The sun beamed brightly on the morning of the first day out from Longsaddle. The companions, refreshed by their visit with the Harpells, rode at a strong pace, but still managed to enjoy the clear weather and the clear road. The land was flat and unmarked, not a tree or hill anywhere near.
“Three days to Nesme, maybe four,” Regis told them.
“More to three if the weather holds,” said Wulfgar.
Drizzt shifted under his cowl. However pleasant the morning might seem to them, he knew they were still in the wilds. Three days could prove to be a long ride indeed.
“What do ye know of this place, Nesme?” Bruenor asked Regis.
“Just what Harkle told us,” Regis replied. “A fair-sized city, trading folk. But a careful place. I have never been there, but tales of the brave people living on the edge of the Evermoors reach far across the northland.”
“I am intrigued by the Evermoors,” said Wulfgar. “Harkle would say little of the place, just shake his head and shiver whenever I asked of it.”
“Not to doubt, a place with a name beyond truth,” Bruenor said, laughing, unimpressed by reputations. “Could it be worse than the dale?”
Regis shrugged, not fully convinced by the dwarf’s argument. “The tales of the Trollmoors, for that is the name given to those lands, may be exaggerated, but they are always foreboding. Every city in the north salutes the bravery of the people of Nesme for keeping the trading route along the Surbrin open in the face of such trials.”
Bruenor laughed again. “Might it be that the tales be coming from Nesme, to paint them stronger than what they are?”
Regis did not argue.
By the time they broke for lunch, a high haze veiled the sunshine. Away to the north, a black line of clouds had appeared, rushing their way. Drizzt had expected as much. In the wild, even the weather proved an enemy.
That afternoon the squall line rolled over them, carrying sheets of rain and hailstones that clinked off of Bruenor’s dented helm. Sudden cuts of lightning sliced the darkened sky and the thunder nearly knocked them from their mounts. But they plodded on through the deepening mud.
“This is the true test of the road!” Drizzt yelled to them through the howling wind. “Many more travelers are defeated by storms than by orcs, because they do not anticipate the dangers when they begin their journey!”
“Bah! A summer rain is all!” Bruenor snorted defiantly.
As if in prideful reply, a lightning bolt exploded just a few yards to the side of the riders. The horses jumped and kicked. Bruenor’s pony went down, stumbling split-legged into the mud and nearly crushing the stunned dwarf in its scramble.
His own mount out of control, Regis managed to dive from the saddle and roll away.
Bruenor got to his knees and wiped the mud from his eyes, cursing all the while. “Damn!” he spat, studying the pony’s movements. “The thing’s lame!”
Wulfgar steadied his own horse and tried to start after Regis’s bolting pony, but the hailstones, driven by the wind, pelted him, blinded him, and stung his horse, and again he found himself fighting to hold his seat.
Another lightning bolt thundered in. And another.
Drizzt, whispering softly and covering his horse’s head with his cloak to calm it, moved slowly beside the dwarf. “Lame!” Bruenor shouted again, although Drizzt could barely hear him.
Drizzt only shook his head helplessly and pointed to Bruenor’s axe.
More lightning came, and another blast of wind. Drizzt rolled to the side of his mount to shield himself, aware that he could not keep the beast calm much longer.
The hailstones began to come larger, striking with the force of slung bullets.
Drizzt’s terrified horse jerked him to the ground and, bucked away, trying to flee beyond the reach of the punishing storm.
Drizzt was up quickly beside Bruenor, but any emergency plans the two might have had were immediately deterred, for then Wulfgar stumbled back toward them.
He was walking – barely – leaning against the wind’s push, using it to hold him upright. His eyes seemed droopy, his jaw twitched, and blood mixed with the rain on his cheek. He looked at his friends blankly, as if he had no comprehension of what had happened to him.
Then he fell, face down, into the mud at their feet.
A shrill whistle cut through the blunt wall of wind, a singular point of hope against the storm’s mounting power. Drizzt’s keen ears caught it as he and Bruenor hoisted their young friend’s face from the muck. So far away the whistle seemed, but Drizzt understood how storms could distort one’s perceptions.
“What?” Bruenor asked of the noise, noticing the drow’s sudden reaction, for Bruenor had not heard the call.
“Regis!” Drizzt answered. He started dragging Wulfgar in the direction of the whistle, Bruenor following his lead. They didn’t have time to discern if the young man was even alive.
