The Crystal Shard 7. The Coming Storm

The Crystal Shard 7. The Coming Storm

They started at dawn, charging across the tundra like an angry whirlwind. Animals and monsters alike, even the ferocious yetis, fled before them in terror. The frozen ground cracked beneath the stamp of their heavy boots, and the murmur of the endless tundra wind was buried under the strength of their song, the song to the God of Battle.

They marched long into the night and were off again before the first rays of dawn, more than two thousand barbarian warriors hungry for blood and victory.

* * *

Drizzt Do’Urden sat nearly halfway up on the northern face of Kelvin’s Cairn, his cloak pulled tight against the bitter wind that howled through the boulders of the mountain. The drow had spent every night up here since the council in Bryn Shander, his violet eyes scanning the blackness of the plain for the first signs of the coming storm. At Drizzt’s request, Bruenor had arranged for Regis to sit beside him. With the wind nipping at him like an invisible animal, the halfling squeezed in between two boulders a further protection from the unwelcoming elements.

Given a choice, Regis would have been tucked away in the warmth of his own soft bed in Lonelywood, listening to the quiet moan of the swaying tree branches beyond warm walls. But he understood that as a spokesman everyone expected him to help carry out the course of action he had suggested at the council. It quickly became obvious to the other spokesmen and to Bruenor, who had joined in the subsequent strategy meetings as the representative of the dwarves, that the halfling wouldn’t be much help in organizing the forces or drawing any battle plans, so when Drizzt told Bruenor that he would need a courier to sit watch with him, the dwarf was quick to volunteer Regis.

Now the halfling was thoroughly miserable. His feet and fingers were numbed from the cold, and his back ached from sitting against the hard stone. This was the third night out, and Regis grumbled and complained constantly, punctuating his discomfort with an occasional sneeze. Through it all, Drizzt sat unmoving and oblivious to the conditions, his stoic dedication to duty overriding any personal distress.

“How many more nights do we have to wait?” Regis whined. “One morning, I’m sure – maybe even tomorrow they’ll find us up here, dead and frozen to this cursed mountain!”

“Fear not, little friend,” Drizzt answered with a smile. “The wind speaks of winter. The barbarians will come all too soon, determined to beat the first snows.” Even as he spoke, the drow caught the tiniest flicker of light in the corner of his eye. He rose from his crouch suddenly, startling the halfling, and turned toward the direction of the flicker, his muscles tensed with reflexive wariness, his eyes straining to spot a confirming sign.

“What’s – ” Regis began, but Drizzt silenced him with an outstretched palm. A second dot of fire flashed on the edge of the horizon.

“You have gotten your wish,” Drizzt said with certainty.

“Are they out there?” Regis whispered. His vision wasn’t nearly as keen as the drow’s in the night.

Drizzt stood silently in concentration for a few moments, mentally trying to measure the distance of the campfires and calculate the time it would take the barbarians to complete their journey.

“Go to Bruenor and Cassius, little friend,” he said at length. “Tell them that the horde will reach Bremen’s Run when the sun peaks tomorrow.”

“Come with me,” said Regis. “Surely they’ll not put you out when you bear such urgent news.”

“I have a more important task at hand,” Drizzt answered. “Now be off! Tell Bruenor – and Bruenor alone – that I shall meet him on Bremen’s Run at the first light of dawn.” And with that, the drow padded off into the darkness. He had a long journey before him.

“Where are you going?” Regis called after him.

“To find the horizon’s horizon!” came a cry from the black night.

And then there was only the murmur of the wind.

* * *

The barbarians had finished setting up their encampment shortly before Drizzt reached its outer perimeter. This close to Ten-Towns, the invaders were on their guard; the first thing Drizzt noticed was that they had set many men on watch. But alert as they were, their campfires burned low and this was the night, the time of the drow. The normally effective watchmen were outmatched by an elf from a world that knew no light, one who could conjure a magical darkness that even the keenest eyes could not penetrate and carry it beside him like a tangible cloak. Invisible as a shadow in the darkness, with footfalls as silent as a stalking cat’s, Drizzt passed by the guards and entered the inner rings of the camp.

Just an hour earlier, the barbarians had been singing and talking of the battle they would fight the next day. Yet even the adrenalin and bloodlust that pumped through their veins could not dispel the exhaustion from their hard march. Most of the men slept soundly, their heavy, rhythmic breathing comforting Drizzt as he picked his way among them in search of their leaders, who would no doubt be finalizing the battle plans.

