The Crystal Shard 20. A Slave to No Man

The Crystal Shard 20. A Slave to No Man

“No arguin’,” Bruenor snarled, though none of his four friends standing beside him on the rocky slopes of the climb had any intention of speaking against the decision. In their foolish pettiness and pride, the majority of the spokesmen had doomed their communities to almost certain destruction and neither Drizzt, Wulfgar, Catti-brie, nor Regis expected the dwarves to join in such a hopeless cause.

“When will you block the mines?” Drizzt asked. The drow hadn’t yet decided if he would join the dwarves in the self-imposed prison of their caves, but he had planned to act as scout to Bryn Shander at least until Akar Kessell’s army moved into the region.

“The preparin’ll begin tonight,” said Bruenor. “But once they’re in place, we’ve no rush. We’ll let the stinkin’ orcs come right down our throats afore we drop the tunnels, an’ take ’em in the fall! Are ye to stay with us, then?”

Drizzt shrugged his shoulders. Though he was still shunned by most of the people of Ten-Towns, the drow felt a strong sense of loyalty and wasn’t sure that he could turn his back on his chosen home, even under suicidal circumstances. And Drizzt had little desire to return to the lightless underworld, even in the hospitable caverns of the dwarven town.

“And what’s yer decision?” Bruenor asked Regis.

The halfling, too, was torn between his instincts for survival and his loyalty to Ten-Towns. With the help of the ruby, he had lived well during the last years on Maer Dualdon. But now his cover had been stripped away. After the rumors flowing out of the council, everyone in Bryn Shander whispered about the halfling’s magical influence. It wouldn’t be long before all of the communities heard about Kemp’s accusations and avoided, if not openly shunned, him. Either way, Regis knew that his days of easy living in Lonelywood were nearing an end.

“Thank you for the invitation,” he said to Bruenor. “I’ll come in before Kessell arrives.”

“Good,” replied the dwarf. “Ye’ll get a room near the boy, so none o’ the dwarves has to hear yer bellyachin’!” He flashed Drizzt a good-natured wink.

“Nay,” said Wulfgar. Bruenor looked at him curiously, misunderstanding the barbarian’s intentions and wondering why he objected to having Regis beside him.

“Watch yerself, boy,” the dwarf teased. “If ye’re thinkin’ ye’re to be stayin’ beside the girl, then be thinkin’ about duckin’ yer head from the swing o’ me axe!”

Catti-brie chuckled softly, embarrassed yet truly touched.

“Your mines are not the place for me,” Wulfgar said suddenly. “My life is on the plain.”

“Ye forget that yer life is mine for choosin’!” Bruenor retorted. In truth, his yelling was more the short temper of a father than the outrage of a master.

Wulfgar rose before the dwarf, proud and stern. Drizzt understood and was pleased. Now Bruenor also had an idea of what the barbarian was getting at, and though he hated the thought of separation, he felt more pride in the boy at that moment than ever before.

“My time of indenture is not ended,” Wulfgar began, “yet I have repaid my debt to you, my friend, and to your people many times over.

“I am Wulfgar!” he proudly proclaimed, his jaw firm and his muscles tightened with tension. “No more a boy but a man! A free man!”

Bruenor felt the moisture rimming his eves. For the first time he did nothing to conceal it. He walked out before the huge barbarian and returned Wulfgar’s unyielding stare with a look of sincere admiration.

“So ye are,” Bruenor observed. “Then might I ask ye, on yer choice, if ye’ll stay and fight beside me?”

Wulfgar shook his head. “My debt to you is paid, in truth. And forever I shall name you as my friend…dear friend. But I have another debt yet to pay.” He looked out to Kelvin’s Cairn and beyond. The countless stars shone clearly over the tundra, making the open plain seem even more vast and empty. “Out there, in another world.”

Catti-brie sighed and shuffled uncomfortably. She alone fully understood the vague picture that Wulfgar was painting. And she wasn’t pleased with his choice.

Bruenor nodded, respecting the barbarian’s decision. “Go then, and live well,” he said, straining to hold his breaking voice even as he moved to the rocky trail. He paused for one last moment and looked back at the tall, young barbarian. “Yer a man, there’s none to argue that,” he said over his shoulder. “But don’t ye never forget that ever ye’ll be me boy!”