The quick-thinking halfling saved them that day. Fully aware of the killing potential of squalls rolling down from the Spine of the World, Regis had crawled around in search of some shelter in the empty land. He stumbled across a hole in the side of a small ridge, an old wolf den perhaps, empty now.
Following the beacon of his whistles, Drizzt and Bruenor soon found him.
“It’ll fill with the rain and we’ll be drowned!” Bruenor yelled, but he helped Drizzt drag Wulfgar inside and prop him up against the rear wall of the cave, then took his place beside his friends as they worked to build a barrier of dirt and their remaining packs against the feared flood.
A groan from Wulfgar sent Regis scurrying to his side.
“He’s alive!” the halfling proclaimed. “And his wounds don’t seem too bad!”
“Tougher’n a badger in a corner,” Bruenor remarked.
Soon they had their den tolerable, if not comfortable, and even Bruenor stopped his complaining.
“The true test of the road,” Drizzt said again to Regis, trying to cheer up his thoroughly miserable friend as they sat in the mud and rode out the night, the incessant booming of the thunder and pounding of the hail a constant reminder of the small margin of safety.
In reply, Regis poured a stream of water out of his boot.
“How many miles do ye reckon we made?” Bruenor grumbled at Drizzt.
“Ten, perhaps,” the drow answered.
“Two weeks to Nesme, at this rate!” Bruenor muttered, folding his arms across his chest.
“The storm will pass,” Drizzt offered hopefully, but the dwarf was no longer listening.
The next day began without rain, though thick gray clouds hung low in the sky. Wulfgar was fine by morning, but he still did not understand what had happened to him. Bruenor insisted that they start out at once, though Regis would have preferred that they remain in their hole until they were certain the storm had passed.
“Most of the provisions are lost,” Drizzt reminded the halfling. “You might not find another meal beyond a pittance of dried bread until we reach Nesme.”
Regis was the first one out of the hole.
Unbearable humidity and muddy ground kept the pace slow, and the friends soon found their knees aching from the constant twisting and sloshing. Their sodden clothes clung to them uncomfortably and weighed on their every step.
They came upon Wulfgar’s horse, a burned and smoking form half-buried in the mud. “Lightning,” Regis observed.
The three looked at their barbarian friend, amazed that he could have survived such a hit. Wulfgar, too, stared in shock, realizing what had dropped him from his mount in the night.
“Tougher’n a badger!” Bruenor hailed again to Drizzt.
Sunshine teasingly found a crack in the overcast now and then. The sunlight was nothing substantial, though, and by noon, the day had actually grown darker. Distant thunder foretold a dismal afternoon.
The storm had already spent its killing might, but that night they found no shelter beyond their wet clothes, and whenever the crackle of lightning lit up the sky, four hunched forms could be seen sitting in the mud, their heads downcast as they accepted their fate in helpless resignation.
For two more days they lumbered on through the rain and wind, having little choice and nowhere to go but forward. Wulfgar proved to be the savior of the party’s morale at this low time. He scooped Regis up from the sodden ground, tossing the halfling easily onto his back, and explaining that he needed the extra weight for balance. By sparing the halfling’s pride this way, the barbarian even managed to convince the surly dwarf to ride for a short time. And always, Wulfgar was indomitable. “A blessing, I tell you,” he kept crying at the gray heavens. “The storm keeps the insects and the orcs out of our faces! And how many months shall it be before we want for water?”
He worked hard to keep their spirits high. At one point, he watched the lightning closely, timing the delay between the flash and the ensuing thunder. As they neared the blackened skeleton of a long-dead tree, the lightning flashed and Wulfgar pulled his trick. Yelling “Tempus!” he heaved his warhammer so that it smashed into, and leveled, the trunk at precisely the moment the thunder exploded around them. His amused friends looked back to him only to find him standing proud, arms and eyes uplifted to the gods as though they had personally answered his call.
Drizzt, accepting this whole ordeal with his customary stoicism, silently applauded his young friend and knew again, even more than before, that they had made a wise decision in bringing him along. The drow understood that his own duty in these rough times was to continue his role as sentry, keeping his diligent guard despite the barbarian’s proclamation of safety.
