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Homeland (part 2 chapter 6)

2006-08-28 22:23



  Blingdenstone was different from anything that Drizzt had ever seen. When the svirfneblin guards ushered him in through the immense stone and iron doors, he had expected a sight not unlike Menzoberranzan, though on a lesser scale. His expectations could not have been further from the truth.

  While Menzoberranzan sprawled in a single huge cavern, Blingdenstone was composed of a series of chambers interconnected by low tunnels. The largest cavern of the complex, just beyond the iron doors, was the first section Drizzt entered. The city guard was housed there, and the chamber had been shaped and designed solely for defense. Dozens of tiers and twice that number of smooth stairways rose and fell, so that while an attacker might be only ten feet from a defender, he would possibly have to climb down several levels and up several others to get close enough to strike. Low walls of perfectly fitted piled stone defined the walk-ways and weaved around higher, thicker walls that could keep an invading army bottled up for a painfully long time in the chamber's exposed sections.

  Scores of svirfnebli rushed about their posts to confirm the whispers that a drow elf had been brought in through the doors. They leered down at Drizzt from every perch, and he couldn't be certain if their expressions signified curiosity or outrage. In either case, the deep gnomes were certainly prepared against anything he might attempt, every one of them clutched darts or heavy crossbows, cocked and ready.

  The svirfnebli led Drizzt through the chamber, up as many stairs as they went down, always within the defined walkways and always with several other deep gnome guards nearby. The path turned and dropped, rose up quickly, and cut back on itself many times, and the only way that Drizzt could keep his bearing

  was by watching the ceiling, which was visible even from the lowest levels of the chamber. The drow smirked inwardly but dared not show a smile at the thought that even if no deep gnome soldiers were present, an invading army would likely spend hours trying to find its way through this single chamber.

  Down at the end of a low and narrow corridor, where the deep gnomes had to travel single file and Drizzt had to crouch with every step, the troupe entered the city proper.

  Wider but not nearly as long as the first room, this chamber, too, was tiered, though with far fewer levels. Dozens of cave entrances lined the walls to all sides and fires burned in several areas, a rare sight in the Underdark, for fuel was not easily found. Blingdenstone was bright and warm by Underdark standards but not uncomfortable in either case.

  Drizzt felt at ease, despite his obvious predicament, as he watched the svirfnebli go about their daily routines all around him. Curious gazes fell on him but did not linger, for the deep gnomes of Blingdenstone were an industrious lot with hardly the time to stand idly and watch.

  Again Drizzt was led down clearly defined roadways. These in the city proper were not as twisting and difficult as the ones in the entrance cavern. Here the roads rolled out smoothly and straight, and all apparently led to a large, central stone building.

  The leader of the group escorting Drizzt rushed ahead to speak with two pick-wielding guards at this central structure. One of the guards bolted inside, while the other held the iron door open for the patrol and its prisoner. Moving with urgency for the first time since they had entered the city, the svirfnebli rushed Drizzt through a series of bending corridors ending in a circular chamber no more than eight feet in diameter and with an uncomfortably low ceiling. The room was empty except for a single stone chair. As soon as he was placed in this, Drizzt understood its purpose. Iron shackles were built into the chair, and Drizzt was belted down tightly at every joint. The svirfnebli were not overly gentle, but when Drizzt flinched as the chain around his waist doubled up and pinched him, one of the deep gnomes quickly released then reset it, firmly but smoothly.

  They left Drizzt alone in the dark and empty room. The stone door closed with a dull thud of finality, and Drizzt could hear not a sound from beyond.

  The hours passed.

  Drizzt flexed his muscles, seeking some give in the tight shackles. One hand wiggled and pulled, and only the pain of the iron biting into his wrist alerted him to his actions. He was reverting to the hunter again, acting to survive and desiring only to escape.

  “No!” Drizzt yelled. He tensed every muscle and forced them back under his rational control. Had the hunter gained that much of a place? Drizzt had come here willingly, and, thus far, the meeting had proceeded better than he had expected. This was not the time for desperate action, but was the hunter strong enough to overrule even Drizzt's rational decisions?

