The Crystal Shard 16. Shallow Graves

The Crystal Shard 16. Shallow Graves

When Wulfgar awakened just before midday, rested from his long night’s work, he was surprised to see Drizzt already up and about, busily preparing a pack for a long hike.

“Today we start a different type of lesson,” Drizzt explained to the barbarian. “We’ll set out right after you’ve had something to eat.”

“To where?”

“First, the dwarven mines,” replied Drizzt. “Bruenor will want to see you so he might measure your progress for himself.” He smiled at the big man. “He shan’t be disappointed!”

Wulfgar smiled, confident that his new-found prowess with the hammer would impress even the grumpy dwarf. “And then?”

“To Termalaine, on the banks of Maer Dualdon. I have a friend there. One of my few,” he added quickly with a wink, drawing a smile from Wulfgar. “A man named Agorwal. I want you to meet some of the people of Ten-Towns so that you might better judge them.”

“What have I to judge?” Wulfgar asked angrily. The drow’s dark and knowing eyes bore into him. Wulfgar clearly understood what Drizzt had in mind. The dark elf was trying to personalize the people the barbarians had declared enemies, to show Wulfgar the everyday existence of the men, women, and children who might have been victims of his own heavy pole if the fight on the slopes had turned out differently. Fearless in any battle, Wulfgar was truly frightened of facing those people. Already the young barbarian had begun to question the virtues of his warlike people; the innocent faces he would encounter in the town his people had casually marked for burning could well complete the destruction of the foundations of his entire world.

The two companions set out a short time later, retracing their steps around the eastern trails of Kelvin’s Cairn. A dusty wind was blowing in steadily from the east, assaulting them with fine grains of stinging sand as they crossed the exposed face of the mountain. Though the glaring sun was especially draining on Drizzt, he kept a strong pace and did not stop for rest.

In the late afternoon, when they finally rounded a southern spur, they were exhausted but in good spirits.

“In the shelter of the mines, I had forgotton how cruel the tundra wind could be!” laughed Wulfgar.

“We’ll have some protection below the rim of the valley,” said Drizzt. He patted the empty waterskin at his side. “Come, I know where we might refill these before we continue.”

He led Wulfgar westward, below the southern slopes of the mountain. The drow knew of an icy stream a short distance away, its waters fed from the snow melt atop Kelvin’s Cairn.

The brook sang merrily as it danced across the stones. Nearby birds cackled and cawed at the approach of the companions, and a lynx slipped silently away. Everything appeared as it should, but from the moment they arrived on the large, flat rock that was commonly used by travelers as a campsite, Drizzt sensed that something was terribly wrong. Moving in tentatively, he searched for some tangible sign that would confirm his growing suspicions.

Wulfgar, though, dove belly-down onto the stone and dunked his sweat – and dust-streaked face eagerly into the cold water. When he pulled it back out, the luster had returned to his eyes, as if the icy water had given him back his vitality.

But then the barbarian noticed crimson stains on the rock and followed their gory trail to the hairy piece of skin that had gotten caught on the sharp tip of a stone just above the rushing stream.

Both skilled trackers, the ranger and barbarian had little difficulty in ascertaining that a battle had recently been fought on this spot. They recognized the coarse hair on the patch of skin as a piece of beard, which of course led them to think of the dwarves. They found three sets of giant-size footsteps nearby. Following a tangent line of tracks that stretched southward a short distance to a sandy patch of ground, they soon found the shallow graves.

“Not Bruenor,” Drizzt said grimly, examining the two corpses. “Younger dwarves – Bundo, son of Fellhammer, and Dourgas, son of Argo Grimblade, I believe.”

“We should make all haste to the mines,” Wulfgar suggested.

“Soon,” replied the drow. “We still have much to learn about what happened here, and tonight may be our only chance. Were these giants simply passing rogues, or are they lairing in the area? And are there more of the foul beasts?”

“Bruenor should be told,” Wulfgar argued.

“And so he will,” said Drizzt. “But if these three are still nearby, as I believe they are since they took the time to bury their kill, they might well return for some more sport when night falls.” He directed Wulfgar’s gaze to the west, where the sky had already begun to take on the pink shades of twilight. “Are you ready for a fight, barbarian?”

With a determined grunt, Wulfgar brought Aegis-fang down from his shoulder and slapped the adamantite handle across his free hand. “We shall see who finds sport this night.”

They moved behind the secrecy of a rocky bluff south of the flat stone and waited as the sun passed below the horizon and the dark shadows deepened into evening.

It wasn’t very long a wait, for the same verbeeg that had killed the dwarves the night before were again the first out of the lair, anxious to seek fresh victims. Soon the patrol came crashing over the mountain slopes and onto the flat rock beside the stream.

Wulfgar immediately moved to charge, but Drizzt stayed him before he gave their position away. The drow had every intention of killing these giants, but he wanted to see if he could learn anything about why they were here first.

“Drats an’ dingers,” grumbled one of the giants. “Not a dwarf to be found!”

“Rotten luck, it is,” groaned another. “An’ our last night out, too,” The creature’s companions looked at it curiously.