Finally, the storm was blown away by the same brisk wind that had ushered it in. The bright sunshine and clear blue skies of the subsequent dawn lightened the companions’ mood immeasurably and allowed them to think again of what lay ahead.
Especially Bruenor. The dwarf leaned forward in his pressing march, just as he had when they had first begun their journey back in Icewind Dale.
Red beard wagging with the intensity of his pumping stride, Bruenor found his narrow focus once again. He fell back into the dreams of his homeland, seeing the flickering shadows of the torchlight against the silver-streamed walls and the wondrous artifacts of his people’s meticulous labors. His heightened concentration on Mithril Hall over the last few months had sparked clearer, and new, memories in him, and on the road now he remembered, for the first time in more than a century, the Hall of Dumathoin.
The dwarves of Mithril Hall had made a fine living in the trade of their crafted items, but they always kept their very finest pieces, and the most precious gifts bestowed upon them from outsiders, to themselves. In a large and decorated chamber that opened wide the eyes of every visitor, the legacy of Bruenor’s ancestors sat in open display, serving as inspiration for the clan’s future artists.
Bruenor chuckled softly at the memory of the wondrous hall and the marvelous pieces, mostly weapons and armor. He looked at Wulfgar striding beside him, and at the mighty warhammer he had crafted the year before. Aegis-fang might have hung in the Hall of Dumathoin if Bruenor’s clan still ruled Mithril Hall, sealing Bruenor’s immortality in the legacy of his people.
But watching Wulfgar handling the hammer, swinging it as easily as he would swing his own arm, Bruenor had no regrets.
The next day brought more good news. Shortly after they broke camp, the friends discovered that they had traveled farther than they had anticipated during the trials of the storm, for as they marched, the landscape around them went through subtle but definite transformations. Where before the ground had been sparsely overgrown with thin patches of scraggly weeds, a virtual sea of mud under the torrent of rain, they now found lush grasses and scattered copses of tall elms. Cresting a final ridge confirmed their suspicions, for before them lay the Dessarin Valley. A few miles ahead, swollen from the spring melt and the recent storm, and clearly visible from their high perch, the arm of the great river rolled steadily along its southbound trek.
The long winter dominated this land, but when they finally bloomed, the plants here made up for their short season with a vibrancy unmatched in all the world. Rich colors of spring surrounded the friends as they made their way down the slope to the river. The carpet of grass was so thick that they took off their boots and walked barefoot through the spongy softness. The vitality here was truly obvious, and contagious.
“Ye should see the halls,” Bruenor remarked on sudden impulse. “Veins of purest mithril wider than yer hand! Streams of silver, they be, and bested in beauty only by what a dwarf’s hand makes of ’em.”
“The want of such a sight keeps our path running straight through the hardships,” Drizzt replied.
“Bah!” Bruenor snorted good-heartedly. “Ye’re here because I tricked ye into being here, elf. Ye had run outa reasons for holding back me adventure anymore!”
Wulfgar had to chuckle. He had been in on the deception that had duped Drizzt into agreeing to make this journey. After the great battle in Ten-Towns with Akar Kessell, Bruenor had feigned mortal injury, and on his apparent deathbed had begged the drow to journey with him to his ancient homeland. Thinking the dwarf about to expire, Drizzt could not refuse.
“And yerself!” Bruenor roared at Wulfgar. “I see why ye’ve come, even if ye’re skull’s too thick for ye to know!”
“Pray tell me,” Wulfgar replied with a smile.
“Ye’re running! But ye can’t get away!” the dwarf cried. Wulfgar’s mirth shifted to confusion.
“The girl’s spooked him, elf,” Bruenor explained to Drizzt. “Catti-brie’s caught him in a net his muscles can no’ break!”
Wulfgar laughed along with Bruenor’s blunt conclusions, taking no offense. But in the images triggered by Bruenor’s allusions to Catti-brie, memories of a sunset view on the face of Kelvin’s Cairn, or of hours spent talking on the rise of rocks called Bruenor’s Climb, the young barbarian found a disturbing element of truth in the dwarf’s observations.
“And what of Regis?” Drizzt asked Bruenor. “Have you discerned his motive for coming along? Might it be his love of ankle-deep mud that sucks his little legs in to the knees?”
