The Crystal Shard 17. Vengeance

The Crystal Shard 17. Vengeance

Tirelessly, the heavily laden dwarves marched on. They had come prepared for war, some carrying heavy packs and others shouldering the great weight of large wooden beams.

The drow’s guess about which direction the reinforcements would be coming from seemed the only possible way, and Bruenor knew exactly where to meet them. There was only one pass that afforded easy access down into the rocky valley: Daledrop, up on the level of the tundra yet below the southern slopes of the mountain.

Though they had marched without rest throughout half of the night and most of the morning, the dwarves set right to work. They had no idea what time the giants would be coming in, though it probably wouldn’t happen under the light of day; they wanted to make certain that everything was ready. Bruenor was determined to take out this war party quickly and with minimal losses to his people. Scouts were posted on the high spots of the mountainside, and others were sent out onto the plain. Under Bruenor’s direction, the remainder of the clan prepared the area for an ambush. One group set to digging a trip-trench and another began reassembling the wooden beams into two ballistae. Heavy crossbowmen sought out the best vantage points among the boulders on the nearby mountainside from which to launch their assault.

In a short time, all was ready. But the dwarves still did not stop to rest. They continued canvassing every inch of the area, searching for any possible advantage they could gain over the verbeeg.

Late in the day, the sun already dipping its lowest edges below the horizon, one of the lookouts on the mountain announced that he had sighted a dust cloud growing in the distant east. Soon after; a scout came in from the plain to report that a troop of twenty verbeeg, a few ogres, and at least a dozen orcs was making speed toward Daledrop.

Bruenor signaled the crossbowmen into their concealed positions. The ballista crews inspected the camouflage on the great bows and added perfecting touches. Then the strongest fighters of the clan, with Bruenor himself among them, dug themselves into small holes along the worn path of Daledrop, carefully cutting the tufts of thick grass so that they could roll it back over them.

They would strike the first blows.

* * *

Drizzt and Wulfgar had taken up a position among the boulders of Kelvin’s Cairn above the giant’s lair. They had slept in shifts throughout the day. The drow’s only concern for Bruenor and his clan was that some of the giants would leave the lair to meet the incoming reinforcements and spoil the dwarves’ advantage of surprise.

After several uneventful hours, Drizzt’s worries proved true. The drow was resting in the shadow of a ledge while Wulfgar kept watch over the lair. The barbarian could hardly see the wooden doors concealed behind the brush, but he clearly heard the creak of a hinge when one of them opened. He waited for a few moments before moving to rouse the drow to make sure that some of the giants were actually coming out of the hole.

Then he heard giants talking within the blackness of the open door, and suddenly, a half dozen verbeeg emerged into the sunlight. He turned to Drizzt but found the ever-alert drow already standing behind him, his large eyes squinting as he watched the giants in the bright light.

“I do not know what they are about,” Wulfgar told Drizzt.

“They’re seeking missing companions,” Drizzt replied. He’d heard, more clearly with his keen ears than his friend, distinct pieces of the conversation that had taken place before the giants emerged. These verbeeg had been instructed to exercise all possible caution, but they were to find the long overdue patrol, or at least determine where the missing giants had gone off to. They were expected to return that same night, with or without the others.

“We must warn Bruenor,” said Wulfgar.

“This group will have found their dead companions and alerted the lair long before we could return,” replied Drizzt. “Besides, I believe that Bruenor has enough giants to deal with already.”

“What, then?” asked Wulfgar. “Surely the lair will be tenfold more difficult to defeat if they expect trouble.” The barbarian noticed that the simmering flame had returned to the drow’s eye.

“The lair will be none the wiser if these giants never return,” Drizzt said matter-of-factly, as though the task of stopping six hunting verbeeg was a minor obstacle. Wulfgar listened in disbelief, though he had already guessed what Drizzt had in mind.

The drow noted Wulfgar’s apprehension and smiled broadly. “Come, boy,” he instructed, using the condescending title to stir up the barbarian’s pride. “You have trained hard for many weeks in preparation for a moment such as this.” He sprang lightly across a small chasm on the stone ledge and turned back on Wulfgar, his eyes sparkling wildly as they caught the afternoon sun.

“Come,” the drow repeated, beckoning with one hand. “There are only six of them!”

Wulfgar shook his head resignedly and sighed. During the weeks of training, he had come to know Drizzt as a controlled and deadly swordsman who weighed every feint and strike with calm precision. But in the last two days, Wulfgar had seen an overly daring – even reckless – side of the drow. Drizzt’s unwavering confidence was the only thing that convinced Wulfgar that the elf wasn’t suicidal, and the only thing that compelled Wulfgar to follow him against his own better judgement. He wondered if there was any limit to how far he would trust the drow.

He knew then and there that Drizzt would someday lead him into a situation from which there was no escape.

* * *

The giant patrol traveled southward for a short while, Drizzt and Wulfgar secretly in tow. The verbeeg found no immediate trace of the missing giants and feared that they were getting too close to the dwarven mines, so they turned sharply back to the northeast, in the general directions of the flat rock where the skirmish had taken place.