“I shan’t,” Wulfgar whispered softly as Bruenor disappeared into the tunnel. He felt Drizzt’s hand on his shoulder.

“When do you leave?” the drow asked.

“Tonight,” Wulfgar replied. “These grim days offer no leisure.”

“And where do you go?” Catti-brie asked, already knowing the truth, and also the vague answer that Wulfgar would give.

The barbarian turned his misty gaze back out to the plain. “Home.”

He started back down the trail, Regis following. But Catti-brie waited behind and motioned for Drizzt to do likewise.

“Say your farewells to Wulfgar this night,” she told the drow. “I do not believe that he shall ever return.”

“Home is a place for him to choose,” Drizzt replied, guessing that the news about Heafstaag joining Kessell had played a part in Wulfgar’s decision. He watched the departing barbarian with respect. “He has some private matters to attend to.”

“More than you know,” Catti-brie said. Drizzt looked at her curiously. “Wulfgar has an adventure in mind,” she explained. She hadn’t meant to break her trust with Wulfgar, but figured that Drizzt Do’Urden, above anyone else, might be able to find a way to help. “One that I believe has been put upon him before he is ready.”

“Matters of the tribe are his own business,” Drizzt said, guessing what the girl was suggesting. “The barbarians have their own ways and do not welcome outsiders.”

“Of the tribes, I agree,” said Catti-brie. “Yet Wulfgar’s path, unless I am mistaken, does not lead directly home. He has something else ahead of him, an adventure that he has often hinted at but never fully explained. I only know that it involves great danger and a vow that even he fears is above his ability to fulfil alone.”

Drizzt looked over the starry plain and considered the girl’s words. He knew Catti-brie to be shrewd and observant beyond her years. He did not doubt her guesses.

The stars twinkled above the cool night, the celestial dome engulfing the flat rim of the horizon. A horizon as yet unmarked by the fires of an advancing army, Drizzt noted.

Perhaps he had time.

* * *

Although Cassius’s proclamation reached even the most remote of the towns within two days, few groups of refugees came down the roads to Bryn Shander. Cassius had fully expected this, or he never would have made the bold offer of sheltering all who would come. Bryn Shander was a fair-sized city, and her present population was not as large as it had once been. There were many vacant buildings within the walls, and an entire section of the city, reserved for visiting merchant caravans, lay empty at the present time. However, if even half of the people of the other nine communities sought refuge, Cassius would be hard-pressed to honor his pledge.

The spokesman wasn’t worried. The people of Ten-Towns were a hardy folk and lived under the threat of a goblin invasion every day. Cassius knew that it would take more than an abstract warning to make them leave their homes. And with the allegiance between the towns at such a low point, few of the town leaders would take any action at all to convince their people to flee.

As it turned out, Glensather and Agorwal were the only spokesmen to arrive at the gates of Bryn Shander. Nearly all of Easthaven stood behind their leader, but Agorwal had less than half of the people of Termalaine behind him. The rumors from the arrogant city of Targos, itself nearly as well-defended as Bryn Shander, made it clear that none of its people would leave. Many of Termalaine’s fishermen, fearing the economic advantage that Targos would gain over them, had refused to give up the most lucrative month of the fishing season.

Such was the case with Caer-Konig and Caer-Dineval. Neither of the bitter enemies dared give any edge to the other, and not a single person from either city fled to Bryn Shander. To the people of these embattled communities, the orcs were but a distant threat that would have to be dealt with if it ever materialized, but the fighting with their immediate neighbors was brutally real and evident in all of their daily routines.

On the western outskirts, the town of Bremen remained fiercely independent of the other communities, viewing Cassius’s offer as a feeble attempt by Bryn Shander to reaffirm its position of leadership. Good Mead and Dougan’s Hole in the south had no intention of hiding in the walled city or of sending any troops to aid in the fighting. These two towns on Redwaters, smallest of the lakes and poorest in terms of knuckleheads, could not afford any time away from the boats. They had heeded the call for unity five years previous under the threat of a barbarian invasion, and though they had suffered the worst losses of all the towns in the battle, they had gained the least.

Several groups filtered in from Lonelywood, but many of the folk of the northernmost town preferred to stay out of the way. Their hero had lost face, and even Muldoon now viewed the halfling in a different light and passed the warning of invasion off as a misunderstanding, or perhaps even a calculated hoax.

