The Crystal Shard 19. Grim Tidings

The Crystal Shard 19. Grim Tidings

Drizzt padded through the tunnels and past the bodies of the dead giants, slowing only to grab another hunk of mutton from the large table. He crossed through the support beams and started down the dim hallway, tempering his eagerness with common sense. If the giants had hidden their treasure down here, the chamber holding it might be behind a concealed door, or there might even be some beast, though not likely another giant, since it would have joined in the fighting.

The tunnel was quite long, running straight northward, and Drizzt figured that he was now moving underneath the mass of Kelvin’s Cairn. He had passed the last torch, but he was glad for the darkness. He had lived the majority of his life traveling tunnels in the lightless subterranean world of his people, and his large eyes guided him in absolute darkness more accurately than in areas of light.

The hallway ended abruptly at a barred, iron-bound door, its metal holding bar locked into place by a large chain and padlock. Drizzt felt a pang of guilt for leaving Wulfgar behind. The drow had two weaknesses; foremost was the thrill of battle, but a close second the tingle of uncovering the booty of his vanquished foes. It wasn’t the gold or gems that lured Drizzt; he didn’t care for wealth and rarely even kept any of the treasures he had won. It was simply the thrill of viewing them for the first time, the excitement of sifting through them and, perhaps, discovering some incredible artifact that had been lost to knowledge in ages past, or maybe the spellbook of an ancient and powerful mage.

His guilt feelings flew away as he pulled a small lockpick from his beltpouch. He had never been formally trained in the thieving arts, but he was as agile and coordinated as any master burglar. With his sensitive fingers and acute hearing, he wasn’t particularly challenged by the clumsy lock; in a matter of seconds, it fell open. Drizzt listened carefully for any sounds behind the door. Hearing none, he gently lifted the large bar and set it aside. Listening one last time, he drew one of his scimitars, held his breath in anticipation, and pushed in the door.

His breath came back out with a disappointed sigh. The room beyond glowed with the waning light of two torches. It was small and empty, except for a large, metal-rimmed mirror standing in its center. Drizzt dodged out of the mirror’s path, well aware of some of the strange magical properties these items had been known to exhibit, and moved in to examine it more closely.

It was about half the height of a man but propped up to eye level by an intricately worked iron stand. That it was lined in silver and in such an out-of-the-way chamber led Drizzt to believe that there was something more here than an ordinary mirror. Yet his scrutinizing inspection revealed no arcane runes or markings of any kind that hinted at its properties.

Able to discover nothing unusual about the piece, Drizzt carelessly stepped in front of the glass. Suddenly a pinkish mist began to swirl within the mirror, giving the appearance of a three-dimensional space trapped within the flatness of the glass. Drizzt jumped to the side, more curious than afraid, and watched the growing spectacle.

The mist thickened and puffed as though fed by some hidden fire. Then its center mushroomed out and opened into a clear image of a man’s face, a gaunt, hollowed visage painted in the tradition of some of the southern cities.

“Why do you bother me?” the face asked at the empty room before the mirror. Drizzt took another step to the side, further away from the apparition’s line of sight. He considered confronting the mysterious mage, but figured that his friends had too much at stake for him to take such a reckless chance.

“Stand before me, Biggrin!” commanded the image. It waited for several seconds, sneering impatiently, and growing increasingly tense. “When I discover which of you idiots inadvertently summoned me, I shall turn you into a coney and put you in a pit of wolves!” the image screamed wildly. The mirror flashed suddenly and returned to normal.

Drizzt scratched his chin and wondered if there was anything more he could do or discover here. He decided that the risks were simply too great at this time.

* * *

When Drizzt returned through the lair, he found Wulfgar sitting with Guenhwyvar in the main passage just a few yards from the closed and barred front doors. The barbarian stroked the cat’s muscled shoulders and neck.

“I see that Guenhwyvar has won your friendship,” Drizzt said as he approached.

Wulfgar smiled. “A fine ally,” he said, giving the animal a playful shake. “And a true warrior!” He started to rise but was thrown violently back to the floor.

An explosion rocked the lair as a ballista bolt slammed into the heavy doors, splintering their wooden bar and blasting them in. One of the doors broke cleanly in half and the other’s top hinge tore away, leaving the door hanging awkwardly by its twisted bottom hinge.

Drizzt drew his scimitar and stood protectively over Wulfgar as the barbarian tried to regain his balance.

Abruptly a bearded fighter leaped onto the hanging door, a circular shield, its standard a mug of foaming ale, slung over one arm and a notched and bloodstained battle-ax poised in the other. “Come out and play, giants!” Bruenor called, banging his shield with his axe – as if his clan hadn’t already made enough noise to rouse the lair!

