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Homeland (part 2 chapter 8)

2006-08-28 22:23

  CHAPTER 8

  STRANGERS

  Drizzt looked out Belwar's open door at the daily routines of the svirfneblin city, as he had every day for the last few weeks. Drizzt felt as though his life was in a state of limbo, as though everything had been put into stasis. He had not seen or heard of Guenhwyvar since he had come to Belwar's house, nor had he any expectations of getting his piwafwi or his weapons and armor back anytime soon. Drizzt accepted it all stoically, figuring that he, and Guenhwyvar, were better off now than they had been in many years and confident that the svirfnebli would not harm the statuette or any of his other possessions. The drow sat and watched, letting events take their due course.

  Belwar had gone out this day, one of the rare occasions that the reclusive burrow-warden left his house. Despite the fact that the deep gnome and Drizzt rarely conversed-

  Belwar was not the type who spoke simply for the sake of hearing his own voice-Drizzt found that he missed the burrow-warden. Their friendship had grown, even if the substance of their conversations had not.

  A group of young svirfnebli walked past and shouted a few quick words at the drow within. This had happened many times before, particularly in the first days after Drizzt had entered the city. On those previous occasions, Drizzt had been left wondering if he had been greeted or insulted. This time, though, Drizzt understood the basic friendly meaning of the words, for Belwar had taken the time to instruct him in the basics of the svirfneblin tongue.

  The burrow-warden returned hours later to find Drizzt sitting on the stone stool, watching the world slip past.

  “Tell me, dark elf:' the deep gnome asked in his hearty, melodic voice, ”what do you see when you look upon us? Are we so foreign to your ways?“

  “I see hope:' Drizzt replied. ” And I see despair:' Belwar understood. He knew that the svirfneblin society was better suited to the drow's principles, but watching the bustle of Blingdenstone from afar could only evoke painful memories in his new friend.

  “King Schnicktick and I met this day:' the burrow-warden said. ”I tell you in truth that he is very interested in you:'

  “Curious would seem a better word:' Drizzt replied, but he smiled as he did so, and Belwar wondered how much pain was hidden behind the grin.

  The burrow-warden dipped into a short, apologetic bow, surrendering to Drizzt's blunt honesty. “Curious, then, as you wish. You must know that you are not as we have come to regard drow elves. I beg that you take no offense:'

  “None:' Drizzt answered honestly. ”You and your people have given me more than I dared hope. If I had been killed that first day in the city, I would have accepted the fate without placing blame on the svirfnebli:'

  Belwar followed Drizzt's gaze out across the cavern, to the group of gathered youngsters. “You should go among them:' Belwar offered.

  Drizzt looked at him, surprised. In all the time he had spent in Belwar's house, the svirfneblin had never suggested such a thing. Drizzt had assumed that he was to remain the burrow-warden's guest, and that Belwar had been made personally responsible for curtailing his movements.

  Belwar nodded toward the door, silently reiterating his suggestion. Drizzt looked out again. Across the cavern, the group of young svirfnebli, a dozen or so, had begun a contest of heaving rather large stones at an effigy of a basilisk, a life-sized likeness built of stones and old suits of armor. Svirfnebli were highly skilled in the magical crafts of illusion, and one such illusionist had placed minor enchantments upon the likeness to smooth out the rough spots and make the effigy appear even more lifelike.

  “Dark elf, you must go out sometime,' Belwar reasoned. ”How long will you find my home's blank walls fulfilling?“

  “They suit you,' Drizzt retorted, a bit more sharply than he had intended.

  Belwar nodded and slowly turned about to survey the room. “So they do,' he said quietly, and Drizzt could clearly see his great pain. When Belwar turned back to the drow, his round-featured face held an unmistakably resigned expression. ”Magga cammara, dark elf. Let that be your lesson:'

  “Why?” Drizzt asked him. “Why does Belwar Dissengulp, the Most Honored Burrow-Warden-” Belwar flinched again at the title-“remain within the shadows of his own door?”

  Belwar's jaw firmed up and his dark eyes narrowed. “Go out,' he said in a resonating growl. ”Young you are, dark elf, and all the world is before you. Old I am. My day is long past:'

  “Not so old,' Drizzt started to argue, determined this time to press the burrow-warden into revealing what it was that troubled him so. But Belwar simply turned and walked silently into his cave-room, pulling closed behind him the blanket he had strung up as a door.