  Drizzt didn't find the time to answer those questions, for a second later, the stone door banged open and a group of seven elderly-judging from the extraordinary number of wrinkles crossing their faces-svirfnebli entered and fanned out around the stone chair. Drizzt recognized the apparent importance of this group, for where the guards had worn leather jacks set with mithril rings, these deep gnomes wore robes of fine material. They bustled about, inspecting Drizzt closely and chattering in their undecipherable tongue.

  One svirfneblin held up Drizzt's house emblem, which had been taken from his neck purse, and uttered, “Menzoberranzan?”

  Drizzt nodded as much as his iron collar would allow, eager to strike up some kind of communication with his captors. The deep gnomes had other intentions, however. They went back to their private-and now even more excited- conversation. It went on for many minutes, and Drizzt could tell by the inflections of their voices that a couple of the svirfnebli were less than thrilled at having a dark elf prisoner from the city of their closest and most-hated enemies. By the angry tone of their arguing, Drizzt almost expected one of them to turn at any moment and slice his throat.

  It didn't happen like that, of course, deep gnomes were neither rash nor cruel creatures. One of the group did turn from the others and walk over to face Drizzt squarely. He asked, in halting but unmistakably drow language, “By the stones, dark elf, why have you come?”

  Drizzt did not know how to answer that simple question. How could he even begin to explain his years of loneliness in the Underdark? Or the decision to forsake his evil people and live in accordance with his principles?

  “Friend,' he replied simply, and then he shifted uncomfortably, thinking his response absurd and inadequate.

  The svirfneblin, though, apparently thought otherwise. He scratched his hairless chin and considered the answer deeply. “You . . . you came in to us from Menzoberranzan?” he asked, his hawklike nose crinkling as he uttered each word.

  “I did,' Drizzt replied, gaining confidence.

  The deep gnome tilted his head, waiting for Drizzt to extrapolate.

  “I left Menzoberranzan many years ago,' Drizzt tried to explain. His eyes stared away into the past as he remembered the life he had deserted. ”It was never my home:'

  “Ah, but you lie, dark elf!” the svirfneblin shrieked, holding up the emblem of House Do'Urden and missing the private connotations of Drizzt's words.

  “I lived for many years in the city of the drow,' he replied quickly. ”I am Drizzt Do'Urden, once the secondboy of House Do'Urden:' He looked at the emblem the svirfneblin held, stamped with the insignia of his family, and tried to explain. “Daermon N'a'shezbaernon:'

  The deep gnome turned to his comrades, who began talking all at once. One of them nodded excitedly, apparently recognizing the drow house's ancient name, which surprised Drizzt.

  The deep gnome who had been questioning Drizzt tapped his fingers over his wrinkled lips, making annoying little smacking sounds while he contemplating the interrogation's direction. “By all of our information, House Do'Urden survives,' he remarked casually, noting Drizzt's reactions. When Drizzt did not immediately respond, the deep gnome snapped at him accusingly, ”You are no rogue!“

  How could the svirfnebli know that? Drizzt wondered. “I am a rogue by choice. . :' he started to explain.

  “Ah, dark elf,' the deep gnome replied, again calmly. ”You are here by choice, that much I can believe. But a rogue? By the stones, dark elf-“ the deep gnome's face contorted suddenly and fearfully-”you are a spy!“ Then, suddenly, the deep gnome once again calmed and relaxed into a comfortable posture.

  Drizzt eyed him carefully. Was this svirfneblin adept at such abrupt attitude changes, designed to keep a prisoner off guard? Or was such unpredictability the norm for this race? Drizzt struggled with it for a moment, trying to remember his one previous encounter with deep gnomes. But then his questioner reached into an impossibly deep pocket in his thick robes and produced a familiar figurine.

  “Tell me, now tell me true, dark elf, and spare yourself much torment. What is this?” the deep gnome asked quietly.