“Rest easy, wild dwarf,” Drizzt laughed. “The verbeeg are all dead.”

Bruenor spotted his friends and hopped down into the tunnel, soon followed by the rest of the rowdy clan. “All dead!” the dwarf cried. “Damn ye, elf, I knew ye’d keep all the play to yerself!”

“What about the reinforcements?” Wulfgar asked.

Bruenor chuckled wickedly. “Some faith, will ye, boy? They’re lumped in a common hole, though buryin’s too good for ’em, I say! Only one’s alive, a miserable orc who’ll breath only as long as ‘e wags ‘is stinkin’ tongue!”

After the episode with the mirror, Drizzt was more than a little interested in interrogating the orc. “Have you questioned him?” he asked Bruenor.

“Ah, he’s mum to now,” the dwarf replied. “But I’ve a few things should make ‘im squeal!”

Drizzt knew better. Orcs were not loyal creatures, but under the enchantment of a mage, torturing techniques weren’t usually much good. They needed something to counteract the magic, and Drizzt had a notion of what might work. “Go for Regis,” he instructed Bruenor. “The halfling can make the orc tell us everything we want to know.”

“Torturin’d be more fun,” lamented Bruenor, but he, too, understood the wisdom of the drow’s suggestion. He was more than a bit curious – and worried – about so many giants working together. And now with orcs beside them…

* * *

Drizzt and Wulfgar sat in the far corner of the small chamber, as far from Bruenor and the other two dwarves as they could get. One of Bruenor’s troops had returned from Lonelywood with Regis that same night, and though they were all exhausted from marching and fighting, they were too anxious about the impending information to sleep. Regis and the captive orc had moved into the adjoining room for a private conversation as soon as the halfling had gotten the prisoner firmly under his control with his ruby pendant.

Bruenor busied himself preparing a new recipe – giant-brain stew – boiling the wretched, foul-smelling ingredients right in a hollowed-out verbeeg skull. “Use yer heads!” he had argued in response to Drizzt and Wulfgar’s expressions of horror and disgust. “A barnyard goose tastes better ‘an a wild one cause it don’t use its muscles. The same oughta hold true for a giant’s brains!”

Drizzt and Wulfgar hadn’t seen things quite the same way. They didn’t want to leave the area and miss anything that Regis might have to say, though, so they huddled in the farthest corner of the room, carrying on a private conversation.

Bruenor strained to hear them, for they were talking of something that he had more than a passing interest in.

“Half for the last one in the kitchen,” Wulfgar insisted, “and half for the cat.”

“And you only get half for the one at the chasm,” Drizzt retorted.

“Agreed,” said Wulfgar. “And we split the one in the hall and Biggrin down the middle?”

Drizzt nodded. “Then with all halves and shared kills added up, it’s ten and one-half for me and ten and one-half for you.”

“And four for the cat,” added Wulfgar.

“Four for the cat,” Drizzt echoed. “Well fought, friend. You’ve held your own up to now, but I’ve a feeling that we have a lot more fighting before us, and my greater experience will win out in the end!”

“You grow old, good elf,” Wulfgar teased, leaning back against the wall, the whiteness of a confident grin showing through his blond beard. “We shall see. We shall see.”

Bruenor, too, was smiling, both at the good-natured competition between his friends and at his continued pride in the young barbarian. Wulfgar was doing well to keep pace with a skilled veteran like Drizzt Do’Urden.

Regis emerged from the room, and the gray pall upon his usually jovial face deadened the lighthearted atmosphere. “We are in trouble,” the halfling said grimly.

“Where’s the orc?” Bruenor demanded as he pulled his axe from his belt, misunderstanding the halfling’s meaning.

“In there. He’s all right,” Regis replied. The orc had been happy to tell its new-found friend everything about Akar Kessell’s plans to invade Ten-Towns and the size of the gathering forces. Regis visibly trembled as he told his friends the news.

“All of the orc and goblin tribes and verbeeg clans of this region of the Spine of the World are banding together under a sorcerer named Akar Kessell,” the halfling began. Drizzt and Wulfgar looked at each other, recognizing Kessell’s name. The barbarian had thought Akar Kessell to be a huge frost giant when the verbeeg had spoken of him, but Drizzt had suspected differently, especially after the incident at the mirror.

“They plan to attack Ten-Towns,” Regis continued. “And even the barbarians, led by some mighty, one-eyed leader, have joined their ranks!”