Several tents were grouped together within the encampment. Only one, though, had guards posted outside its entrance. The flap was closed, but Drizzt could see the glow of candles within, and he could hear gruff voices, often raised in anger. The drow slipped around to the back. Luckily, no warriors had been permitted to make their beds close to the tent, so Drizzt was fairly secluded. As a precaution, he pulled the panther figurine out of his pack. Then, taking out a slender dagger, he poked a tiny hole in the deerskin tent and peeked in.

There were eight men inside, the seven barbarian chiefs and a smaller dark-haired man that Drizzt knew could not have been from northern stock. The chiefs sat on the ground in a semicircle around the standing southerner, asking him questions about the terrain and forces they would encounter the next day.

“We should destroy the town in the wood first,” insisted the largest man in the room, possibly the largest man Drizzt had ever seen, who bore the symbol of the Elk. “Then we can follow your plan to the town called Bryn Shander.”

The smaller man appeared absolutely flustered and outraged, though Drizzt could see that fear of the huge barbarian king would temper his response. “Great King Heafstaag,” he answered tentatively, “if the fishing fleets sight trouble and land before we get to Bryn Shander, we shall find an army that outnumbers our own waiting for us within the solid walls of that city.”

“They are only weakly southerners!” growled Heafstaag, thrusting out his barrel chest in pride.

“Mighty king, I assure you that my plan will satisfy your hunger for southern blood,” said the dark-haired man.

“Then speak, deBernezan of Ten-Towns. Prove your worth to my people.”

Drizzt could see that the last statement rattled the one called deBernezan, for the undertones of the barbarian king’s demand clearly showed his contempt for the southerner. Knowing how barbarians generally felt about outsiders, the drow realized that the slightest error during any part of this campaign would probably cost the little man his life.

deBernezan reached down into the side of his boot and produced a scroll. He unrolled it and held it out for the barbarian kings to see. It was a poor map, roughly drawn, its lines further blurred by the slight tremble of the southern man’s hand, but Drizzt could clearly make out many of the distinctive features that marked Ten-Towns on the otherwise featureless plain.

“To the west of Kelvin’s Cairn,” deBernezan explained, running his finger along the western bank of the largest lake on the map, “there is a clear stretch of high ground called Bremen’s Run that goes south between the mountain and Maer Dualdon. From our location, this is the most direct route to Bryn Shander and the path that I believe we should take.”

“The town on the banks of the lake,” Heafstaag reasoned, “should then be the first that we crush!”

“That is Termalaine,” replied deBernezan. “All of its men are fishermen and will be out on the lake as we pass. You would not find good sport there.”

“We will not leave an enemy alive behind us!” Heafstaag roared, and several other kings cried out their agreement.

“No, of course not,” said deBernezan. “But it will not take many men to defeat Termalaine when the boats are out. Let King Haalfdane and the Tribe of the Bear sack the town while the rest of the force, led by yourself and King Beorg, presses on to Bryn Shander. The fires of the burning town should bring the entire fleet, even the ships from the other towns of Maer Dualdon, into Termalaine where King Haalfdane can destroy them on the docks. It is important that we keep them away from the stronghold of Targos. The people of Bryn Shander will receive no aid from the other lakes in time to support them and will have to stand alone against your charge. The Tribe of the Elk will flank around the base of the hill below the city and cut off any possible escape or any last-minute reinforcements.”

Drizzt watched closely as deBernezan described this second division of the barbarian forces on his map. Already the drow’s calculating mind was formulating initial defense plans. Bryn Shander’s hill wasn’t very high but its base was thick, and the barbarians who were to swing around the back of the hill would be a long way from the main force.

A long way from reinforcements.

“The city will fall before sunset!” deBernezan declared triumphantly. “And your men will feast on the finest booty in all of Ten-Towns!” A sudden cheer went up on cue from the seated kings at the southerner’s declaration of victory.

Drizzt put his back to the tent and considered what he had heard. This dark-haired man named deBernezan knew the towns well and understood their strengths and weaknesses. If Bryn Shander fell, no organized resistance could be formed to drive off the invaders. Indeed, once they held the fortified city, the barbarians would be able to strike at their leisure at any of the other towns.

“Again you have shown me your worth,” Drizzt heard Heafstaag tell the southerner, and the ensuing of conversations told the drow that the plans had been accepted as final. Drizzt then focused his keen senses on the encampment around him, seeking the best path for his escape. He noticed suddenly that two guards were walking his way and talking. Though they were too far away for their human eyes to see him as anything but a shadow on the side of the tent, he knew that any movement on his part would surely alert them.