  Drizzt felt his muscles twitching again. The hunter wanted to call to Guenhwyvar, to bring the panther in so that it could tear these wrinkled old svirfnebli apart. One of them might hold the keys to Drizzt's chains-then he would be free. . .

  Drizzt shook the thoughts from his head and drove the hunter out of his mind. He knew the desperation of his situation and had known it from the moment he had decided to come to Blingdenstone. If the svirfnebli truly believed him a spy, they surely would execute him. Even if they were not certain of his intent, could they dare to keep him alive?

  “It was folly to come here:' Drizzt whispered under his breath, realizing the dilemma he had placed upon himself and upon the deep gnomes. The hunter tried to get back into his thoughts. A single word, and the panther would appear.

  “No!” Drizzt cried for the second time that day, dismissing that darker side of himself. The deep gnomes jumped back, fearing that the drow was casting a spell. A dart nicked into Drizzt's chest, releasing a puff of gas on impact.

  Drizzt swooned as the gas filled his nostrils. He heard the svirfnebli shuffling about him, discussing his fate in their foreign tongue. He saw the form of one, only a shadow, close in on him and grasp at his fingers, searching his hands for possible magical components.

  When Drizzt's thoughts and vision had at last cleared, all was as it had been. The onyx figurine came up before his eyes. “What is this?” the same deep gnome asked him again, this time a bit more insistently.

  “A companion,' Drizzt whispered. ”My only friend:' Drizzt thought hard about his next actions for a long moment. He really couldn't blame the svirfnebli if they killed him, and Guenhwyvar should be more than a statuette adorning some unknowing deep gnome's mantle.

  “Its name is Guenhwyvar,' Drizzt explained to the deep gnome. ”Call to the panther and it will come, an ally and friend. Keep it safe, for it is very precious and very powerful:'

  The svirfneblin looked to the figurine and then back to Drizzt, curiously and cautiously. He handed the figurine to one of his companions and sent him out of the room with it, not trusting the drow. If the drow had spoken truly, and the deep gnome did not doubt that he had, Drizzt had just given away the secret to a very valuable magical item. Even more startling, if Drizzt had spoken truly, he might have relinquished his single chance of escape. This svirfneblin had lived for nearly two centuries and was as knowledgeable in the ways of the dark elves as any of his people. When a drow elf acted unpredictably, as this one surely had, it troubled the svirfneblin deeply. Dark elves were cruel and evil by well-earned reputation, and when an individual drow fit that usual pattern, he could be dealt with efficiently and without remorse. But what might the deep gnomes do with a drow who showed a measure of unexpected morals?

  The svirfnebli went back to their private conversation, ignoring Drizzt altogether. Then they left, with the exception of the one who could speak the dark elf tongue.

  “What will you do?” Drizzt dared to ask.

  “Judgment is reserved for the king alone:' the deep gnome replied soberly. ”He will rule on your fate in several days perhaps, based on the observations of his advising council, the group you have met.' The deep gnome bowed low, then looked Drizzt in the eye as he rose and said bluntly, “I suspect, dark elf, that you will be executed.'

  Drizzt nodded, resigned to the logic that would call for his death.

  “But I believe you are different, dark elf:' the deep gnome went on. ”I suspect, as well, that I will recommend leniency, or at least mercy, in the execution.' With a quick shrug of his heavyset shoulders, tae svirfneblin turned about and headed for the door.

  The tone of the deep gnome's words struck a familiar chord in Drizzt. Another svirfneblin had spoken to Drizzt in a similar manner, with strikingly similar words, many years before.

  “Wait:' Drizzt called. The svirfneblin paused and turned, and Drizzt fumbled with his thoughts, trying to remember the name of the deep gnome he had saved on that past occasion.

  “What is it?” the svirfneblin asked, growing impatient.

  “A deep gnome:' Drizzt sputtered. ”From your city, I believe. Yes, he had to be.'

