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Homeland (part 2 chapter 11)

2006-08-28 22:23

  CHAPTER 11

  THE INFORMANT

  Councilor Firble of Blingdenstone moved tentatively into the small rough-hewn cavern, the appointed meeting place. An army of svirfnebli, including several deep gnome enchanters holding stones that could summon earth elemental allies, moved into defensive positions all along the corridors to the west of the room. Despite this, Firble was not at ease. He looked down the eastern tunnel, the only other entrance into the chamber, wondering what information his agent would have for him and worrying over how much it would cost.

  Then the drow made his swaggering entrance, his high black boots kicking loudly on the stone. His gaze darted about quickly to ensure that Firble was the only svirfneblin in the chamber-their usual deal-then strode up to the deep gnome councilor and dropped into a low bow.

  “Greetings, little friend with the big purse,' the drow said with a laugh. His command of the svirfneblin language and dialect, with the perfect inflections and pauses of a deep gnome who had lived a century in Blingdenstone, always amazed Firble.

  “You could exercise some caution,' Firble retorted, again glancing around anxiously.

  “Bah,' the drow snorted, clicking the hard heels of his boots together. ”You have an army of deep gnome fighters and wizards behind you, and I . . . well, let us just agree that I am well protected as well:

  “That fact I do not doubt, Jarlaxle,' Firble replied. ”Still, I would prefer that our business remain as private and as secretive as possible:'

  “All of the business of Bregan D'aerthe is private, my dear Firble:' Jarlaxle answered, and again he bowed low, sweeping his wide-brimmed hat in a long and graceful arc.

  “Enough of that:' said Firble. ”Let us be done with our business, so that I may return to my home:'

  “Then ask:' said Jarlaxle.

  “There has been an increase in drow activity near Blingdenstone:' explained the deep gnome.

  “Has there?” Jarlaxle asked, appearing surprised. The drow's smirk revealed his true emotions, though. This would be an easy profit for Jarlaxle, for the very same matron mother in Menzoberranzan who had recently employed him was undoubtedly connected with the Blingdenstone's distress. Jarlaxle liked coincidences that made the profits come easy.

  Firble knew the ploy of feigned surprise all too well. “There has:' he said firmly.

  “And you wish to know why?” Jarlaxle reasoned, still holding a facade of ignorance.

  “It would seem prudent, from our vantage point:' huffed the councilor, tired of Jarlaxle's unending game. Firble knew without any doubts that Jarlaxle was aware of the drow activity near Blingdenstone, and of the purpose behind it.

  Jarlaxle was a rogue without house, normally an unhealthy position in the world of the dark elves. Yet this resourceful mercenary survived-even thrived-in his renegade position. Through it all, Jarlaxle's greatest advantage was knowledge-knowledge of every stirring within Menzoberranzan and the regions surrounding the city.

  “How long will you require?” Firble asked. “My king wishes to complete this business as swiftly as possible:'

  “Have you my payment?” the drow asked, holding out a hand.

  “Payment when you bring me the information:' Firble protested. ”That has always been our agreement:'

  “So it has:' agreed Jarlaxle. ”This time, though, I need no time to gather your information. If you have my gems, we can be done with our business right now:'

  Firble pulled the pouch of gems from his belt and tossed them to the drow. “Fifty agates, finely cut,' he said with a growl, never pleased by the price. He had hoped to avoid using Jarlaxle this time, like any deep gnome, Firble did not easily part with such sums.

  Jarlaxle quickly glanced into the pouch, then dropped it into a deep pocket. “Rest easy, little deep gnome,' he began, ”for the powers who rule Menzoberranzan plan no actions against your city. A single drow house has an interest in the region, nothing more:'

  “Why?” Firble asked after a long moment of silence had passed. The svirfneblin hated having to ask, knowing the inevitable consequence. Jarlaxle held out his hand. The more finely cut agates passed over.

  “The house searches for one of its own,' Jarlaxle explained. ”A renegade whose actions have put his family out of the favor of the Spider Queen:'

  Again a few interminable moments of silence passed. Firble could guess easily enough the identity of this hunted drow, but King Schnicktick would roar until the ceiling fell in if he didn't make certain. He pulled ten more gemstones from his belt pouch. “Name the house,' he said.

  “Daermon N'a'shezbaernon,' replied Jarlaxle, casually dropping the gems into his deep pocket. Firble crossed his arms over his chest and scowled. The unscrupulous drow had caught him once again.

  “Not the ancestral name!” the councilor growled, grudgingly pulling out another ten gems.

