The Crystal Shard 22. By Blood or by Deed

The Crystal Shard 22. By Blood or by Deed

The heat of a small fire brought Wulfgar back to consciousness. He came to his senses groggily and, at first, could not comprehend his surroundings as he wriggled out of a blanket that he did not remember bringing. Then he recognized Icingdeath, lying dead just a few yards away, the huge icicle rooted firmly in the dragon’s back. The globe of darkness had dissipated, and Wulfgar gawked at how accurate the drow’s approximated bowshots had been. One arrow protruded from the dragon’s left eye, and the black shafts of two others stuck out from the mouth.

Wulfgar reached down to grasp the security of Aegisfang’s familiar handle. But the hammer was nowhere near him. Fighting the pervading numbness in his legs, the barbarian managed to stand up, searching around frantically for his weapon. And where, he wondered, was the drow?

Then he heard the tapping coming from a side chamber. Stiff-legged, he moved cautiously around a bend. There was Drizzt, standing atop a hill of coins, breaking away its icy covering with Wulfgar’s warhammer.

Drizzt noticed Wulfgar approaching and bowed low in greeting. “Well met, Dragon’s Bane!” he called.

“And to you, friend elf,” Wulfgar responded, thoroughly pleased to see the drow again. “You have followed me a long way.”

“Not too far,” Drizzt replied, chopping another chunk of ice off the treasure. “There was little excitement to be found in Ten-Towns, and I could not let you forge ahead in our competition of kills! Ten and one-half to ten and one-half,” he declared, smiling broadly, “and a dragon to split between us. I claim half the kill!”

“Yours and well earned,” Wulfgar agreed. “And claim to half the booty.”

Drizzt revealed a small pouch hanging on a fine silver chain around his neck. “A few baubles,” he explained. “I need no riches and doubt that I would be able to carry much out of here, anyway! A few baubles will suffice.”

He sifted through the portion of the pile he had just freed from the ice, uncovering a gem-encrusted sword pommel, its black adamantite hilt masterfully sculpted into the likeness of the toothed maw of a hunting cat. The lure of the intricate workmanship pulled at Drizzt, and with trembling fingers he slid the rest of the weapon out from under the gold.

A scimitar. Its curving blade was of silver, and diamond-edged. Drizzt raised it before him, marveling at its lightness and perfect balance.

“A few baubles…and this,” he corrected.

* * *

Even before he had encountered the dragon, Wulfgar wondered how he would escape the underground caverns. “The current of the water is too strong and the ledge of the waterdrop too high to go back through Evermelt,” he said to Drizzt, though he knew that the drow would have surmised the same thing. “Even if we somehow find our way through those barriers, I have no more deer blubber to protect us from the cold when we leave the water.”

“I also have no mind to pass through the waters of Evermelt again,” Drizzt assured the barbarian. “Yet I rely on my considerable experience to bring me into such situations prepared! Thus the wood for the fire and the blanket that I put upon you, both wrapped in sealskin. And also this.” He produced a three-pronged grapple and some light but strong cord from his belt. He had already discovered an escape route.

Drizzt pointed up to a small hole in the roof above them. The icicle that had been dislodged by Aegis-fang had taken part of the chamber’s ceiling with it. “I cannot hope to throw the hook so high, but your mighty arms should find the toss a minor challenge.”

“In better times, perhaps,” relied Wulfgar. “But I have no strength to make the attempt.” The barbarian had come closer to death than he realized when the dragon’s breath had descended upon him, and with the adrenalin of the fight now used up, he felt the pervading cold keenly. “I fear that my unfeeling hands could not even close upon the hook!”

“Then run!” yelled the drow. “Let your chilled body warm itself.”

Wulfgar was off at once, jogging around the wide chamber, forcing his blood to circulate through his numbed legs and fingers. In a short while, he began to feel the inner warmth of his own body returning.

It took him only two throws to put the grapple through the hole and get it to catch fast on some ice. Drizzt was the first to go, the agile elf veritably running up the cord.