Wulfgar’s face reddened in anger and embarrassment. His people fighting beside orcs! He knew the leader that Regis spoke of, for Wulfgar was of the Tribe of the Elk and had even once carried the tribe’s standard as Heafstaag’s herald. Drizzt painfully recalled the one-eyed king, too. He put a comforting hand on Wulfgar’s shoulder.

“Go to Bryn Shander,” the drow told Bruenor and Regis. “The people must prepare.”

Regis winced at the futility. If the orc’s estimation of the assembling army had been correct, all of Ten-Towns joined together could not withstand the assault. The halfling dropped his head and mouthed silently, not wanting to alarm his friends any more than was necessary, “We have to leave!”

* * *

Though Bruenor and Regis were able to convince Cassius of the urgency and importance of their news, it took several days to round up the other spokesmen for council. It was the height of knucklehead season, late summer, and the last push was on to land a big catch for the final trading caravan to Luskan. The spokesmen of the nine fishing villages understood their responsibilities to their community, but they were reluctant to leave the lakes even for a single day.

And so, with the exceptions of Cassius of Bryn Shander, Muldoon, the new spokesman from Lonelywood, who looked up to Regis as the hero of his town, Glensather of Easthaven, the community ever-willing to join in for the good of Ten-Towns, and Agorwal of Termalaine who held fierce loyalty to Bruenor, the mood of the council was not very receptive.

Kemp, still bearing a grudge against Bruenor for the incident over Drizzt after the Battle of Bryn Shander, was especially disruptive. Before Cassius even had the opportunity to present the Formalities of Order, the gruff spokesman from Targos leaped up from his seat and slammed his fists down on the table. “Damn the formal readings and be on with it!” Kemp growled. “By what right do you order us in from the lakes, Cassius? Even as we sit around this table, the merchants in Luskan are preparing for their journey!”

“We have news of an invasion, Spokesman Kemp,” Cassius answered calmly, understanding the fisherman’s anger. “I would not have summoned you, any of you, at this time of the season if it were not urgent.”

“Then the rumors are true,” Kemp sneered. “An invasion, you say? Bah! I see beyond this sham of a council!”

He turned on Agorwal. The fighting between Targos and Termalaine had escalated in the past few weeks, despite Cassius’s efforts to diffuse it and bring the principles of the warring towns to the bargaining table. Agorwal had agreed to a meeting, but Kemp was steadfastly against it. And so, with suspicions running high, the timing of this urgent council could not have been worse.

“This is a pitiful attempt indeed!” Kemp roared. He looked around at his fellow spokesmen. “A pitiful effort by Agorwal and his scheming supporters to bring about a favorable settlement for Termalaine in their dispute with Targos!”

Incited by the aura of suspicion that Kemp had infused, Schermont, the new spokesman from Caer-Konig, pointed an accusing finger at Jensin Brent of Caer-Dineval. “What part have you played in this treachery?” he spat at his bitter rival. Schermont had come into his position after the first spokesman from Caer-Konig had been killed on the waters of Lac Dinneshere in a battle with a Dineval boat. Dorim Lugar had been Schermont’s friend and leader, and the new spokesman’s policies toward hated Caer-Dineval were even more iron-handed than those of his predecessor.

Regis and Bruenor sat back quietly in helpless dismay through all of the initial bickering. Finally Cassius slammed his gavel down, snapping its handle in two, and quieting the others long enough to make a point.

“A few moments of silence!” he commanded. “Hold your venomous words and listen to the messenger of grim tidings!” The others fell back to their seats and remained silent, but Cassius feared that the damage had already been done.

He turned the floor over to Regis.

Honestly terrified by what he had learned from the captive orc, Regis passionately told of the battle his friends had won over the verbeeg lair and on the grass of Daledrop. “And Bruenor has captured one of the orcs that was escorting the giants,” he said emphatically. Some of the spokesmen sucked in their breath at the notion of such creatures banding together, but Kemp and some of the others, ever suspicious of the more immediate threats of their rivals, and already decided on the true purpose of the meeting, remained unconvinced.

“The orc told us,” Regis continued grimly, “of the coming of a powerful wizard, Akar Kessell, and his vast host of goblins and giants! They mean to conquer Ten-Towns!” He thought that his dramatics would prove effective.

But Kemp was outraged. “On the word of an orc, Cassius? You summoned us in from the lakes at this critical time on the threat of a stinking orc?”

“The halfling’s tale is not an uncommon one,” Schermont added. “All of us have heard a captured goblin wag its tongue in any direction it could think of to save its worthless head.”

“Or perhaps you had other motives,” Kemp hissed, again eyeing Agorwal.