  “Really, Firble,' Jarlaxle teased. ”You must learn to be more specific in your questioning. Such errors do cost you so much!“

  “Name the house in terms that I might understand,' Firble instructed. ”And name the hunted renegade. No more will I pay you this day, Jarlaxle:'

  Jarlaxle held his hand up and smiled to silence the deep gnome. “Agreed,' he laughed, more than satisfied with his take. ”House Do'Urden, Eighth House of Menzoberranzan searches for its secondboy:' The mercenary noted a hint of recognition in Firble's expression. Might this little meeting provide Jarlaxle with information that he could turn into further profit at the coffers of Matron Malice?

  “Drizzt is his name,' the drow continued, carefully studying the svirfneblin's reaction. Slyly, he added, ”Information of his whereabouts would bring a high profit in Menzoberranzan:'

  Firble stared at the brash drow for a long time. Had he given away too much when the renegade's identity had been revealed? If Jarlaxle had guessed that Drizzt was in the deep gnome city, the implications could be grim. Now Firble was in a predicament. Should he admit his mistake and try to correct it? But how much would it cost Firble to buy Jarlaxle's promise of silence? And no matter how great the payment, could Firble really trust the unscrupulous mercenary?

  “Our business is at its end,' Firble announced, deciding to trust that Jarlaxle had not guessed enough to bargain with House Do'Urden. The councilor turned on his heel and started out of the chamber.

  Jarlaxle secretly applauded Firble's decision. He had always believed the svirfneblin councilor a worthy bargaining adversary and was not now disappointed. Firble had revealed little information, too little to take to Matron Malice, and if the deep gnome had more to give, his decision to abruptly end the meeting was a wise one. In spite of their racial differences, Jarlaxle had to admit that he actually liked Firble. “Little gnome,' he called out after the departing figure. ”I offer you a warning:'

  Firble spun back, his hand defensively covering his closed gem pouch.

  “Free of charge,' Jarlaxle said with a laugh and a shake of his bald head. But then the mercenary's visage turned suddenly serious, even grim. ”If you know of Drizzt Do'Urden,' Jarlaxle continued, “keep him far away. Lloth herself has charged Matron Malice Do'Urden with Drizzt's death, and Malice will do whatever she must to accomplish the task. And even if Malice fails, others will take up the hunt, knowing that the Do'Urden's death will bring great pleasure to the Spider Queen. He is doomed, Firble, and so doomed will be any foolish enough to stand beside him:'

  “An unnecessary warning:' Firble replied, trying to keep his expression calm. ”For none in Blingdenstone know or care anything for this renegade dark elf. Nor, I assure you, do any in Blingdenstone hold any desire to find the favor of the dark elves' Spider Queen deity!“

  Jarlaxle smiled knowingly at the svirfneblin's bluff. “Of course:' he replied, and he swept off his grand hat, dropping into yet another bow.

  Firble paused a moment to consider the words and the bow, wondering again if he should try to buy the mercenary's silence.

  Before he came to any decision, though, Jarlaxle was gone, clomping his hard boots loudly with every departing step. Poor Firble was left to wonder.

  He needn't have. Jarlaxle did indeed like little Firble, the mercenary admitted to himself as he departed, and he would not divulge his suspicions of Drizzt's whereabouts to Matron Malice.

  Unless, of course, the offer was simply too tempting. Firble just stood and watched the empty chamber for many minutes, wondering and worrying.

  For Drizzt, the days had been filled with friendship and fun. He was somewhat of a hero with the svirfneblin miners who had gone out into the tunnels beside him, and the story of his clever deception against the goblin tribe grew with every telling. Drizzt and Belwar went out often, now, and whenever they entered a tavern or meeting house, they were greeted by cheers and offers of free food and drink. Both the friends were glad for the other, for together they had found their place and their peace. Already Burrow-Warden Brickers and Belwar were busily planning another mining expedition. Their biggest task was narrowing the list of volunteers, for svirfnebli from every corner of the city had contacted them, eager to travel beside the dark elf and the most honored burrow-warden.

  When a loud and insistent knock came one morning on Belwar's door, both Drizzt and the deep gnome figured it to be more recruits looking for a place in the expedition. They were indeed surprised to find the city guard waiting for them, bidding Drizzt, at the point of a dozen spears, to go with them to an audience with the king.

  Belwar appeared unconcerned. …… A precaution,' he assured Drizzt, pushing away his breakfast plate of mushrooms and moss sauce. Belwar went to the wall to grab his cloak, and if Drizzt, concentrating on the spears, had noticed Belwar's jerking and unsure movements, the drow most certainly would not have been assured.

  The journey through the deep gnome city was quick indeed, with the anxious guards prodding the drow and the burrow-warden along. Belwar continued to brush the whole thing off as a “precaution” with every step, and in truth, Belwar did a fine job keeping a measure of calm in his round-toned voice. But Drizzt carried no illusions with him into the king's chambers. All of his life had been filled with crashing ends to promising beginnings.