Wulfgar finished his business in the cavern, collecting a bag of riches and some other items he knew he would need. He had much more difficulty than Drizzt in ascending the cord, but with the drow’s assistance from above, he managed to scramble onto the ice before the westering sun dipped below the horizon.

They camped beside Evermelt, feasting on venison and enjoying a much-needed and well-deserved rest in the comfort of the warming vapors.

Then they were off again before dawn, running west. They ran side by side for two days, matching the frenzied pace that had brought them so far east. When they came upon the trails of the gathering barbarian tribes, both of them knew that the time had come for them to part.

“Farewell, good friend,” said Wulfgar as he bent low to inspect the trails. “I shall never forget what you have done for me.”

“And to you, Wulfgar,” Drizzt replied somberly. “May your mighty warhammer terrorize your enemies for years to come!” He sped off, not looking back, but wondering if he would ever see his large companion alive again.

* * *

Wulfgar put aside the urgency of his mission to pause and ponder his emotions when he first viewed the large encampment of the assembled tribes. Five years before, proudly carrying the standard of the Tribe of the Elk, the younger Wulfgar had marched to a similar gathering, singing the Song of Tempos and sharing strong mead with men who would fight, and possibly die, beside him. He had viewed battle differently then, as a glorious test of a warrior. “Innocent savagery,” he mumbled, listening to the contradiction of the words as he recalled his ignorance in those days so long ago. But his perceptions had undergone a considerable change. Bruenor and Drizzt, by becoming his friends and teaching him the intricacies of their world, had personalized the people he had previously looked upon merely as enemies, forcing him to face the brutal consequences of his actions.

A bitter bile welled in Wulfgar’s throat at the thought of the tribes launching another raid against Ten-Towns. Even more repulsive, his proud people were marching to war alongside goblins and giants.

As he neared the perimeter, he saw that there was no Hengorot, no ceremonial Mead Hall, in all the camp. A series of small tents, each bearing the respective standards of the tribal kings, comprised the center of the assembly, surrounded by the open campfires of common soldiers. By reviewing the banners, Wulfgar could see that nearly all of the tribes were present, but their combined strength was little more than half the size of the assembly five years previous. Drizzt’s observations that the barbarians hadn’t yet recovered from the massacre on Bryn Shander’s slopes rang painfully true.

Two guardsmen came out to meet Wulfgar. He had made no attempt to conceal his approach, and now he placed Aegis-fang at his feet and raised his hands to show that his intentions were honorable.

“Who are you that comes unescorted and uninvited to the council of Heafstaag?” asked one of the guards. He sized up the stranger, greatly impressed by Wulfgar’s obvious strength and by the mighty weapon lying at his feet. “Surely you are no beggar, noble warrior, yet you are unknown to us.”

“I am known to you, Revjak, son of Jorn the Red,” Wulfgar replied, recognizing the man as a fellow tribesman. “I am Wulfgar, son of Beornegar, warrior of the Tribe of the Elk. I was lost to you five years ago, when we marched upon Ten-Towns” he explained, carefully choosing his phrases to avoid the subject of their defeat. Barbarians did not talk of such unpleasant memories.

Revjak studied the young man closely. He had been friends with Beornegar, and he remembered the boy, Wulfgar. He counted the years, comparing the boy’s age when he last saw him against the apparent age of this young man. He was soon satisfied that the similarities were more than coincidental. “Welcome home, young warrior!” he said warmly. “You have fared well!”

“I have indeed,” replied Wulfgar. “I have seen great and wondrous things and learned much wisdom. Many are the tales that I shall tell, but, in truth, I have not the time to idly converse. I have come to see Heafstaag.”

Revjak nodded and immediately began leading Wulfgar through the rows of firepits. “Heafstaag will be glad of your return.”

Too quietly to be heard Wulfgar replied, “Not so glad.”

* * *

A curious crowd gathered around the impressive young warrior as he neared the central tent of the encampment. Revjak went inside to announce Wulfgar to Heafstaag and returned immediately with the king’s permission for Wulfgar to enter.