  Drizzt shook his head and banged his fist into his palm in frustration. Belwar had done so much for him, first by saving him from the svirfneblin king's judgment, then by befriending him over the last few weeks and teaching him the svirfneblin tongue and the deep gnomes' ways. Drizzt had been unable to return the favor, though he clearly saw that

  Belwar carried some great burden. Drizzt wanted to rush through the blanket now, go to the burrow-warden, and make him speak his gloomy thoughts.

  Drizzt would not yet be so bold with his new friend, however. He would find the key to the burrow-warden's pain in time, he vowed, but right now he had his own dilemma to overcome. Belwar had given him permission to go out into Blingdenstone! Drizzt looked back to the group across the cavern. Three of them stood perfectly still before the effigy, as if turned to stone. Curious, Drizzt moved to the doorway, and then, before he realized what he was doing, he was outside and approaching the young deep gnomes.

  The game ended as the drow neared, the svirfnebli being more interested in meeting the dark elf they had rumored about for so many weeks. They rushed over to Drizzt and surrounded him, whispering curiously.

  Drizzt felt his muscles tense involuntarily as the svirfnebli moved all about him. The primal instincts of the hunter sensed a vulnerability that could not be tolerated. Drizzt fought hard to sublimate his alter ego, silently but firmly reminding himself that the svirfnebli were not his enemies. “Greetings, drow friend of Belwar Dissengulp,' one of the youngsters offered. ”I am Seldig, fledgling and pledgling, and to be an expedition miner in but three years hence:'

  It took Drizzt a long moment to sort out the deep gnome's rapid speech patterns. He did understand the significance of Seldig's future occupation, though, for Belwar had told him that expedition miners, those svirfnebli who went out into the Underdark in search of precious minerals and gems, were among the highest ranking deep gnomes in all the city.

  “Greetings, Seldig,' Drizzt answered at length. ”I am Drizzt Do'Urden:' Not really knowing what he should do next, Drizzt crossed his arms over his chest. For the dark elves, this was a gesture of peace, though Drizzt was not certain if the motion was universally accepted throughout the Underdark.

  The svirfnebli looked around at each other, returned the gesture, then smiled in unison at the sound of Drizzt's relieved sigh.

  “You have been in the Underdark, so it is said,' Seldig went on, motioning for Drizzt to follow him back to the area of their game.

  “For many years,' Drizzt replied, falling into step beside the young svirfneblin. The hunting ego within the drow grew ill at ease at the following deep gnomes' proximity, but

  Drizzt was in full control of his reflexive paranoia. When the group reached the fabricated basilisk's side, Seldig sat on the stone and bid Drizzt to give them a tale or two of his adventures.

  Drizzt hesitated, doubting that his command of the svirfneblin tongue would be sufficient for such a task, but Seldig and the others pressed him. At length, Drizzt nodded and stood. He spent a moment in thought, trying to remember some tale that might interest the youngsters. His gaze unconsciously roamed the cavern, searching for some clue. It fell upon, and locked upon, the illusion-heightened basilisk effigy.

  “Basilisk,' Seldig explained.

  “I know,' Drizzt replied. ”I have met such a creature:' He turned casually back to the group and was startled by its appearance. Seldig and every one of his companions had rocked forward, their mouths hanging open in a mixture of expressed intrigue, terror, and delight.

  “Dark elf! You have seen a basilisk?” one of them asked incredulously. “A real, living basilisk?”

  Drizzt smiled as he came to decipher their amazement. The svirfnebli, unlike the dark elves, sheltered the younger members of their community. Though these deep gnomes were probably as old as Drizzt, they had rarely, if ever, been out of Blingdenstone. By their age, drow elves would have spent years patrolling the corridors beyond Menzoberranzan. Drizzt's recognition of the basilisk would not have been so unbelievable to the deep gnomes then, though the formidable monsters were rare even in the Underdark.

  “You said that basilisks were not real!” one of the svirfnebli shouted to another, and he pushed him hard on the shoulder.

  “Never I did!” the other protested, returning the shove.

  “My uncle saw one once,' offered another.

  “Scrapings in the stone was all your uncle saw!” Seldig laughed. “They were the tracks of a basilisk, by his own proclamation:' Drizzt's smile widened. Basilisks

  were magical creatures, more common on other planes of existence. While drow, particularly the high priestesses, often opened gates to other planes, such monsters obviously were beyond the norm of svirfneblin life. Few were the deep gnomes who had ever looked upon a basilisk. Drizzt chuckled aloud. Fewer still, no doubt, were the deep gnomes who ever returned to tell that they had seen one!