Acting immediately, Drizzt dropped the black figurine to the ground. “Guenhwyvar,” he called softly. “Come to me, my shadow.”

* * *

Somewhere in a corner of the vast astral plane, the entity of the panther moved in sudden, subtle steps as it stalked the entity of the deer. The beasts of this natural world had played out this scenario countless times, following the harmonious order that guided the lives of their descendents. The panther crouched low for the final spring, sensing the sweetness of the upcoming kill. This strike was the harmony of natural order; the purpose of the panther’s existence, and the meat its reward.

It stopped at once, though, when it heard the call of its true name, compelled above any other directives to heed the call of its master.

The great cat’s spirit rushed down the long, darkened corridor that marked the void between the planes, seeking the the solitary speck of light that was its life on the material plane. And then it was beside the dark elf, its soulmate and master, crouching in the shadows by the hanging skins of a human dwelling.

It understood the urgency of its master’s call and quickly opened its mind to the drow’s instructions.

The two barbarian guards approached cautiously, trying to make out the dark forms that stood beside their kings’ tent. Suddenly Guenhwyvar sprang toward them and soared in a mighty leap past their drawn swords. The guards swung the weapons futilely and charged off after the cat, screaming an alert to the rest of the camp.

In the excitement of the diversion, Drizzt moved calmly and stealthily away in a different direction. He heard the shouts of alarm as Guenhwyvar darted through the campsites of the sleeping warriors and couldn’t help but smile when the cat crossed through one particular group. Upon sighting this feline, who moved with so much grace and speed that it appeared as no more than a cat’s spirit, the Tribe of the Tiger, instead of giving chase, fell to their knees and raised their hands and voices in thanks to Tempos.

Drizzt had little trouble escaping the perimeter of the camp, as all of the sentries were rushing off in the direction of the commotion. When the drow gained the blackness of the open tundra, he turned south toward Kelvin’s Cairn and sped off across the lonely plain in full flight, all the while concentrating on finalizing a deadly counter-plan of defense. The stars told him that there were less than three hours left before dawn, and he knew that he mustn’t be late for his meeting with Bruenor if the ambush were to be properly set.

The noise of the surprised barbarians soon died away, except for the prayers of the Tribe of the Tiger, which would continue until dawn. A few minutes later, Guenhwyvar was trotting easily by Drizzt’s side.

“A hundred times you have saved my life, trusted friend,” Drizzt said as he patted the great cat’s muscled neck. “A hundred times and more!”

* * *

“They’ve been arguin’ and scufflin’ for two days now,” Bruenor remarked disgustedly. “A blessing it is that the greater enemy has finally arrived!”

“Better to name the coming of barbarians in a different way,” Drizzt replied, though a smile had found its way onto his normally stoic features. He knew that his plan was solid and that the battle this day would belong to the people of Ten-Towns. “Go now and lay the trap – you’ve not much time.”

“We began loadin’ the womenfolk and children onto the boats as soon as Rumblebelly told us yer news,” Bruenor explained. “We’ll chase the vermin from our borders before the day is through!” The dwarf spread his feet wide in his customary battle stance and banged his axe onto his shield to emphasize his point. “Ye’ve a good eye for battle, elf. Yer plan’ll turn the surprise on the barbarians and it still splits the glory evenly among them that needs glory.”

“Even Kemp of Targos should be pleased,” Drizzt agreed.

Bruenor clapped his friend on the arm and turned to leave. “Ye’ll fight beside me, then?” he asked over his shoulder, though he already knew the answer.

“As it should be,” Drizzt assured him.

“An’ the cat?”

“Guenhwyvar has already played its part in this battle,” replied the drow. “I’ll be sending my friend home soon.”

Bruenor was pleased with the answer; he didn’t trust the drow’s strange beast. “It ain’t natural,” he said to himself as he trekked down Bremen’s Run toward the gathered hosts of Ten-Towns.

Bruenor was too far away for Drizzt to make out his final words, but the drow knew the dwarf well enough to gather the general meaning of his grumblings. He understood the uneasiness that Bruenor, and many others, felt around the mystical cat. Magic was a prominent part of the underworld of his people, a necessary fact of their everyday existence, but it was much rarer and less understood among the common folk of the surface. Dwarves in particular were usually uncomfortable with it, except for the crafted magical weapons and armor they often made themselves.