Wulfgar hoisted Aegis-fang upon his shoulder, but did not move toward the flap that Revjak held open. “What I have to say shall be spoken openly and before all the people,” he said loudly enough for Heafstaag to hear. “Let Heafstaag come to me!”

Confused murmurs sprouted up all about him at these words of challenge, for the rumors that had been running throughout the crowd did not speak of Wulfgar, the son of Beornegar, as a descendant of royal bloodlines.

Heafstaag rushed out of the tent. He moved to within a few feet of the challenger, his chest puffed out and his one good eye glaring at Wulfgar. The crowd hushed, expecting the ruthless king to slay the impertinent youth at once.

But Wulfgar matched Heafstaag’s dangerous stare and did not back away an inch. “I am Wulfgar,” he proclaimed proudly, “son of Beornegar, son of Beorne before him; warrior of the Tribe of the Elk, who fought at the Battle of Bryn Shander; wielder of Aegis-fang, the Giant Foe,” he held the great hammer high before him, “friend to dwarven craftsmen and student to a ranger of Gwaeron Windstrom; giantkiller and lair-invader; slayer of the frost giant chieftain, Biggrin,” he paused for a moment, his eyes squinted by a spreading smile, heightening the anticipation of his next proclamation. When he was satisfied that he held the crowd’s fullest attention, he continued, “I am Wulfgar, Dragon’s bane!”

Heafstaag flinched. No living man on all the tundra had claim to such a lofty title.

“I claim the Right of Challenge,” Wulfgar growled in a low, threatening tone.

“I shall kill you,” Heafstaag replied with as much calm as he could muster. He feared no man, but was wary of Wulfgar’s huge shoulders and corded muscles. The king had no intention of risking his position at this time, on the brink of an apparent victory over the fishermen of Ten-Towns. If he could discredit the young warrior, then the people would never allow such a fight. They would force Wulfgar to relinquish his claim, or they would kill him at once. “By what birthright do you make such a claim?”

“You would lead our people at the beckon of a wizard,” Wulfgar retorted. He listened closely to the sounds of the crowd to measure their approval or disapproval of his accusation. “You would have them raise their swords in a common cause with goblins and orcs!” No one dared protest aloud, but Wulfgar could sense that many of the other warriors were secretly enraged about the coming battle. That would explain the absence of the Mead Hall, as well, for Heafstaag was wise enough to realize that simmering anger often exploded in the high emotions of such a celebration.

Revjak interposed before Heafstaag could reply – with words or with weapon. “Son of Beornegar,” Revjak said firmly, “you have as yet earned no right to question the orders of the king. You have declared an open challenge; the rules of tradition demand that you justify, by blood or by deed, your right to such a fight.”

Excitement revealed itself in Revjak’s words, and Wulfgar knew immediately that his father’s old friend had intervened to prevent the start of an unrecognized, and therefore unofficial, brawl. The older man obviously had faith that the impressive young warrior could comply with the demands. And Wulfgar further sensed that Revjak, and perhaps many others, hoped the challenge would be successfully carried through.

Wulfgar straightened his shoulders and grinned confidently at his opponent, gaining strength in the continuing proof that his people were following Heafstaag’s ignoble course simply because they were bound to the one-eyed king and could produce no suitable challengers to defeat him.

“By deed,” he said evenly. Without releasing Heafstaag from his stare, Wulfgar unstrapped the rolled blanket he carried on his back and produced two spearlike objects. He tossed them casually to the ground before the King. Those in the crowd who could clearly see the spectacle gasped in unison, and even unshakable Heafstaag paled and rocked back a step.

“The challenge cannot be denied!” cried Revjak.

The horns of Icingdeath.

* * *

The cold sweat on Heafstaag’s face revealed his tension as he buffed the last burrs from the head of his huge axe. “Dragon’s bane!” he huffed unconvincingly to his standar bearer, who had just entered the tent. “More likely that he stumbled upon a sleeping worm!”