  “If your uncle followed the trail and found the monster, Seldig continued, ”he would sit to this day as a pile of stone in a passageway! I say to you now that rocks do not tell such tales!“

  The berated deep gnome looked around for some rebuttal. “Drizzt Do'Urden has seen one!” he protested. “He is not so much a pile of stone!” All eyes turned back to Drizzt.

  “Have you really seen one, dark elf?” Seldig asked. “Answer only in truth, I beg:'

  “One,' Drizzt replied.

  “And you escaped from it before it could return the gaze?” Seldig asked, a question he and the other svirfnebli considered rhetorical.

  “Escaped?” Drizzt echoed the gnomish word, unsure of its meaning.

  “Escape. . . err. . . run away,' Seldig explained. He looked to one of the other svirfnebli, who promptly feigned a look of sheer horror, then stumbled and scrambled frantically a few steps away. The other deep gnomes applauded the performance, and Drizzt joined in their laughter.

  “You ran from the basilisk before it could return your gaze,' Seldig reasoned.

  Drizzt shrugged, a bit embarrassed, and Seldig guessed that he was withholding something.

  “You did not run away?”

  “I could not. . . escape,' Drizzt explained. ”The basilisk had invaded my home and had killed many of my rothe. Homes,' he paused, searching for the correct svirfneblin word. “Sanctuaries,' he explained at length, ” are not commonplace in the wilds of the Underdark. Once found and secured, they must be defended at all costs:'

  “You fought it?” came an anonymous cry from the rear of the svirfneblin group.

  “With stones from afar?” asked Seldig. “That is the accepted method:'

  Drizzt looked over at the pile of boulders the deep gnomes had been hurling at the effigy, then considered his own slender frame. “My arms could not even lift such stones:' He laughed.

  “Then how?” asked Seldig. “You must tell us:'

  Drizzt now had his story. He paused for a few moments, collecting his thoughts. He realized that his limited skills with his new language would not allow him to weave much of an intricate tale, so he decided to illustrate his words. He found two poles that the svirfnebli had been carrying, explained them as scimitars, then examined the effigy's construction to ensure that it would hold his weight.

  The young deep gnomes huddled around anxiously as Drizzt set up the situation, detailing his darkness spell- actually placing one just beyond the basilisk's head-and the positioning of Guenhwyvar, his feline companion. The svirfnebli sat on their hands and leaned forward, gasping at every word. The effigy seemed to come alive in their minds, a lumbering monster, with Drizzt, this stranger to their world, lurking in the shadows behind it.

  The drama played out and the time came for Drizzt to enact his movements in the battle. He heard the svirfnebli gasp in unison as he sprang lightly onto the basilisk's back, carefully picking his steps up toward the thing's head. Drizzt became caught up in their excitement, and this only heightened his memories.

  It all became so real.

  The deep gnomes moved in close, anticipating a dazzling display of swordsmanship from this remarkable drow who had come to them from the wilds of the Underdark. Then something terrible happened.

  One moment he was Drizzt the showman, entertaining his new friends with a tale of courage and weaponry. The next moment, as the drow lifted one of his pole props to strike at the phony monster, he was Drizzt no longer. The hunter stood atop the basilisk, just as he had that day back in the tunnels outside the moss-filled cave.

  Poles jabbed at the monster's eyes, poles slammed viciously into the stone head.

  The svirfnebli backed away, some in fear, others in simple caution. The hunter pounded away, and the stone chipped and cracked. The slab that served as the creature's head broke away and fell, the dark elf tumbling behind. The hunter went down in a precise roll, came back to his feet, and charged right back in, slamming away furiously with his poles. The wooden weapons snapped apart and Drizzt's hands bled, but he-the hunter-would not yield.

  Strong deep gnome hands grabbed the drow by the arms, trying to calm him. The hunter spun on his newest adversaries. They were stronger than he, and two held him tightly, but a few deft twists had the svirfnebli off balance. The hunter kicked at their knees and dropped to his own, turning about as he fell and launching the two svirfnebli into headlong rolls.

  The hunter was up at once, broken scimitars at the ready as a single foe moved in at him.

  Belwar showed no fear, held his arms defenselessly out wide. “Drizzt!” he called over and over. “Drizzt Do'Urden!”

  The hunter eyed the svirfneblin's hammer and pick, and the sight of the mithril hands invoked soothing memories. Suddenly, he was Drizzt again. Stunned and ashamed, he dropped the poles and eyed his scraped hands.

  Belwar caught the drow as he swooned, hoisted him up in his arms and carried him back to his hammock.

  “Troubled dreams invaded Drizzt's sleep, memories of the Underdark and of that other, darker self that he could not escape.