  “You know one of my people, dark elf.'” the svirfneblin prompted, stepping back to the stone chair. “Name him?'

  “I do not know:' Drizzt replied. ”I was a member of a hunting party, years ago, a decade perhaps. We battled a group of svirfnebli that had come into our region:' He flinched at the deep gnome's frown but continued on, knowing that the single svirfneblin survivor of that encounter might be his only hope. “Only one deep gnome survived, I think, and returned to Blingdenstone:'

  “What was this survivor's name?” the svirfneblin demanded angrily, his arms crossed tightly over his chest and his heavy boot tapping on the stone floor.

  “I do not remember,' Drizzt admitted.

  “Why do you tell me this?” the svirfneblin growled. “I had thought you different from-”

  “He lost his hands in the battle,' Drizzt went on stubbornly. ”Please, you must know of him:'

  “Belwar?” the svirfneblin replied immediately. The name rekindled even more memories in Drizzt.

  “Belwar Dissengulp,' Drizzt spouted. ”Then he is alive! He might remember-“

  “He will never forget that evil day, dark elf!” the svirfneblin declared through clenched teeth, an angry edge evident in his voice. “None in Blingdenstone will ever forget that evil day!”

  “Get him. Get Belwar Dissengulp,' Drizzt pleaded.

  The deep gnome backed out of the room, shaking his head at the dark elf's continued surprises.

  The stone door slammed shut, leaving Drizzt alone to contemplate his mortality and to push aside hopes he dared not hope.

  “Did you think that I would let you go away from me?” Malice was saying to Rizzen when Dinin entered the chapel's anteroom. “It was but a ploy to keep SiNafay Hun'ell's suspicions at ease:'

  “Thank you, Matron Mother,' Rizzen replied in honest relief. Bowing with every step, he backed away from Malice's throne. Malice looked around at her gathered family. ”Our weeks of toil are ended,' she proclaimed. “Zin-carla is complete!”

  Dinin wrung his hands in anticipation. Only the females of the family had seen the product of their work. On cue from Malice, Vierna moved to a curtain on the side of the room and pulled it away. There stood Zaknafein, the weapon master, no longer a rotting corpse, but showing the vitality he had possessed in life.

  Dinin rocked back on his heels as the weapon master came forward to stand before Matron Malice.

  “As handsome as you always were, my dear Zaknafein,' Malice purred to the spirit-wraith. The undead thing made no response.

  “And more obedient,' Briza added, drawing chuckles from all the females.

  “This. . . he . . . will go after Drizzt?” Dinin dared to ask, though he fully understood that it was not his place to speak. Malice and the others were too absorbed by the spectacle of Zaknafein to punish the elderboy's oversight.

  “Zaknafein will exact the punishment that your brother so deeply deserves,' Malice promised, her eyes sparkling at the notion.

  “But wait,' Malice said coyly, looking from the spirit-wraith to Rizzen. ”He is too pretty to inspire fear in my impudent son:' The others exchanged confused glances, wondering if Malice was further trying to placate Rizzen for the ordeal she had put him through.

  “Come, my husband,' Malice said to Bizzen. ”Take your blade and mark your dead rival's face. It will feel good to you, and it will inspire terror in Drizzt when he looks upon his old mentor!“

  Rizzen moved tentatively at first, then gained confidence as he closed on the spirit-wraith. Zaknafein stood perfectly still, not breathing or blinking, seemingly oblivious to the events around him. Bizzen put a hand to his sword, looking back to Malice one final time for confirmation.

  Malice nodded. With a snarl, Bizzen brought his sword out of its sheath and thrust it at Zaknafein's face. But it never got close.

  Quicker than the others could follow, the spirit-wraith exploded into motion. Two swords came out and cut away, diving and crossing with perfect precision. The sword went flying from Rizzen's hand and, before the doomed patron of House Do'Urden could even speak a word of protest, one of Zaknafein's swords crossed over his throat and the other plunged deep into his heart.