“Your pardon, mighty king,” the young man said. “Revjak has sent me to tell you that the appointed time is upon us.”

“Good!” sneered Heafstaag, running his thumb across the shining edge of the axe. “I shall teach the son of Beornegar to respect his king!”

The warriors from the Tribe of the Elk formed a circle around the combatants. Though this was a private event for Heafstaag’s people, the other tribes watched with interest from a respectable distance. The winner would hold no formal authority over them, but he would be the king of the most powerful and dominant tribe on the tundra.

Revjak stepped within the circle and moved between the two opponents. “I proclaim Heafstaag!” he cried. “King of the Tribe of the Elk!” He went on to read the one-eyed king’s long list of heroic deeds.

Heafstaag’s confidence seemed to return during the reciting, though he was a bit confused and angry that Revjak had chosen to proclaim him first. He placed his hands on his wide hips and glared around threateningly at the closest onlookers, smiling as they backed away from him, one by one. He did the same to his opponent, but again his bullying tactics failed to intimidate Wulfgar.

“And I proclaim Wulfgar,” Revjak continued, “son of Beornegar and challenger to the throne of the Tribe of the Elk!” The reciting of Wulfgar’s list took much less time than Heafstaag’s, of course. But the final deed that Revjak proclaimed brought a degree of parity to the two.

“Dragon’s bane!” Revjak cried, and the crowd, respectfully silent up to this point, excitedly began recounting the numerous rumors that had begun concerning Wulfgar’s slaying of Icingdeath.

Revjak looked to the two combatants and stepped out of the circle.

The moment of honor was upon them.

They waded around the circle of battle, cautiously stalking and measuring each other for hints of weakness. Wulfgar noted the impatience on Heafstaag’s face, a common flaw among barbarian warriors. He would have been much the same were it not for the blunt lessons of Drizzt Do’Urden. A thousand humiliating slaps from the drow’s scimitars had taught Wulfgar that the first blow was not nearly as important as the last.

Finally, Heafstaag snorted and roared in. Wulfgar also growled aloud, moving as if he would meet the charge head on. But then he sidestepped at the last moment and Heafstaag, pulled by the momentum of his heavy weapon, stumbled past his foe and into the first rank of onlookers.

The one-eyed king recovered quickly and charged back out, doubly enraged, or so Wulfgar believed. Heafstaag had been king for many years and had fought in countless battles. If he had never learned to adjust his fighting technique, he would have long ago been slain. He came at Wulfgar again, by all appearances more out of control than the first time. But when Wulfgar moved out of the path, he found Heafstaag’s great axe waiting for him. The one-eyed king, anticipating the dodge, swung his weapon sideways, gashing Wulfgar’s arm from shoulder to elbow.

Wulfgar reacted quickly, thrusting Aegis-fang out defensively to deter any follow-up attacks. He had little weight behind his swing, but its aim was true and the powerful hammer knocked Heafstaag back a step. Wulfgar took a moment to examine the blood on his arm.

He could continue the fight.

“You parry well,” Heafstaag growled as he squared off just a few steps from his challenger. “You would have served our people well in the ranks. A loss it is that I must kill you!” Again the axe arced in, raining blow after blow in a furious assault meant to end the fight quickly.

But compared to the whirring blades of Drizzt Do’Urden, Heafstaag’s axe seemed to move sluggishly. Wulfgar had no trouble deflecting the attacks, even countering now and then with a measured jab that thudded into Heafstaag’s broad chest.

Blood of frustration and weariness reddened the one-eyed king’s face. “A tiring opponent will often move with all of his strength at once,” Drizzt had explained to Wulfgar during the weeks of training. “But rarely will he move in the apparent direction, the direction that he thinks you think he is moving in!”

Wulfgar watched intently for the expected feint.

Resigned that he could not break through the skilled defenses of his younger and faster foe, the sweating king brought the great axe up over his head and lunged forward, yelling wildly to emphasize the attack.