Cassius, though he truly believed the grim tidings, sat back in his chair and said nothing. With tensions on the lakes as high as they were, and the final trading fair of a particularly fruitless fishing season fast approaching, he had suspected that this would occur. He looked resignedly at Bruenor and Regis and shrugged as once again the council degenerated into a shouting match.

Amidst the ensuing commotion, Regis slipped the ruby pendant out from under his waistcoat and nudged Bruenor.

They looked at it and each other in disappointment; they had hoped that the magical gem wouldn’t be needed.

Regis pounded his gavel in a call for the floor and was granted it by Cassius. Then, as he had done five years previous, he hopped up on the table and walked toward his chief antagonist.

But this time the result wasn’t what Regis had expected. Kemp had spent many hours over the last five years reflecting on that council before the barbarian invasion. The spokesman was glad of the final outcome of that whole situation, and, in truth, realized that he and all of Ten-Towns were indebted to the halfling for making them heed his warning. Yet it bothered Kemp more than a little that his initial stance had been so easily swayed. He was a brawling type whose first love, even above fishing, was battle, but his mind was keen and always-alert to danger. He had observed Regis several times over the last few years and had listened intently to tales of the halfling’s prowess in the art of persuasion. As Regis approached, the burly spokesman averted his eyes.

“Be gone trickster!” he growled, shoving his chair defensively back from the table. “You seem to have a strange way of convincing people of your point of view, but I’ll not fall under your spell this time!” He addressed the other spokesmen. “Ware the halfling! He has some magic about him, be sure!”

Kemp understood that he would have no way of proving his claims, but he also realized that he wouldn’t have to. Regis looked about, flustered and unable to even answer the spokesman’s accusations. Even Agorwal, though the spokesman from Termalaine tactfully tried to hide the fact, would no longer look Regis straight in the eye.

“Sit down, trickster!” Kemp taunted. “Your magic’s no good once we’re on to you!”

Bruenor, silent up to now, suddenly leaped up, his face contorted with rage. “Is this, too, a trick, dog of Targos?” the dwarf challenged. He pulled a sack from his belt and rolled its contents, a severed verbeeg head, down the table toward Kemp. Several of the spokesmen jumped back in horror, but Kemp remained unshaken.

“We have dealt with rogue giants many times before,” the spokesman replied coolly.

“Rogues?” Bruenor echoed incredulously. “Two score o’ the beasts we cut down, orcs and ogres besides!”

“A passing band,” Kemp explained evenly, stubbornly. “And all dead, so you have said. Why, then, does this become a matter for the council? If it is accolades you desire, mighty dwarf, then you shall have them!” His voice dripped with venom, and he watched Bruenor’s reddening face with deep pleasure. “Perhaps Cassius could make a speech in your honor before all of the people of Ten-Towns.” Bruenor slammed his fists onto the table, eyeing all of the men about him in an open threat to anyone who would continue Kemp’s insults. “We have come before ye to help ye save yer homes an’ yer kin!” he roared. “Might be that ye believe us and ye’ll do something to survive. Or might be that ye’ll hear the words o’ the dog o’ Targos and ye’ll do nothin’. Either way, I’ve had enough o’ ye! Do as ye will, and may yer gods show ye favor!” He turned and stalked out of the room.

Bruenor’s grim tone brought many of the spokesmen to realize that the threat was simply too grave to be passed off as the deception of a desperate captive, or even as a more insidious plan by Cassius and some conspirators. Yet Kemp, proud and arrogant, and certain that Agorwal and his non-human friends, the halfling and the dwarf, were using the facade of an invasion to gain some advantage over the superior city of Targos, would not budge. Second only to Cassius in all of Ten-Towns, Kemp’s opinion carried great weight, especially to the people of Caer-Konig and Caer-Dineval, who, in light of Bryn Shander’s unshakable neutrality in their struggle, sought the favor of Targos.

Enough spokesmen remained suspicious of their rivals and were willing to accept Kemp’s explanation to prevent Cassius from bringing the council to decisive action. The lines were soon clearly drawn.

Regis watched the spectacle as the opposing sides volleyed back and forth, but the halfling’s own credibility had been destroyed, and he had no impact on the rest of the meeting. In the end, little was decided. The most that Agorwal, Glensather, and Muldoon could squeeze out of public declaration that, “A general warning should go out to every household in Ten-Towns. Let the people know of our grim tidings, and let them be assured that I shall make room within the walls of Bryn Shander for every person who so desires our protection.”

Regis eyed the divided spokesmen. Without unity, the halfling wondered how much protection even the high walls of Bryn Shander could offer.