The drow, though, had no anxiety around Guenhwyvar from the very first day he had met the cat. The figurine had belonged to Masoj Hun’ett, a drow of high standing in a prominent family of the great city of Menzoberranzan, a gift from a demon lord in exchange for some assistance that Masoj had given him in a matter concerning some troublesome gnomes. Drizzt and the cat had crossed paths many times over the years in the dark city, often in planned meetings. They shared an empathy with each other that transcended the relationship that the cat felt with its then master.

Guenhwyvar had even rescued Drizzt from certain death, uncalled for, as if the cat had been watching protectively over the drow who was not yet its master. Drizzt had struck out alone from Menzoberranzan on a journey to a neighboring city when he fell prey to a cave fisher, a crablike denizen of the dark caverns that customarily found a niche high above the floor of a tunnel and dropped an invisible, sticky line of webbing. Like an angler, this cave fisher had waited, and like a fish, Drizzt had fallen into its trap. The sticky line entangled him completely, rendering him helpless as he was dragged up the side of the corridor’s stone wall.

He saw no hope for surviving this encounter and vividly understood that a terrible death certainly awaited him.

But then Guenhwyvar had arrived, leaping among the broken clefts and ridges along the wall at the same level as the monster. Without any regard to its own safety and following no orders, the cat charged right in on the fisher, knocking it from its perch. The monster, seeking only its own safety, tried to scramble away, but Guenhwyvar pounced upon it vindictively, as if to punish it for attacking Drizzt.

Both the drow and the cat knew from that day on that they were destined to run together. Yet the cat had no power to disobey the will of its master, and Drizzt had no right to claim the figurine from Masoj, especially since the house of Hun’ett was much more powerful than Drizzt’s own family in the structured hierarchy of the underworld.

And so the drow and the cat continued their casual relationship as distant comrades.

Soon after, though, came an incident that Drizzt could not ignore. Guenhwyvar was often taken on raids with Masoj, whether against enemy drow houses or other denizens of the underworld. The cat normally carried out its orders efficiently, thrilled to aid its master in battle. On one particular raid, though, against a clan of Svirfnebli, the deep mining, unassuming gnomes that often had the misfortune of running up against the drow in their common habitat, Masoj went too far in his maliciousness.

After the initial assault on the clan, the surviving gnomes scattered down the many corridors of their mazework mines. The raid had been successful; the treasures that had been sought were taken, and the clan had been dispatched, obviously never to bother the drow again. But Masoj wanted more blood.

He used Guenhwyvar, the proud, majestic hunter, as his instrument of murder: He sent the cat after the fleeing gnomes one by one until they were all destroyed.

Drizzt and several other drow witnessed the spectacle. The others, in their characteristic vileness, thought it great sport, but Drizzt found himself absolutely disgusted. Furthermore, he recognized the humiliation painfully etched on the proud cat’s features. Guenhwyvar was a hunter, not an assassin, and to use it in such a role was criminally degrading, to say nothing of the horrors that Masoj was inflicting upon the innocent gnomes.

This was actually the final outrage in a long line of outrages which Drizzt could no longer bear. He had always known that he was unlike his kin in many ways, though he had many times feared that he would prove to be more akin to them than he believed. Yet he was rarely passionless, considering the death of another more important than the mere sport it represented to the vast majority of drow. He couldn’t label it, for he had never come across a word in the drow language that spoke of such a trait, but to the surfacedwellers that later came to know Drizzt, it was called conscience.

One day the very next week, Drizzt managed to catch Masoj alone outside the cluttered grounds of Menzoberranzan. He knew that there could be no turning back once the fatal blow had been struck, but he didn’t even hesitate, slipping his scimitar through the ribs of his unsuspecting victim. That was the only time in his life that he had ever killed one of his own race, an act that thoroughly revolted him despite his feelings toward his people.

Then he took the figurine and fled, meaning only to find another of the countless dark holes in the vast underworld to make his home, but eventually winding up on the surface. And then, unaccepted and persecuted for his heritage in city after city in the populated south, he had made his way to the wilderness frontier of Ten-Towns, a melting pot of outcasts, the last outpost of humanity, where he was at least tolerated.

He didn’t care much about the shunning he usually received even here. He had found friendship with the halfling, and the dwarves, and Bruenor’s adopted daughter, Catti-brie.

And he had Guenhwyvar by his side. He patted the great cat’s muscled neck once again and left Bremen’s Run to find a dark hole where he could rest before the battle.