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Homeland (part 2 chapter 7)

2006-08-28 22:23

  CHAPTER 7

  MOST HONORED BURROW-WARDEN

  “Our thanks for your coming, Most Honored Burrow- Warden,' said one of the deep gnomes gathered outside the small room holding the drow prisoner. The entire group of svirfneblin elders bowed low at the burrow-warden's approach.

  Belwar Dissengulp flinched at the gracious greeting. He had never come to terms with the many laurels his people had mantled upon him since that disastrous day more than a decade before, when the drow elves had discovered his mining troupe in the corridors east of Blingdenstone, near Menzoberranzan. Horribly maimed and nearly dead from loss of blood, Belwar had returned back to Blingdenstone as the only survivor of the expedition.

  The gathered svirfnebli parted for Belwar, giving him a clear view of the room and the drow. For prisoners strapped in the chair, the circular chamber seemed solid, unremarkable stone with no opening other than the heavy iron-bound door. There was, however, a single window in the chamber, covered by illusions of both sight and sound, that allowed the svirfneblin captors to view the prisoner at all times.

  Belwar studied Drizzt for several moments. “He is a drow,' the burrow-warden huffed in his resonant voice, sounding a bit perturbed. Belwar still could not understand why he had been summoned. ”Appearing as any other drow:'

  “The prisoner claims he met you out in the Underdark,' an ancient svirfneblin said to Belwar. His voice was barely a whisper, and he dropped his gaze to the floor as he completed the thought. ”On that day of great loss:'

  Belwar flinched again at the mention of that day. How many times must he relive it?

  “He may have,' Belwar said with a noncommittal shrug. ”Not much can I distinguish between the appearances of drow elves, and not much do I wish to try.“

  “Agreed,' said the other. ”They all look alike:'

  As the deep gnome spoke, Drizzt turned his face to the side and faced them directly, though he could not see or hear anything beyond the illusion of stone.

  “Perhaps you may remember his name, Burrow-Warden,' another svirfneblin offered. The speaker paused, seeing Belwar's sudden interest in the drow.

  The circular chamber was lightless, and under such conditions, the eyes of a creature seeing in the infrared spectrum shone clearly. Normally, these eyes appeared as dots of red light, but that was not the case with Drizzt Do'Urden. Even in the infrared spectrum, this drow's eyes showed clearly as lavender.

  Belwar remembered those eyes. “Magga cammara,' Belwar breathed. ”Drizzt,' he mumbled in reply to the other deep gnome.

  “You do know him!” several of the svirfnebli cried together.

  Belwar held up the handless stumps of his arms, one capped with the mithril head of a pickaxe, the other with the head of a hammer. “This drow, this Drizzt,' he stammered, trying to explain. ”Responsible for my condition, he was!“

  Some of the others murmured prayers for the doomed drow, thinking the burrow-warden was angered by the memory. “Then King Schnicktick's decision stands,' one of them said. ”The drow is to be executed immediately:'

  “But he, this Drizzt, he saved my life,' Belwar interjected loudly. The others, incredulous, turned on him.

  “Never was it Drizzt's decision that my hands be severed,' the burrow-warden went on. ”It was his offering that I be allowed to return to Blingdenstone. 'As an example, this

  Drizzt said, but I understood even then that the words were uttered only to placate his cruel kin. The truth behind those words, I know, and that truth was mercy!“

  An hour later, a single svirfneblin councilor, the one who had spoken to Drizzt earlier, came to the prisoner. “It was the decision of the king that you be executed,' the deep gnome said bluntly as he approached the stone chair.

  “I understand,' Drizzt replied as calmly as he could. ”I will offer no resistance to your verdict:' Drizzt considered his shackles for a moment. “Not that I could:' The svirfneblin stopped and considered the unpredictable prisoner, fully believing in Drizzt's sincerity. Before he continued, meaning to expand on the events of the day, Drizzt completed his thought.

  “I ask only one favor,' Drizzt said. The svirfneblin let him finish, curious of the unusual drow's reasoning.

  “The panther,' Drizzt went on. ”You will find Guenhwyvar to be a valued companion and a dear friend indeed. When I am no more, you must see to it that

  the panther is given to a deserving master-Belwar Dissengulp perhaps. Promise me this, good gnome, I beg:'

  The svirfneblin shook his hairless head, not to deny Drizzt's plea, but in simple disbelief. “The king, with much remorse, simply could not allow the risks of keeping you alive,' he said somberly. The deep gnome's wide mouth turned up in a smile as he quickly added, ”But the situation has changed!“

  Drizzt cocked his head, hardly daring to hope.

  “The burrow-warden remembers you, dark elf,' the svirfneblin proclaimed. ”Most Honored Burrow-Warden Belwar Dissengulp has spoken for you and will accept the responsibility of keeping you!“

  “Then. . . I am not to die?”

  “Not unless you bring death upon yourself:'

  Drizzt could barely utter the words. “And I am to be allowed to live among your people? In Blingdenstone?”

  “That is yet to be determined,' replied the svirfneblin. ”Belwar Dissengulp has spoken for you, and that is a very great thing. You will go to live with him. Whether the situation will be continued or expanded. . :' He let it hang at that, giving an unanswering shrug.