  “How can I explain?” he asked Belwar when the burrow-warden found him sitting on the edge of the stone table later that night. “How can I possibly offer an apology?”

  “None is needed:' Belwar said to him.

  Drizzt looked at him incredulously. “You do not understand:' Drizzt began, wondering how he could possibly make the burrow-warden comprehend the depth of what had come over him.

  “Many years you have lived out in the Underdark:' Belwar said, ”surviving where others could not:'

  “But have I survived?” Drizzt wondered aloud.

  Belwar's hammer-hand patted the drow's shoulder gently, and the burrow-warden sat down on the table beside him. There they remained throughout the night. Drizzt said no more, and Belwar didn't press him. The burrow-warden knew his role that night: a silent support.

  Neither knew how many hours had passed when Seldig's voice came in from beyond the door. “Come, Drizzt Do'Urden:' the young deep gnome called. ”Come and tell us more tales of the Underdark:'

  Drizzt looked at Belwar curiously, wondering if the request was part of some devious trick or ironic joke.

  Belwar's smile dispelled that notion. “Magga cammara, dark elf:' the deep gnome chuckled. ”They'll not let you hide:'

  “Send them away:' Drizzt insisted.

  “So willing are you to surrender?” Belwar retorted, a distinct edge to his normally round-toned voice. “You who have survived the trials of the wilds?”

  “Too dangerous:' Drizzt explained desperately, searching for the words. ”I cannot control. . . cannot be rid of . . :'

  “Go with them, dark elf” Belwar said. “They will be more cautious this time:'

  “This. . . beast. . . follows me:' Drizzt tried to explain.

  “Perhaps for a while:' the burrow-warden replied casually. ”Magga cammara, Drizzt Do'Urden! Five weeks is not such a long time, not measured against the trials you have endured over the last ten years. Your freedom will be gained from this. . . beast:' Drizzt's lavender eyes found only sincerity in Belwar Dissengulp's dark gray orbs.

  “But only if you seek it,' the burrow-warden finished.

  “Come out, Drizzt Do'Urden,' Seldig called again from beyond the stone door.

  This time, and every time in the days to come, Drizzt, and only Drizzt, answered the call.

  The myconid king watched the dark elf prowl across the cavern's moss-covered lower level. It was not the same drow that had left, the fungoid knew, but Drizzt, an ally, had been the king's only previous contact with the dark elves. Oblivious to its peril, the eleven-foot giant crept down to intercept the stranger.

  The spirit-wraith of Zaknafein did not even attempt to flee or hide as the animated mushroom-man closed in. Zaknafein's swords were comfortably set in his hands. The myconid king puffed a cloud of spores, seeking a telepathic conversation with the newcomer.

  But undead monsters existed on two distinct planes, and their minds were impervious to such attempts. Zaknafein's material body faced the myconid, but the spirit-wraith's mind was far distant, linked to his corporeal form by Matron Malice's will. The spirit-wraith closed over the last few feet to his adversary.

  The myconid puffed a second cloud, this one of spores designed to pacify an opponent, and this cloud was equally futile. The spirit-wraith came on steadily, and the giant raised its powerful arms to strike it down.

  Zaknafein blocked the swings with quick cuts of his razor-edged swords, severing the myconid's hands. Too fast to follow, the spirit-wraith's weapons slashed at the king's mushroomlike torso, and dug deep wounds that drove the fungoid backward and to the ground.

  From the top level, dozens of the older and stronger myconids lumbered down to rescue their injured king. The spirit-wraith saw their approach but did not know fear. Zaknafein finished his business with the giant, then turned calmly to meet the assault.

  Fungus-men came on, blasting their various spores. Zaknafein ignored the clouds, none of which could possibly affect him, and concentrated fully on the clubbing arms. Myconids came charging in all around him.

  And they died all around him.

  They had tended their grove for centuries untold, living in peace and going about their own way. But when the spirit-wraith returned from the crawl-tunnel that led to the now-abandoned small cave that once had served as Drizzt's home, Zak's fury would tolerate no semblance of peace. Zaknafein rushed up the wall to the mushroom grove, hacking at everything in his path.

  Giant mushrooms tumbled like cut trees. Below, the small rothe herd, nervous by nature, broke into a frenzied stampede and rushed out into the tunnels of the open Underdark. The few remaining fungus-men, having witnessed the power of this dark elf, scrambled to get out of his thrashing way. But myconids were not fast-moving creatures, and Zaknafein relentlessly chased them down.

  Their reign in the moss-covered cave, and the mushroom grove they had tended for so very long, came to a sudden and final end.

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