  King Schnicktick sat uncomfortably on his stone throne, his councilors standing equally ill at ease around him. He did not like this duty that had been placed upon his shoulders-the svirfnebli considered themselves loyal friends- but in light of councilor Firble's revelations, the threat to Blingdenstone could not be ignored.

  Especially not for the likes of a dark elf.

  Drizzt and Belwar moved to stand before the king, Drizzt curious, though ready to accept whatever might come of this, but Belwar on the edge of anger.

  “My thanks in your prompt arrival,' King Schnicktick greeted them, and he cleared his throat and looked around to his councilors for support. ”Spears do keep one in motion,' Belwar snarled sarcastically.

  The svirfneblin king cleared his throat again, noticeably uncomfortable, and shifted in his seat. “My guard does get a bit excited,' he apologized. ”Please take no offense:'

  “None taken,' Drizzt assured him.

  “Your time in our city you have enjoyed?” Schnicktick asked, managing a bit of a smile. Drizzt nodded. “Your people have been gracious beyond anything I could have asked for or expected,' he replied.

  “And you have proven yourself a worthy friend, Drizzt Do'Urden,' Schnicktick said. ”Really our lives have been enriched by your presence:'

  Drizzt bowed low, full of gratitude for the svirfneblin king's kind words. But Belwar narrowed his dark gray eyes and crinkled his hooked nose, beginning to understand what the king was leading up to.

  “Unfortunately,' King Schnicktick began, looking around pleadingly to his councilors, and not directly at Drizzt, ”a situation has come upon us . . :'

  “Magga cammara!” shouted Belwar, startling everyone in attendance. “No!” King Schnicktick and Drizzt looked at the burrow-warden in disbelief.

  “You mean to put him out,' Belwar snarled accusingly at Schnicktick.

  “Belwar!” Drizzt began to protest.

  “Most Honored Burrow-Warden,' the svirfneblin king said sternly. ”It is not your place to interrupt. If again you do so, I will be forced to have you removed from this chamber:'

  “It is true then,' Belwar groaned softly. He looked away.

  Drizzt glanced from the king to Belwar and back again, confused as to the purpose behind this whole encounter.

  “You have heard of the suspected drow activity in the tunnels near our eastern borders?” the king asked Drizzt. Drizzt nodded.

  “We have learned the purpose of this activity,' Schnicktick explained. The pause as the svirfneblin king looked yet another time to his councilors sent shivers through Drizzt's spine. He knew beyond any doubts what was coming next, but the words wounded him deeply anyway. ”You, Drizzt Do'Urden, are that purpose:'

  “My mother searches for me,' Drizzt replied flatly.

  “But she will not find you!” Belwar snarled in defiance aimed at both Schnicktick and this unknown mother of his new friend. “Not while you remain a guest of the deep gnomes of Blingdenstone!”

  “Belwar, hold!” King Schnicktick scolded. He looked back to Drizzt and his visage softened. “Please, friend Drizzt, you must understand. I cannot risk war with Menzoberranzan:'

  “I do understand,' Drizzt assured him with sincerity. ”I will gather my things:'

  “No!” Belwar protested. He rushed up to the throne. “We are svirfnebli. We do not put out friends in the face of any danger!” The burrow-warden ran from councilor to councilor, pleading for justice. “Only friendship has Drizzt Do'Urden shown us, and we would put him out! Magga cammara! If our loyalties are so fragile, are we any better than the drow of Menzoberranzan?”

  “Enough, Most Honored Burrow-Warden!” King Schnicktick cried out in a tone of finality that even stubborn Belwar could not ignore. “Our decision did not come easily to us, but it is final! I will not put Blingdenstone in jeopardy for the sake of a dark elf, no matter that he has shown himself to be a friend?' Schnicktick looked to Drizzt. ”I am truly sorry.'

  “Do not be,' Drizzt replied. ”You do only as you must, as I did on that long-ago day when I chose to forsake my people. That decision I made alone, and I have

  never asked any for approval or aid. You, good svirfneblin king, and your people have given me back so much that I had lost. Believe that I have no desire to invoke the wrath of Menzoberranzan against Blingdenstone. I would never forgive myself if I played any part in that tragedy. I will be gone from your fair city within the hour. And in parting I offer only gratitude.'

  The svirfneblin king was touched by the words, but his position remained unbending. He motioned for his guardsmen to accompany Drizzt, who accepted the armed escort with a resigned sigh. He looked once to Belwar, standing helplessly beside the svirfneblin councilors, then left the king's halls.