“The other group’s cumin’ in tomorrow,” the verbeeg explained. “Our numbers’ll double, an’ stinkin’ ogres an’ orcs to boot, an’ the boss ain’t to let us out ’til everthin’s calmed again.”

“A score more in that stinkin’ hole,” complained one of the others. “Rightly t’send us flippin’!”

“Let’s be movin’, then,” said the third. “No huntin’ ‘ere an’ no night fer wastin’.”

The two adventurers behind the bluff tensed reflexively when the giants spoke of leaving.

“If we can get to that rock,” Wulfgar reasoned, unknowingly pointing to the same boulder that the giants had used for their ambush the night before, “we’ll have them before they even realize we’re here!” He turned anxiously to Drizzt but backed off immediately when he saw the drow. The lavender eyes burned with a luster that Wulfgar had never witnessed before.

“There are only three of them,” said Drizzt, his voice holding a fragile edge of calm that threatened to explode at any moment. “We need no surprise.”

Wulfgar didn’t quite know how to take this unexpected change in the dark elf. “You taught me to seek every advantage,” he said cautiously.

“In battle, yes,” answered Drizzt. “This is vengeance. Let the giants see us, let them feel the terror of impending doom!” The scimitars suddenly appeared in his slender hands as he walked out around the bluff, his steady stride unnervingly holding the unswerving promise of death.

One of the giants yelled out in surprise, and they all froze in their tracks when they saw the drow step out before them. Apprehensive and confused, they formed a defensive line across the flat rock. The verbeeg had heard legends of the drow, even some where the dark elves had joined forces with giants, but the sudden appearance of Drizzt caught them totally by surprise.

Drizzt enjoyed their nervous twitchings, and he held back to savor the moment.

“What are ye fer, then?” one of the giants asked cautiously.

“A friend of dwarves,” Drizzt replied with a wicked laugh. Wulfgar leaped out beside him as the largest of the giants charged without hesitation. But Drizzt stopped him cold. The drow pointed one his scimitars at the advancing giant and stated with deathly calm, “You are dead.” At once, the verbeeg was limned by purplish flames. It yelled in terror and retreated a step, but Drizzt stalked it methodically.

An overwhelming impulse came over Wulfgar to throw the warhammer, as though Aegis-fang was exerting a will of its own. The weapon whistled through the night air and exploded into the giant standing in the middle, hurling its broken body into the swollen stream.

Wulfgar was truly awe-stricken with the power and deadliness of the throw, but he worried about how effectively he could fight off the third giant with a small dagger, the only weapon he had left. The giant recognized the advantage as well and charged wildly. Wulfgar went for the dagger.

But instead he found Aegis-fang magically returned to his grasp. He had no idea of this special power Bruenor had imbued upon the weapon, and he had no time now to pause and ponder.

Terrified, but having nowhere to run, the largest giant attacked Drizzt with abandon, giving the elf even more of an advantage. The monster lifted its heavy club high, the movement exaggerated by rage, and Drizzt quickly poked his pointed blades through the leather tunic and into the exposed belly. With only a slight hesitation, the giant continued its mighty swing, but the agile drow still had ample time to dodge the blow. And as the swing threw the lumbering giant off-balance, Drizzt jabbed two more tiny holes into its shoulder and neck.

“Are you watching, boy?” the drow called gaily to Wulfgar. “It fights like one of your kind.”

Wulfgar was heavily engaged with the remaining giant, easily maneuvering Aegis-fang to deflect the monster’s powerful blows, but he was able to catch glimpses of the battle to his side. The scene painted a grim reminder of the value of what Drizzt had taught him, for the drow was toying with the verbeeg, using its uncontrolled rage against it.

Again and again, the monster reared for a killing blow, and each time Drizzt was quick to strike and dance away. Verbeeg blood flowed freely from a dozen wounds, and Wulfgar knew that Drizzt could finish the job at any time. But he was amazed that the dark elf was enjoying the tormenting game he played.

Wulfgar hadn’t yet struck a solid blow on his opponent, biding his time, as Drizzt had taught him, until the enraged verbeeg wore itself out. Already the barbarian could see that the giant’s blows were coming with less frequency and vigor. Finally, lathered in sweat and breathing heavily, the verbeeg slipped up and dropped its guard. Aegis-fang pounded home once, and then again, and the giant toppled in a lump.

The verbeeg fighting Drizzt was down on one knee now, the drow having deftly sliced out one of its hamstrings. When Drizzt saw the second giant fall before Wulfgar, he decided to end the game. The giant took one more futile swing, and Drizzt waded in behind the flow of the weapon, jabbing with one scimitar and this time following the cruel point with his full weight. The blade slipped through the giant’s neck and upward into its brain.

* * *

Later, one question pressed upon Drizzt as he and Wulfgar, resting on one knee, considered the results of their handiwork. “The hammer?” he asked simply.

Wulfgar looked down at Aegis-fang and shrugged. “I do not know,” he answered honestly. “It returned to my hand by its own magic!”

Drizzt smiled to himself. He knew. How wondrous the crafting of Bruenor, he thought. And how deeply the dwarf must care for the boy to have given him such a gift!