  Rizzen was dead before he hit the floor, but the spirit-wraith was not so quickly and cleanly finished with him. Zaknafein's weapons continued their assault, hacking and slicing into Rizzen a dozen times until Malice, satisfied with the display, called him off.

  “That one bores me,' Malice explained to the disbelieving stares of her children. ”I have another patron already selected from among the commoners:'

  It was not, however, Rizzen's death that inspired the awestruck expressions of Malice's children, they cared nothing for any of the mates that their mother chose as patron of the house, always a temporary position. It was the speed and skill of the spirit-wraith that had stolen their breath.

  “As good as in life,' Dinin remarked.

  “Better!” Malice replied. “Zaknafein is all that he was as a warrior, and now that fighting skill holds his every thought. He will view no distractions from his chosen course. Look upon him, my children. Zin-carla, the gift of Lloth:' She turned to Dinin and smiled wickedly.

  “I'll not approach the thing,' Dinin gasped, thinking his macabre mother might desire a second display.

  Malice laughed at him. “Fear not, Elderboy. I have no cause to harm you:'

  Dinin hardly relaxed at her words. Malice needed no cause, the hacked body of Rizzen showed that fact all too clearly.

  “You will lead the spirit-wraith out,' Malice said.

  “Out?” Dinin replied tentatively.

  “Into the region where you encountered your brother,' Malice explained.

  “I am to stay beside the thing?” Dinin gasped.

  “Lead him out and leave him,' Malice replied. ”Zaknafein knows his prey. He has been imbued with spells to aid him in his hunt:' Off to the side, Briza seemed concerned.

  “What is it?” Malice demanded of her, seeing her frown.

  “I do not question the spirit-wraith's power, or the magic that you have placed upon it,' Briza began tentatively, knowing that Malice would accept no discord regarding this all-important matter.

  “You still fear your youngest brother?” Malice asked her. Briza didn't know how to answer.

  “Allay your fears, as valid as you may think them,' Malice said calmly. ”All of you. Zaknafein is the gift of our queen. Nothing in all the Underdark will stop him!“ She looked at the undead monster. ”You will not fail me, will you my weapon master?“

  Zaknafein stood impassive, bloodied swords back in their scabbards, hands at his sides, and eyes unblinking. A statue, he seemed, not breathing. Unalive.

  But any who thought Zaknafein inanimate needed only to look at the spirit-wraith's feet, to the mutilated lump of gore that had been the patron of House Do'Urden.

  PART 2


  Friendship: The word has come to mean many different things among the various races and cultures of both the Underdark and the surface of the Realms. In Menzoberranzan, friendship is generally born out of mutual profit. While both parties are better off for the union, it remains secure. But loyalty is not a tenet of drow life, and as soon as a friend believes that he will gain more without the other, the union-and likely the other's life-will come to a swift end.

  I have had few friends in my life, and if I live a thousand years, I suspect that this will remain true. There is little to lament in this fact, though, for those who have called me friend have been persons of great character and have enriched my existence, given it worth. First there was Zaknafein, my father and mentor who showed me that I was not alone and that I was not incorrect in holding to my beliefs. Zaknafein saved me, from both the blade and the chaotic, evil, fanatic religion that damns my people.

  Yet I was no less lost when a handless deep gnome came into my life, a svirfneblin that I had rescued from certain death, many years before, at my brother Dinin's merciless blade. My deed was repaid in full, for when the svirfneblin and I again met, this time in the clutches of his people, I would have been killed-truly would have preferred death-were it not for Belwar Dissengulp.

  My time in Blingdenstone, the city of the deep gnomes, was such a short span in the measure of my years. I remember well Belwar's city and his people, and I always shall.

  Theirs was the first society I came to know that was based on the strengths of community, not the paranoia of selfish individualism. Together the deep gnomes survive against the perils of the hostile Underdark, labor in their endless toils of mining the stone, and play games that are hardly distinguishable from every other aspect of their rich lives.

  Greater indeed are pleasures that are shared.

  -Drizzt Do'Urden

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