But Wulfgar’s reflexes were honed to their finest fighting edge, and the over-emphasis that Heafstaag placed upon the attack told him to expect a change in direction. He raised Aegis-fang as if to block the feigned blow, but reversed his grip even as the axe dropped down off of Heafstaag’s shoulder and came in deceptively low in a sidelong swipe.

Trusting fully in his dwarven-crafted weapon, Wulfgar shifted his front foot back, turning to meet the oncoming blade with a similarly angled cut from Aegis-fang.

The heads of the two weapons slammed together with incredible force. Heafstaag’s axe shattered in his hands, and the violent vibrations knocked him backward to the ground.

Aegis-fang was unharmed. Wulfgar could have easily walked over and finished Heafstaag with a single blow.

Revjak clenched his fist in anticipation of Wulfgar’s imminent victory.

“Never confuse honor with stupidity!” Drizzt had scolded Wulfgar after his dangerous inaction with the dragon. But Wulfgar wanted more from this battle than to simply, win the leadership of his tribe; he wanted to leave a lasting impression on all of the witnesses. He dropped Aegis-fang to the ground and approached Heafstaag on even terms.

The barbarian king didn’t question his good fortune. He sprang at Wulfgar, wrapping his arms about the younger man in an attempt to drive him backward to the ground.

Wulfgar leaned forward to meet the attack, planting his mighty legs firmly, and stopped the heavier man in his tracks.

They grappled viciously, exchanging heavy blows before managing to lock each other close enough to render punches ineffective. Both combatants’ eyes were blue and puffy, bruises and cuts welled on face and chest alike.

Heafstaag was the wearier, though, his barrel chest heaving with each labored breath. He wrapped his arms around Wulfgar’s waist and tried again to twist his relentless opponent to the ground.

Then Wulfgar’s long fingers locked onto the sides of Heafstaag’s head. The younger man’s knuckles whitened, the huge muscles in his forearms and shoulders tightened. He began to squeeze.

Heafstaag knew at once that he was in trouble, for Wulfgar’s grip was mightier than a white bear’s. The king struggled wildly, his huge fists slugging into Wulfgar’s exposed ribs, hoping only to break Wulfgar’s deadly concentration.

This time one of Bruenor’s lessons spurred him on: “Think o’ the weasel, boy, take the minor hits, but never, never let ’em go once yer on!” His neck and shoulder muscles bulged as he drove the one-eyed king to his knees.

Horrified at the power of the grip, Heafstaag pulled at the younger man’s iron-hard forearms, trying vainly to relieve the growing pressure.

Wulfgar realized that he was about to kill one of his own tribe. “Yield!” he shouted at Heafstaag, seeking some more acceptable alternative.

The proud king answered with a final punch.

Wulfgar turned his eyes to the sky. “I am not like him!” he yelled helplessly, vindicating himself to any who would listen. But there was only one path left open to him.

The young barbarian’s huge shoulders reddened as the blood surged through them. He saw the terror in Heafstaag’s eye transcend into incomprehension. He heard the crack of bone, he felt the skull squash beneath his mighty hands.

Revjak should have then stepped into the circle and heralded the new King of the Tribe of the Elk.

But, like the other witnesses around him, he stood unblinking, his jaw hanging open.

* * *

Helped by the gusts of the cold wind at his back, Drizzt sped across the last miles to Ten-Towns. On the same night that he had split from Wulfgar, the snow-capped tip of Kelvin’s Cairn came into view. The sight of his home drove the drow onward even faster, yet a nagging hint on the edge of his senses told him that something was out of the ordinary. A human eye could never have caught it, but the keen night vision of the drow finally sorted it out, a growing pillar of blackness blotting out the horizon’s lowest stars south of the mountain. And a second, smaller column, south of the first.

Drizzt stopped short. He squinted his eyes to be sure of his guess. Then he started again, slowly, needing the time to sort through an alternate route that he could take.

Caer-Konig and Caer-Dineval were burning.