  Following his release, the walk through the caverns of Blingdenstone was truly an exercise in hope for the beleaguered drow. Drizzt saw every sight in the deep gnome city as a contrast to Menzoberranzan. The dark elves had worked the great cavern of their city into shaped artwork, undeniably beautiful. The deep gnome city, too, was beautiful, but its features remained the natural traits of the stone. Where the drow had taken their cavern as their own, cutting it to their designs and tastes, the svirfnebli had fitted themselves into the native designs of their complex.

  Menzoberranzan held a vastness, with a ceiling up beyond sight, that Blingdenstone could not approach. The drow city was a series of individual family castles, each a closed fortress and a house unto itself. In the deep gnome city was a general sense of home, as if the entire complex within the mammoth stone-and-metal doors was a singular structure, a community shelter from the ever-present dangers of the Underdark.

  The angles of the svirfneblin city, too, were different. Like the features of the diminutive race, Blingdenstone's buttresses and tiers were rounded, smooth, and gracefully curving. Conversely, Menzoberranzan was an angular place, as sharp as the point of a stalactite, a place of alleyways and leering terraces. Drizzt

  considered the two cities distinctive of the races they housed, sharp and soft like the features-and the hearts, Drizzt dared to imagine-of their respective inhabitants.

  Tucked away in a remote corner of one of the outer chambers sat Belwar's dwelling, a tiny structure of stone built around the opening of an even smaller cave. Unlike most of the open-faced svirfneblin dwellings, Belwar's house had a front door. One of the five guards escorting Drizzt tapped on the door with the butt of his mace. “Greetings, Most Honored Burrow-Warden!” he called. “By orders of King Schnicktick, we have delivered the drow:'

  Drizzt took note of the respectful tone of the guard's voice. He had feared for Belwar on that day a decade and more ago, and had wondered if Dinin's cutting off the deep gnome's hands wasn't more cruel than simply killing the unfortunate creature. Cripples did not fare well in the savage Underdark.

  The stone door swung open and Belwar greeted his guests. Immediately his gaze locked with Drizzt's in a look they had shared ten years before, when they had last parted.

  Drizzt saw a somberness in the burrow-warden's eyes, but the stout pride remained, if a bit diminished. Drizzt did not want to look upon the svirfneblin's disfigurement, too many unpleasant memories were tied up in that long-ago deed. But, inevitably, the drow's gaze dropped, down Belwar's barrel-like torso to the ends of his arms, which hung by his side.

  Far from his fears, Drizzt's eyes widened in wonderment when he looked upon Belwar's “hands:' On the right side, wondrously fitted to cap the stub of his arm, was the blocked head of a hammer crafted of mithril and etched with intricate, fabulous runes and carvings of an earth elemental and some other creatures that Drizzt did not know.

  Belwar's left appendage was no less spectacular. There the deep gnome wielded a two-headed pickaxe, also of mithril and equally crafted in runes and carvings, most notably a dragon taking flight across the flat surface of the instrument's wider end. Drizzt could sense the magic in Belwar's hands, and he realized that many other svirfnebli, both artisans and magic-users, had played a part in perfecting the items.

  “Useful,' Belwar remarked after allowing Drizzt to study his mithril hands for a few moments.

  “Beautiful,' Drizzt whispered in reply, and he was thinking of more than the hammer and pick. The hands themselves were indeed marvelous, but the implications of their crafting seemed even more so to Drizzt. If a dark elf, particularly a drow male, had crawled back into Menzoberranzan in such a

  disfigured state, he would have been rejected and put out by his family to wander about as a helpless rogue until some slave or other drow finally put an end to his misery. There was no room for apparent weakness in the drow culture. Here, obviously, the svirfnebli had accepted Belwar and had cared for him in the best way they knew how.

  Drizzt politely returned his stare to the burrow-warden's eyes. “You remembered me:' he said. ”I had feared-“

  “Later we shall talk, Drizzt Do'Urden:' Belwar interrupted. Using the svirfneblin tongue, which Drizzt did not know, the burrow-warden said to the guards, ”If your business is completed, then take your leave,'

  “We are at your command, Most Honored Burrow-Warden:' one of the guards replied. Drizzt noticed Belwar's slight shudder at the mention of the title. ”The king has sent us as escorts and guards, to remain by your side until the truth of this drow is revealed,'

  “Be gone, then:' Belwar replied, his booming voice rising in obvious ire. He looked directly at Drizzt as he finished. ”I know the truth of this one already. I am in no danger,'

  “Your pardon, Most Honor-”

  “You are excused:' Belwar said abruptly, seeing that the guard meant to argue. ”Be gone. I have spoken for this one. He is in my care, and I fear him not at all,'

  The svirfneblin guards bowed low and slowly moved away. Belwar took Drizzt inside the door, then turned him back to slyly point out that two of the guards had taken up cautious positions beside nearby structures. “Too much do they worry for my health:' he remarked dryly in the drow tongue.

  “You should be grateful for such care,' Drizzt replied.