Bruenor stopped laughing and studied the halfling’s reaction to the drow’s questions. “Nay, I have not,” he replied seriously after a few unrevealing moments. “This alone I know: If Rumblebelly chooses the road, it means only that the mud and the orcs measure up better than what he’s leaving behind.” Bruenor kept his eyes upon his little friend, again seeking some revelations in the halfling’s response.
Regis kept his head bowed, watching his furry feet, visible below the diminishing roll of his belly for the first times in many months, as they plowed through the thick waves of green. The assassin, Entreri, was a world away, he thought. And he had no intention of dwelling on a danger that had been avoided.
A few miles up the bank they came upon the first major fork in the river, where the Surbrin, from the northeast, emptied into the main flow of the northern arm of the great river network.
The friends looked for a way to cross the larger river, the Dessarin, and get into the small valley between it and the Surbrin. Nesme, their next, and final stopover before Silverymoon, was farther up the Surbrin, and though the city was actually on the east bank of the river, the friends, taking the advice of Harkle Harpell, had decided to travel up the west bank and avoid the lurking dangers of the Evermoors.
They crossed the Dessarin without too much trouble, thanks to the incredible agility of the drow, who ran out over the river along an overhanging tree limb and leaped to a similar perch on the branch of a tree on the opposite bank. Soon after, they were all easily plodding along the Surbrin, enjoying the sunshine, the warm breeze, and the endless song of the river. Drizzt even managed to fell a deer with his bow, promising a fine supper of venison and restocked packs for the road ahead.
They camped right down by the water, under starshine for the first time in four nights, sitting around a fire and listening to Bruenor’s tales of the silvery halls and the wonders they would find at the end of their road.
The serenity of the night did not carry over into the morning, though, for the friends were awakened by the sounds of battle. Wulfgar immediately scrambled up a nearby tree to learn who the combatants were.
“Riders!” he yelled, leaping and drawing out his warhammer even before he hit the ground. “Some are down! They do battle with monsters I do not know!” He was off and running to the north, Bruenor on his heels, and Drizzt circling to their flank down along the river. Less enthusiastic, Regis hung back, pulling out his small mace but hardly preparing for open battle.
Wulfgar was first on the scene. Seven riders were still up, trying vainly to maneuver their mounts into some form of a defensive line. The creatures they battled were quick and had no fear of running under stamping legs to trip up the horses. The monsters were only about three feet high, with arms twice that length. They resembled little trees, though undeniably animated, running about wildly, whacking with their clublike arms or, as another unfortunate rider discovered just as Wulfgar entered the fray, winding their pliable limbs around their foes to pull them from their mounts.
Wulfgar barreled between two creatures, knocking them aside, and bore down on the one that had just taken down the rider. The barbarian underestimated the monsters, though, for their rootlike toes found balance quickly and their long arms caught him from behind before he had gone two steps, grappling him on either side and stopping him in his tracks.
Bruenor charged in right behind. The dwarf’s axe chopped through one of the monsters, splitting it down the middle like firewood, and then cut in wickedly on the other, sending a great chunk of its torso flying away.
Drizzt came up even with the battle, anxious but tempered, as always, by the overruling sensibility that had kept him alive through hundreds of encounters. He moved down to the side, below the drop of the bank, where he discovered a ramshackle bridge of logs pning the Surbrin. The monsters had built it, Drizzt knew; apparently they weren’t unthinking beasts.
Drizzt peered over the bank. The riders had rallied around the unexpected reinforcements, but one right before him had been wrapped by a monster and was being dragged from his horse. Seeing the treelike nature of their weird foes, Drizzt understood why the riders all wielded axes, and wondered how effective his slender scimitars would prove.
But he had to act. Springing from his concealment, he thrust both his scimitars at the creature. They nicked into the mark, having no more effect than if Drizzt had stabbed a tree.
Even so, the drow’s attempt had saved the rider. The monster clubbed its victim one last time to keep him dazed, then released its hold to face Drizzt. Thinking quickly, the drow went to an alternate attack, using his ineffective blades to parry the clubbing limbs. Then, as the creature rushed in on him, he dove at its feet, uprooting it, and rolled it back over him toward the riverbank. He poked his scimitars into the barklike skin and pushed off, sending the monster tumbling toward the Surbrin. It caught a hold before it went into the water, but Drizzt was on it again. A flurry of well-placed kicks put the monster into the flow and the river carried it away.