The greater good of the region had fallen beneath the lesser personal gains of stubborn pride, with most of the people of Ten-Towns confusing unity with dependence.

* * *

Regis returned to Bryn Shander to make some personal arrangements on the morning after Wulfgar departed. He had a friend coming from Lonelywood with his prized belongings, so he remained in the city, watching in dismay as the days drifted by without any real preparations being made to meet the coming army. Even after the council, the halfling had held out some hope that the people would realize the impending doom and band together, but now he came to believe that the dwarves’ decision to abandon Ten-Towns and lock themselves into their mines was the only option they had if they wished to survive.

Regis partially blamed himself for the coming tragedy, convinced that he had gotten careless. When he and Drizzt had concocted plans to use political situations and the power of the ruby to force the towns into unity against the barbarians, they had spent many hours predicting the initial responses of the spokesmen and weighing the worth of each town’s alliance. This time, though, Regis had placed more faith in the people of Ten-Towns and in the stone, figuring that he could simply employ its power to sway any of the few remaining doubters of the severity of the situation.

Yet Regis could not sustain his own guilt as he heard the arrogant and mistrusting responses coming in from the towns. Why should he have to trick the people into defending themselves? If they were stupid enough to let their own pride bring about their destruction, then what responsibility, or even what right, did he have to rescue them?

“You get what you deserve!” the halfling said aloud, smiling in spite of himself when he realized that he was beginning to sound as cynical as Bruenor.

But callousness was his only protection against such a helpless situation. He hoped that his friend from Lonelywood would arrive soon.

His sanctuary lay underground.

* * *

Akar Kessell sat on the crystal throne in the Hall of Scrying, the third level of Cryshal-Tirith, his fingers tapping nervously on the arm of the great chair as he stared intently at the dark mirror before him. Biggrin was long overdue with the report on the reinforcement caravan. The last summons the wizard had received from the lair had been suspicious, with no one on the end to greet his reply. Now the mirror in the lair revealed only blackness, resisting all of the wizard’s attempts to scry out the room.

If the mirror had been broken, Kessell would have been able to sense the shift in his visions. But this was more mysterious, for something he could not understand was blocking his distance sight. The dilemma unnerved him, made him think that he had been deceived or discovered. His fingers continued to rap nervously.

“Perhaps it is time to make a decision,” Errtu, in its customary place at the side of the wizard’s throne, suggested.

“We have not yet reached our fullest strength!” Kessell retorted. “Many goblin tribes and a large clan of giants have not come in. And the barbarians are not yet ready.”

“The troops thirst for battle,” Errtu pointed out. “They fight with each other – you may find that your army will soon fall apart around you!”

Kessell agreed that holding so many goblin tribes together for long was a risky and dangerous proposition. Perhaps it would be better if they marched at once. But still, the wizard wanted to be certain. He wanted his forces at their strongest.

“Where is Biggrin?” Kessell wailed. “Why hasn’t he answered my summons?”

“What preparations are the humans now making?” Errtu asked abruptly.

But Kessell was not listening. He rubbed the sweat from his face. Maybe the shard and the demon had been right about sending the less-conspicuous barbarians to the lair. What must the fishermen be thinking if they found such an unusual combination of monsters lairing in their area? How much had they guessed?

Errtu noted Kessell’s discomfort with grim satisfaction. The demon and the shard had been pushing Kessell to strike much earlier, as soon as Biggrin’s messages had stopped coming in. But the cowardly wizard, needing more assurance that his numbers were overwhelming, had continued to delay.

“Shall I go to the troops?” Errtu asked, confident that Kessell’s resistance was gone.

“Send runners to the barbarians and to the tribes that have not yet joined us,” Kessell instructed. “Tell them that to fight beside us is to join in the feast of victory! But those who do not fight beside us shall fall before us! Tomorrow we march!”

Errtu rushed from the tower without delay, and soon cheers for the onset of war echoed throughout the huge encampment. Goblins and giants raced excitedly about, breaking down tents and packing supplies. They had anticipated this moment for long weeks, and now they wasted no tine in making the final preparations.

That same night, the vast army of Akar Kessell pulled up its camp and began its long march toward Ten-Towns.

Back in the routed verbeeg lair, the scrying mirror sat unmoved and unbroken, securely covered by the heavy blanket that Drizzt Do’Urden had thrown over it.