  “I am not ungrateful!” Belwar shot back, an angry flush coming to his face.

  Drizzt read the truth behind those words. Belwar was not ungrateful, that much was correct, but the burrow-warden did not believe that he deserved such attention. Drizzt kept his suspicions private, not wanting to further embarrass the proud svirfneblin.

  The inside of Belwar's house was sparsely furnished with a stone table and single stool, several shelves of pots and jugs, and a fire pit with an iron cooking grate. Beyond the rough-hewn entrance to the back room, the room within the small cave, was the deep gnome's sleeping quarters, empty except for a hammock strung from wall to wall. Another hammock, newly acquired for Drizzt,

  lay in a heap on the floor, and a leather, mithril-ringed jack hung on the back wall, with a pile of sacks and pouches underneath it.

  “In the entry room we shall string it,' Belwar said, pointing with his hammer-hand to the second hammock. Drizzt moved to get the item, but Belwar caught him with his pick-hand and spun him about.

  “Later,' the svirfneblin explained. ”First you must tell me why you have come:' He studied Drizzt's battered clothing and scuffed and dirty face. It was obvious that the drow had been out in the wilds for some time. “And tell me, too, you must, where you have come from:'

  Drizzt flopped down on the stone floor and put his back against the wall. “I came because I had nowhere else to go,' he answered honestly.

  “How long have you been out of your city, Drizzt Do'Urden?” Belwar asked him softly. Even in quieter tones, the solid deep gnome's voice rang out with the clarity of a finely tuned bell. Drizzt marveled at its emotive range and how it could convey sincere compassion or inspire fear with subtle changes of volume.

  Drizzt shrugged and let his head roll back so that his gaze was raised to the ceiling. His mind already looked down a road to his past. “Years-I have lost count of the time:' He looked back to the svirfneblin. ”Time has little meaning in the open passages of the Underdark:'

  From Drizzt's ragged appearance, Belwar could not doubt the truth of his words, but the deep gnome was surprised nonetheless. He moved over to the table in the center of the room and took a seat on a stool. Belwar had witnessed Drizzt in battle, had once seen the drow defeat an earth elemental-no easy feat! But if Drizzt was indeed speaking the truth, if he had survived alone out in the wilds of the Underdark for years, then the burrow-warden's respect for him would be even more considerable.

  “Of your adventures, you must tell me, Drizzt Do'Urden,' Belwar prompted. ”I wish to know everything about you, so that I may better understand your purpose in coming to a city of your racial enemies:'

  Drizzt paused for a long time, wondering where and how to begin. He trusted Belwar-what other choice did he have?-but he wasn't sure if the svirfneblin could begin to understand the dilemma that had forced him out of the security of Menzoberranzan. Could Belwar, living in a community of such obvious friendship and cooperation, understand the tragedy that was Menzoberranzan? Drizzt doubted it, but again, what choice did he have?

  Drizzt quietly recounted to Belwar the story of the last decade of his life, of the impending war between House Do'Urden and House Hun'ett, of his meeting with Masoj and

  Alton, when he acquired Guenhwyvar, of the sacrifice of Zaknafein, Drizzt's mentor, father, and friend, and of his subsequent decision to forsake his kin and their evil deity, Lloth. Belwar realized that Drizzt was talking about the dark goddess the deep gnomes called Lolth, but he calmly let the regionalism pass. If Belwar had any suspicions at all, not really knowing Drizzt's true intent on that day when they had met many years before, the burrow-warden soon came to believe that his guesses about this drow had been accurate. Belwar found himself shuddering and trembling as Drizzt told of life in the Underdark, of his encounter with the basilisk, and the battle with his brother and sister.

  Before Drizzt even mentioned his reason for seeking the svirfnebli-the agony of his loneliness and the fear that he was losing his very identity in the savagery necessary to survive in the wilds-Belwar had guessed it all. When Drizzt came to the final days of his life outside of Blingdenstone, he picked his words carefully. Drizzt had not yet come to terms with his feelings and fears of who he truly was, and he was not yet ready to divulge his thoughts, however much he trusted his new companion.

  The burrow-warden sat silently, just looking at Drizzt when the drow had finished his tale. Belwar understood the pain of the recounting. He did not prod for more information or ask for details of personal anguish that Drizzt had not openly shared.

  “Magga cammara,' the deep gnome whispered soberly.

  Drizzt cocked his head.

  “By the stones,' Belwar explained. ”Magga cammara?'

  “By the stones indeed,' Drizzt agreed. A long and uncomfortable silence ensued.

  “A fine tale, it is,' Belwar said quietly. He patted Drizzt once on the shoulder, then walked into the cave-room to retrieve the spare hammock. Before Drizzt even rose to assist, Belwar had set the hammock in place between hooks on the walls.

  “Sleep in peace, Drizzt Do'Urden,' Belwar said, as he turned to retire. ”No enemies have you here. No monsters lurk beyond the stone of my door.'

  Then Belwar was gone into the other room and Drizzt was left alone in the undecipherable swirl of his thoughts and emotions. He remained uncomfortable, but, surely, his was hope renewed.

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