“We must move on them soon,” Drizzt told his companion. “Let us close in on our prey.”

Wulfgar nodded. A short time later, they approached a broken area of jagged stones, where the narrow path twisted and turned suddenly. The ground was sloping upward slightly, and the companions recognized that the path they traveled would move out to the rim of a small chasm. The daylight had faded enough to provide some cover. Drizzt and Wulfgar exchanged knowing glances; the time had come for action.

Drizzt, by far the more battle-seasoned of the two, quickly discerned the mode of attack that offered the best chance of success. He motioned silently for Wulfgar to pause. “We have to strike and move away,” he whispered, “and then strike again.”

“Not an easy task against a wary foe,” Wulfgar said.

“I have something that may aid us.” The drow pulled his pack from his back and took out the small figurine and called his shadow. When the wondrous feline abruptly appeared, the barbarian gasped in horror and leaped away.

“What demon have you conjured?” he cried as loudly as he dared, his knuckles whitening under the pressure of his clutch on Aegis-fang.

“Guenhwyvar is no demon,” Drizzt reassured his large companion. “He is a friend and a valuable ally.” The cat growled, as if it understood, and Wulfgar took another step away.

“No natural beast,” the barbarian retorted. “I shall not fight beside a demon conjured with sorcery!” The barbarians of Icewind Dale feared neither man nor beast, but the black arts were absolutely foreign to them, and their ignorance left them vulnerable.

“If the verbeeg learn the truth of the missing patrol, Bruenor and his kin will be in danger,” Drizzt said darkly. “The cat will help us to stop this group. Will you allow your own fears to hinder the rescue of the dwarves?”

Wulfgar straightened and recaptured a measure of his composure. Drizzt’s play on his pride and on the very real threat to the dwarves was pressuring him to temporarily put aside his revulsion for the black arts. “Send the beast away, we need no assistance.”

“With the cat, we’re certain to get them all. I will not risk the life of the dwarf because of your discomfort.” Drizzt knew that it would take many hours for Wulfgar to accept Guenhwyvar as an ally, if it ever happened at all, but for now, all that he needed was Wulfgar’s cooperation in the attack.

The giants had been marching for several hours. Drizzt watched patiently as their formation began to loosen, with one or two of the monsters occasionally lagging behind the others. Things were falling into place exactly as the drow had hoped.

The path took one last twist between two gigantic boulders, then widened considerably and sloped more steeply up the final expanse to the chasm rim. It turned sharply then, and continued along the ledge, a solid rock wall on one side, and a rocky drop on the other. Drizzt motioned to Wulfgar to stand ready, then sent the great cat into action.

* * *

The war party, a score of verbeeg with three ogres and a dozen orcs beside them, moved at an easy pace, reaching Daledrop well after the night had fallen. There were more monsters than the dwarves had originally expected, but they weren’t overly concerned by the orcs and knew how to deal with ogres. The giants were the key to this battle.

The long wait did nothing to temper the raw edge of the dwarves’ nerves. None of the clan had slept in nearly a day, and they remained tense and eager to avenge their kin.

The first of the verbeeg tramped onto the sloping field without incident, but when the last of the invading party reached the limits of the ambush zone, the dwarves of Mithril Hall attacked. Bruenor’s group struck first, springing from their holes, often right beside a giant or orc and hacking at the nearest target. They aimed their blows to cripple, using the basic tenet of dwarven giant-fighting philosophy: the sharp edge of an axe cuts the tendon and muscles on the back of a knee, the flat head of a hammer crushes the kneecap in the front.

Bruenor felled a giant with one swing, then turned to flee, but he found himself facing the readied sword of an orc. Having no time to trade blows, Bruenor tossed his weapon into the air, shouting, “Catch!” The orc’s eyes stupidly followed the axe’s diversionary flight. Bruenor decked the creature by slamming his helmeted forehead on its chin, caught his axe as it fell, and scampered off into the night, pausing only for a second to kick the orc as he passed.

The monsters had been taken absolutely by surprise, and many of them already lay screaming on the ground. Then the ballistae opened up. Spear-size missiles blasted into the front ranks, knocking giants aside and into each other. The crossbowmen sprang from their concealment and launched a deadly barrage, then dropped their bows and charged down the mountainside. Bruenor’s group, now in their fighting “v” formation, rushed back into the fray.

The monsters never had the chance to regroup, and by the time they were even able to raise their weapons in response, their ranks had been decimated.

The Battle of Daledrop was over in three minutes.

Not a dwarf was even seriously injured, and of the invading monsters, only the orc that Bruenor had knocked out remained alive.

* * *

Guenhwyvar understood its master’s wishes and leaped silently among the broken stones to the side of the trail, circling up ahead of the verbeeg and settling onto the rock wall above the path. It crouched low, no more than another of the deepening shadows. The first of the giants passed under, but the cat waited obediently, still as death, for the appropriate time. Drizzt and Wulfgar crept in closer, stealthily moving within clear sight of the back of the patrol’s line.

