled a spider's web, and she could hardly keep the heavy lids of her eyes from dropping altogether. Matron Baenre should be dead, Malice noted, but still she lives.

  Matron Baenre, seeming so beyond her time of life, was pregnant, and due in only a few weeks.

  In this aspect, too, Matron Baenre defied the norm of the dark elves. She had given birth twenty times, twice as often as any others in Menzoberranzan, and fifteen of those she

  bore were female, everyone a high priestess! Three of Baenre's children were older than Malice!

  “How many soldiers do you now command?” Matron Baenre asked, leaning closer to show her interest.

  “Three hundred” Malice replied.

  “Oh,” mused the withered old drow, pursing a finger to her lips. “I had heard the count at three-hundred fifty”

  Malice grimaced in spite of herself. Baenre was teasing her, referring to the soldiers House Do'Urden had added in its raid on House DeVir:

  “Three hundred” Malice said again.

  “Of course” replied Baenre, resting back.

  “And House Baenre holds a thousand?” Malice asked for no better reason than to keep herself on even terms in the discussion.

  “That has been our number for many years”

  Malice wondered again why this old decrepit thing was still alive. Surely more than one of Baenre's daughters as-pired to the position of matron mother. Why hadn't they conspired and finished Matron Baenre off? Or why hadn't any of them, some in the later stages of life, struck out on their own to form separate houses, as was the norm for no-ble daughters when they passed their fifth century? While they lived under Matron Baenre's rule, their children would not even be considered nobles but would be relegated to the ranks of the commoners.

  “You have heard of the fate of House DeVir?” Matron Baenre asked directly, growing as tired of the hesitant small talk as her counterpart.

  “Of what house?” Malice asked pointedly. At this time, there was no such thing as House DeVir in Menzoberran-zan. By drow reckoning, the house no longer existed; the house never existed.

  Matron Baenre cackled. “Of course” she replied. “You are

  matron mother of the ninth house now. That is quite an honor!'

  Malice nodded. “But not as great an honor as matron mother of the eighth house!'

  “Yes” agreed Baenre, “but ninth is only one position away from a seat on the ruling council!'

  “That would be an honor indeed” Malice replied. She was beginning to understand that Baenre was not simply teasing her, but was congratulating her as well, and prodding her on to greater glories. Malice brightened at the thought. Baenre was in the highest favor of the Spider Queen. If she was pleased with House Do'Urden's ascension, then so was Lloth.

  “Not as much of an honor as you would believe” said Baenre. “We are a group of meddling old females, gathering every so often to find new ways to put our hands into places they do not belong!'

  “The city recognizes your rule!'

  “Does it have a choice?” Baenre laughed. “Still, drow busi-ness is better left to the matron mothers of the individual houses. Lloth would not stand for a presiding council exact-jng anything that even remotely resembled total rule. Do you not believe that House Baenre would have conquered all of Menzoberranzan long ago if that was the Spider Queen's will?”

  Malice shifted proudly in her chair, appalled by such arro-gant words.

  “Not now, of course” Matron Baenre explained. “The city is too large for such an action in this age. But long ago, be-fore you were even born, House Baenre would not have found such a conquest difficult. But that is not our way. Lloth encourages diversity. She is pleased that houses stand to balance each other, ready to fight beside each other in times of common need” She paused a moment and let a smile appear on her wrinkled lips. “And ready to pounce upon any that fall out of her favor”

  Another direct reference to House DeVir, Malice noted,

  this time directly connected to the Spider Queen's pleasure. Malice eased out of her angry posture and found the rest of her discussion-fully two hours long-with Matron Baenre quite enjoyable.

  Still, when she was back on the disk and floating out through the compound, past the grandest and strongest house in all of Menzoberranzan, Malice was not smiling. In the face of such an open display of power, she could not for-get that Matron Baenre's purpose in summoning her had been twofold: to privately and cryptically congratulate her on her perfect coup, and to vividly remind her not to get too ambitious.

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