“A score of verbeeg coming,” groaned Wulfgar.

“And another twenty already here,” added Drizzt. “Go straight away to Bruenor,” he instructed. “These three just came from the lair; I shouldn’t have much trouble backtracking and finding out where the rest of them are.”

Wulfgar nodded his assent, though he looked upon Drizzt with concern. The uncharacteristic smolder he had seen in the drow’s eyes before they attacked the verbeeg had unnerved the barbarian. He wasn’t quite sure just how daring the dark elf might be. “What do you mean to do when you find the lair?”

Drizzt said nothing but smiled wryly, adding to the barbarian’s apprehension. Finally he eased his friend’s worries. “Meet me back at this spot in the morning. I assure you that I shan’t begin the fun without you!”

“I shall return before the first light of dawn,” Wulfgar replied grimly. He spun on his heel and disappeared into the darkness, making his way as fast as he could under starlight.

Drizzt, too, started away, tracing the trail of the three giants westward across the face of Kelvin’s Cairn. Eventually, he heard the baritone voices of giants, and shortly thereafter he saw the hastily constructed wooden doors that marked their lair, cunningly concealed behind some brush halfway up a rocky foothill.

Drizzt waited patiently and soon saw a second patrol of three giants emerge from the lair: And later on, when they returned, a third group came out. The drow was trying to discern if any alarms had gone up due to the absence of the first patrol. But verbeeg were almost always unruly and undependable, and Drizzt was reassured from the small snatches of conversation he was able to hear that the giants assumed their missing companions had either gotten lost or simply deserted. When the drow slipped away a few hours later to set his next plans, he was confident that he still had the element of surprise working for him.

* * *

Wulfgar ran all through the night. He delivered his message to Bruenor and started back to the north without waiting for the clan to be roused. His great strides took him to the flat rock more than an hour before the first light, even before Drizzt had returned from the lair. He went back behind the bluff to wait, his concern for the drow growing with every passing second.

Finally, able to stand the suspense no longer, he sought out the trail of the verbeeg and started tracking it toward the lair, determined to discover what was happening. He hadn’t gone twenty feet when a hand cuffed him on the back of the head. Reflexively he spun to meet his attacker, but his astonishment turned to joy when he saw Drizzt standing before him.

Drizzt had returned to the rock shortly after Wulfgar but had remained hidden, watching the barbarian to see if the impulsive young warrior would trust in their pact or decide to take matters into his own hands. “Never doubt an appointed rendezvous until its hour has passed,” the drow scolded sternly, touched as he was by the barbarian’s concern for his well-being.

Any response that might have been coming from Wulfgar was cut short, for suddenly the two companions heard a gruff shout from a familiar voice. “Get me a pig-squealin’ giant to kill!” Bruenor called from the flat stone by the stream behind them. Enraged dwarves can roll along at an incredible speed. In less than an hour, Bruenor’s clan had assembled and started after the barbarian, nearly matching his frantic pace.

“Well met,” Drizzt called as he moved to join the dwarf. He found Bruenor eyeing the three dead verbeeg with grim satisfaction. Fifty iron-visaged, battle-ready dwarves, more than half the clan, stood around their leader.

“Elf,” Bruenor greeted with his customary consideration. “A lair, is it?”

Drizzt nodded. “A mile to the west, but let that be not your first concern. The giants there are not going anywhere, but they are expecting guests this very day.

“The boy told me,” said Bruenor. “A score of reinforcements.” He swung his axe casually. “Somehow I get the feelin’ they’re not goin’ t’ make the lair! Any notion o’ where they’re to be cumin’ in?”

“North and east is the only way.” Drizzt reasoned. “Somewhere down Icewind Pass, around the north of Lac Dinneshere. Your people will greet them, then?”

“Of course,” replied Bruenor. “They’ll be passin’ Daledrop for certain.” A twinkle edged his eye. “What do ye mean to do?” he asked Drizzt. “An what o’ the boy?”

“The boy remains with me,” Drizzt insisted. “He needs rest. We’ll watch over the lair.”

The eager gleam in Drizzt’s eye gave Bruenor the impression that the drow had more in mind than watching. “Crazy elf,” he said under his breath. “Probably’ll take on the whole lot of ’em by himself!” He looked around curiously again at the dead giants. “And win!” Then Bruenor studied the two adventurers, trying to match their weapons with the types of wounds on the verbeeg.

“The boy felled two,” Drizzt replied to the dwarf’s unspoken question.

A hint of a rare smile found its way onto Bruenor’s face. “Two to yer one, eh? Yer slippin’, elf.”

“Nonsense,” Drizzt retorted. “I recognized that he needed the practice!”

Bruenor shook his head, surprised by the extent of the pride he felt toward Wulfgar, though of course he wasn’t about to tell the boy and swell his head. “Yer slippin’!” he called again as he moved up to the head of the clan. The dwarves took up a rhythmic chanting, an ancient tune that had once echoed off the silvery halls of their lost homeland.

Bruenor looked back at his two adventurous friends and honestly wondered what would be left of the giant lair by the time he and his fellow dwarves returned.