  A hundred deep gnomes, particularly Burrow-Warden Krieger and the other miners of the single expedition Drizzt had accompanied, said their farewells to the drow as he walked out of Blingdenstone's huge doors. Conspicuously absent was Belwar Dissengulp, Drizzt had not seen the burrow-warden at all in the hour since he had left the throne room. Still, Drizzt was grateful for the send-off these svirfnebli gave him. Their kind words comforted him and gave him the strength that he knew he would need in the trials of the coming years. Of all the memories Drizzt would take out of Blingdenstone, he vowed to hold onto those parting words.

  Still, when Drizzt moved away from the gathering, across the small platform and down the wide staircase, he heard only the resounding echoes of the enormous doors slamming shut behind him. Drizzt trembled as he looked down the tunnels of the wild Underdark, wondering how he could possibly survive the trials this time. Blingdenstone had been his salvation from the hunter, how long would it take that darker side to rear up again and steal his identity?

  But what choice did Drizzt have? Leaving Menzoberranzan had been his decision, the right decision. Now, though, knowing better the consequences of his choice, Drizzt wondered about his resolve. Given the opportunity to do it all over again, would he now find the strength to walk away from his life among his people?

  He hoped that he would.

  A shuffle off to the side brought Drizzt alert. He crouched and drew his scimitars, thinking that Matron Malice had agents waiting for him who had expected him to be expelled from Blingdenstone. A shadow moved a moment later, but it was no drow assassin that came in at Drizzt. “Belwar!” he cried in relief. “I feared that you would not say farewell:'

  “And so I will not,' replied the svirfneblin. Drizzt studied the burrow-warden, noticing the full pack that Belwar wore. ”No, Belwar, I cannot allow-“

  “I do not remember asking for your permission,' the deep gnome interrupted. ”I have been looking for some excitement in my life. Thought I might venture out and see what the wide world has to offer:'

  “It is not as grand as you expect,' Drizzt replied grimly. ”You have your people, Belwar. They accept you and care for you. That is a greater gift than anything you can imagine:'

  Agreed,' replied the burrow-warden. “And you, Drizzt Do'Urden, have your friend, who accepts you and cares for you. And stands beside you. Now, are we going to be on with this adventure, or are we going to stand here and wait for that wicked mother of yours to walk up and cut us down?”

  “You cannot begin to imagine the dangers,' Drizzt warned, but Belwar could see that the drow's resolve was already starting to wear away.

  Belwar banged his mithril hands together. “ And you, dark elf cannot begin to imagine the ways I can deal with such dangers! I am not letting you walk off alone into the wilds. Understand that as fact-magga cammara-and we can get on with things:'

  Drizzt shrugged helplessly, looked once more to the stubborn determination stamped openly on Belwar's face, and started off down the tunnel, the deep gnome falling into step at his side. This time, at least, Drizzt had a companion he could talk to, a weapon against the intrusions of the hunter. He put his hand in his pocket and fingered the Guenhwyvar's onyx figurine. Perhaps, Drizzt dared to hope, the three of them would have a chance to find more than simple survival in the Underdark.

  For a long time afterward, Drizzt wondered if he had acted selfishly in giving in so easily to Belwar. Whatever guilt he felt, however, could not begin to compare with the profound sense of relief Drizzt knew whenever he looked down at his side, to the most honored burrow-warden's bald, bobbing head.

  PART 3

  Friends And Foes

  To live or to survive? Until my second time out in the wilds of the Underdark after my stay in Blingdenstone, I never would have understood the significance of such a simple question.

  When first I left Menzoberranzan, I thought survival enough, I thought that I could fall within myself, within my principles, and be satisfied that I had followed the only course open to me. The alternative was the grim reality of Menzoberranzan and compliance with the wicked ways that guided my people. If that was life, I believed, simply surviving would be far preferable.

  And yet, that “simple survival” nearly killed me. Worse, it nearly stole everything that I held dear: The svirfnebli of Blingdenstone showed me a different way. Svirfneblin society, structured and nurtured on communal values and unity, proved to be everything that I had always hoped Menzoberranzan would be. The svirfnebli did much more than merely survive. They lived and laughed and worked, and the gains they made were shared by the whole, as was the pain of the losses they inevitably It suffered in the hostile subsurface world.

  Joy multiplies when it is shared among friends, but grief diminishes with every division. That is life.

  And so, when I walked back out of Blingdenstone, back into the empty Underdark's lonely chambers, I walked with hope. At my side went Belwar, my new friend, and in my pocket went the magical figurine that could summon Guenhwyvar, my proven friend. In my brief stay with the deep gnomes, I had witnessed life as I always had hoped it would be-I could not return to simply surviving.

  With my friends beside me, I dared to believe that I would not have to.

  -Drizzt Do'Urden

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