The rider, by this time, had regained his seat and his wits. He stepped his horse to the bank to thank his rescuer.
Then he saw the black skin.
“Drow!” he screamed, and his axeblade cut down.
Drizzt was caught off guard. His keen reflexes got one blade up enough to deflect the edge of the axe, but the flat of the weapon struck his head and sent him reeling. He dove with the momentum of the hit and rolled, trying to put as much ground between himself and the rider as he could, realizing that the man would kill him before he could recover.
“Wulfgar!” Regis screamed from his own concealment a short way back on the bank. The barbarian finished off one of the monsters with a thunderous smack that sent cracks all along its length, and turned just as the rider was bringing his horse about to get at Drizzt.
Wulfgar roared in rage and bolted from his own fight, grabbing the horse’s bridle while it was still in its turn and heaving with all his strength. Horse and rider toppled to the ground. The horse was up again at once, shaking its head and nervously trotting about, but the rider stayed down, his leg crushed under his mount’s weight in the fall.
The remaining five riders worked in unison now, charging into groups of monsters and scattering them. Bruenor’s wicked axe cut away, the dwarf all the while singing a woodchopper’s song that he had learned as a boy.
“Go split the wood for the fire, me son,
Heat up the kettle and the meal’s begun!”
he sang out as he methodically cut down one monster after another.
Wulfgar defensively straddled Drizzt’s form, his mighty hammer shattering, with a single strike, any of the monsters that ventured too near.
The rout was on, and in seconds the few surviving creatures scampered in terror across the bridge over the Surbrin.
Three riders were down and dead, a fourth leaned heavily against his horse, nearly overcome by his wounds, and the one Wulfgar had dropped had fainted away for his agony. But the five remaining astride did not go to their wounded. They formed a semi-circle around Wulfgar and Drizzt, who was just now getting back to his feet, and kept the two pinned against the riverbank with axes ready.
“This is how ye welcome yer rescuers?” Bruenor barked at them, slapping aside one horse so that he could join his friends. “Me bet’s that the same folk don’t come to yer aid twice!”
“Foul company you keep, dwarf!” one of the riders retorted.
“Your friend would be dead if it were not for that foul company!” Wulfgar replied, indicating the rider lying off to the side. “And he repays the drow with a blade!”
“We are the Riders of Nesme,” the rider explained. “Our lot is to die on the field, protecting our kin. We accept this fate willingly.”
“Step yer horse one more foot and ye’ll get yer wish,” Bruenor warned.
“But you judge us unfairly,” Wulfgar argued. “Nesme is our destination. We come in peace and friendship.”
“You’ll not get in – not with him!” spat the rider. “The ways of the foul drow elves are known to all. You ask us to welcome him?”
“Bah, yer a fool and so’s yer mother,” Bruenor growled.
“Ware your words, dwarf,” the rider warned. “We are five to three, and mounted.”
“Try yer threat, then,” Bruenor shot back. “The buzzards won’t get much eatin’ with those dancing trees.” He ran his finger along the edge of his axe. “Let’s give ’em something better to peck at.”
Wulfgar swung Aegis-fang easily, back and forth at the end of one arm. Drizzt made no move toward his weapons, and his steady calm was perhaps the most unnerving action of all to the riders.
Their speaker seemed less cocksure after the failure of his threat, but he held to a facade of advantage. “But we are not ungrateful for your assistance. We shall allow you to walk away. Be gone and never return to our lands.”
“We go where we choose,” snarled Bruenor.
“And we choose not to fight,” Drizzt added. “It is not our purpose, nor our desire, to lay injury to you or to your town, Riders of Nesme. We shall pass, keeping our own business to ourselves and leaving yours to you.”
“You shan’t go anywhere near my town, black elf!” another rider cried. “You may cut us down on the field, but there are a hundred more behind us, and thrice that behind them! Now be gone!” His companions seemed to regain their courage at his bold words, their horses stepping nervously at the sudden tensing of the bridles.
“We have our course,” Wulfgar insisted.
“Damn ’em!” Bruenor roared suddenly. “I’ve seen too much of this band already! Damn their town. May the river wash it away!” He turned to his friends. “They do us a favor. A day and more we`ll save by going straight through to Silverymoon, instead of around with the river.”
“Straight through?” questioned Drizzt. “The Evermoors?”