The last of the giants, an extraordinarily fat verbeeg, paused for a moment to catch its breath.

Guenhwyvar struck quickly.

The lithe panther sprang from the wall and raked its long claws into the giant’s face, then continued its bound over the monster, using the huge shoulder as a springboard, and returned to another spot on the wall. The giant howled in agony, clutching its torn face.

Aegis-fang took the creature in the back of the head, dropping it into the small gorge.

The giant in back of the remaining group heard the cry of pain and immediately charged back down the path, rounding the last bend just in time to see its unfortunate companion tumble down the rocky drop. The great cat didn’t hesitate, dropping down upon its second victim, its sharp claws catching a firm hold on the giant’s chest. Blood spurted wildly as the two-inch fangs sank deeply into the fleshy neck. Taking no chances, Guenhwyvar raked with all four of its mighty paws to deflect any counter, but the stunned giant was barely able to raise its arms in response before the deepest blackness closed over it.

With the rest of the patrol now coming fast, Guenhwyvar sprang away, leaving the gasping giant to drown in its own blood. Drizzt and Wulfgar took up positions behind the boulders on either side of the trail, the drow drawing his scimitars and the barbarian clutching the hammer that had returned to his hands.

The cat did not falter. It had played this scenario with its master many times before and understood well the advantage of surprise. It hesitated for a moment until the rest of the giants spotted it, then sprinted down the trail, darting between the rocks that hid its master and Wulfgar.

“Blimey!” cried one of the verbeeg, unconcerned with its dying companion. “A great huge cat, it is! An’ black as me cook’s kettles!”

“Be after it!” hollered another. “A new coat ‘e’ll make fer the one whats catches ‘im!” They hopped over the fallen giant, never giving it a second thought, and charged down the trail after the panther.

Drizzt was the closest to the charging giants. He let the first two pass, concentrating on the remaining two. They crossed by the boulder side by side, and he jumped onto the path before them, jabbing the scimitar in his left hand deep into one giant’s chest and blinding the other with a righthanded slash across the eyes. Using the scimitar that was planted into the first giant as a pivot, the drow wheeled behind his reeling foe and drove the other blade into the monster’s back. He managed to free both blades with a subtle twist, dancing away as the mortally wounded giant toppled to the ground.

Wulfgar, too, let the lead giant go by. The second had pulled up nearly even with the barbarian when Drizzt attacked the back two. The giant stopped short and whirled, intending to help the others, but from his place behind the boulder, Wulfgar swung Aegis-fang in a sweeping arc and landed the heavy hammer squarely onto the verbeeg’s chest. The monster dropped on its back, the air literally blasted from its lungs. Wulfgar reversed his swing quickly and launched Aegis-fang in the opposite direction. The lead giant spun about just in time to catch it in the face.

Without hesitation, Wulfgar pounced on the closest giant he had felled, wrapping his powerful arms around the monster’s massive neck. The giant recovered quickly and put the barbarian in a bear hug, and though it was still sitting, it had little trouble lifting its smaller foe completely off the ground. But the years swinging a hammer and chopping stone in the dwarven mines had imbued the barbarian with the strength of iron. He tightened his grasp on the giant and slowly rotated his knotted arms. With a loud snap, the verbeeg’s head lolled to the side.

The giant that Drizzt had blinded flailed about wildly with its huge club. The drow kept in constant motion, dancing around to each flank as the opportunity allowed, driving home thrust after thrust into the helpless monster. Drizzt aimed for any vital area he could safely reach, hoping to efficiently finish off his opponent.

Aegis-fang now securely back in his hands, Wulfgar walked over to the verbeeg he had struck in the face to make sure that it was dead. He kept an eye cautiously focused down the trail for any sign of the returning Guenhwyvar. Having seen the powerful cat at work, he had no desire to engage with it personally.

When the last giant lay dead, Drizzt moved down the path to join his friend. “You have not yet come to understand your own prowess in battle!” he laughed, slapping the big man on the back. “Six giants are not beyond our ability!”

“Now do we go to find Bruenor?” Wulfgar asked, though he saw the fire still flickering dangerously in the drow’s lavender eyes. He realized that they weren’t leaving yet.

“No need,” Drizzt replied. “I am confident that the dwarves have their situation well in hand.

“But we do have a problem,” he continued. “We were able to kill the first group of giants and still retain the element of surprise. Very soon, though, with six more missing, the lair will become alert to any hint of danger.”

“The dwarves should return in the morning,” said Wulfgar. “We can attack the lair before midday.”

“Too late,” Drizzt said, pretending disappointment. “I fear that you and I may have to strike at them tonight, without delay.”

Wulfgar wasn’t surprised; he didn’t even argue. He feared that he and the drow were taking on too much, that the drow’s plan was too outrageous, but he was starting to accept one indisputable fact: He would follow Drizzt into any adventure, no matter how improbable their chances of surviving.

And he was beginning to admit to himself that he enjoyed gambling alongside the dark elf.