“Can it be worse than the dale?” Bruenor replied. He spun back on the riders. “Keep yer town, and yer heads, for now,” he said. “We’re to cross the bridge here and be rid of yerselves and all of Nesme!”
“Fouler things than bog blokes roam the Trollmoors, foolish dwarf,” the rider replied with a grin. “We have come to destroy this bridge. It will be burned behind you.”
Bruenor nodded and returned the grin.
“Keep your course to the east,” the rider warned. “Word will go out to all the riders. If you are sighted near Nesme, you will be killed.”
“Take your vile friend and be gone,” another rider taunted, “before my axe bathes in the blood of a black elf! Although I would then have to throw the tainted weapon away!” All the riders joined in the ensuing laughter.
Drizzt hadn’t even heard it. He was concentrating on a rider in the back of the group, a quiet one who could use his obscurity in the conversation to gain an unnoticed advantage. The rider had slipped a bow off of his shoulder and was inching his hand, ever so slowly, toward his quiver.
Bruenor was done talking. He and Wulfgar turned away from the riders and started to the bridge. “Come on, elf,” he said to Drizzt as he passed. “Me sleep’ll come better when we’re far away from these orc-sired dogs.”
But Drizzt had one more message to send before he would turn his back on the riders. In one blinding movement, he spun the bow from his back, pulled an arrow from his quiver, and sent it whistling through the air. It knocked into the would-be bowman’s leather cap, parting his hair down the middle, and stuck in a tree immediately behind, its shaft quivering a clear warning.
“Your misguided insults, I accept, even expect,” Drizzt explained to the horrified horsemen. “But I’ll brook no attempts to injure my friends, and I will defend myself. Be warned, and only once warned: If you make another move against us, you will die.” He turned abruptly and moved down to the bridge without looking back.
The stunned riders certainly had no intention of hindering the drow’s party any further. The would-be bowman hadn’t even looked for his cap.
Drizzt smiled at the irony of his inability to clear himself of the legends of his heritage. Though he was shunned and threatened on the one hand, the mysterious aura surrounding the black elves also gave him a bluff powerful enough to dissuade most potential enemies.
Regis joined them at the bridge, bouncing a small rock in his hand. “Had them lined up,” he explained of his impromptu weapon. He flicked the stone into the river. “If it began, I would have had the first shot.”
“If it began,” Bruenor corrected, “ye’d have soiled the hole ye hid in!”
Wulfgar considered the rider’s warning of their path. “Trollmoors,” he echoed somberly, looking up the slope across the way to the blasted land before them. Harkle had told them of the place. The burned-out land and bottomless bogs. The trolls and even worse horrors that had no names.
“Save us a day and more!” Bruenor repeated stubbornly. Wulfgar wasn’t convinced.
* * *
“You are dismissed,” Dendybar told the specter.
As the flames reformed in the brazier, stripping him of his material form, Morkai considered this second meeting. How often would Dendybar be calling upon him? He wondered. The mottled wizard had not yet fully recovered from their last encounter, but had dared to summon him again so soon. Dendybar’s business with the dwarf’s party must be urgent indeed! That assumption only made Morkai despise his role as the mottled wizard’s spy even more.
Alone in the room again, Dendybar stretched out from his meditative position and grinned wickedly as he considered the image Morkai had shown him. The companions had lost their mounts. and were marching into the foulest area in all the North. Another day or so would put his own party, flying on the hooves of his magical steeds, even with them, though thirty miles to the north.
Sydney would get to Silverymoon long before the Drow.
Delivering a high-quality product at a reasonable price is not enough anymore.
That’s why we have developed 5 beneficial guarantees that will make your experience with our service enjoyable, easy, and safe.
You have to be 100% sure of the quality of your product to give a money-back guarantee. This describes us perfectly. Make sure that this guarantee is totally transparent.Read more
Each paper is composed from scratch, according to your instructions. It is then checked by our plagiarism-detection software. There is no gap where plagiarism could squeeze in.Read more
Thanks to our free revisions, there is no way for you to be unsatisfied. We will work on your paper until you are completely happy with the result.Read more
Your email is safe, as we store it according to international data protection rules. Your bank details are secure, as we use only reliable payment systems.Read more
By sending us your money, you buy the service we provide. Check out our terms and conditions if you prefer business talks to be laid out in official language.Read more