rom Drizzt," Cassius explained, handing the parchment over to Regis. "Delivered by a most unfriendly fellow from Luskan. A wizard of great importance, by his own measure, at least."
Regis took the rolled and tied note and undid the bow holding it.
"You will be pleased, I believe," Cassius prompted.
The halfling looked up at him skeptically. "You read it?"
"The wizard from Luskan, Val-Doussen by name - and he of self-proclaimed great intellect - forgot the name of the person I was supposed to give it to," Cassius explained dryly. "So, yes, I perused it, and from its contents it seems obvious that it's either for you or for Bruenor Battlehammer or both."
Regis nodded as if satisfied, though in truth he figured Cassius could have reasoned as much without ever reading the note. Who else would Drizzt and Catti-brie be sending messages to, after all? The halfling let it go, though, too concerned with what Drizzt might have to say. He pulled open the note, his eyes scanning the words quickly.
A smile brightened his face.
"Perhaps the barbarian remains alive," Cassius remarked.
"So it would seem," said the halfling. "Or at least, the brand we found on the woman does not mean what we all feared it might."
Cassius nodded, but Regis couldn't help but note a bit of a cloud passing over his features.
"What is it?" the halfling asked.
"More than nothing," Regis reasoned, and he considered his own words that had brought on the slight frown. "The woman," he reasoned. "What of the woman?"
"She is gone," Cassius admitted.
"Escaped," the elderman corrected. "A tenday ago. Councilor Kemp put her on a Targos fishing ship for indenture - a different ship than that on which he placed the other ruffians, for he knew she was the most dangerous by far. She leaped from the deck soon after the ship put out."
"Then she died, frozen in Maer Dualdon," Regis reasoned, for he knew the lake well and knew that no one could survive for long in the cold waters even in midsummer, let alone at this time of the year.
"So the crew believed," Cassius said. "She must have had some enchantment upon her, for she was seen emerging from the water a short distance from the western reaches of Targos."
"Then she is lying dead of exposure along the lake's southern bank," the halfling said, "or is wandering in a near-dead stupor along the water's edge."
Cassius was shaking his head through every word. "Jule Pepper is a clever one, it would seem," he said. "She is nowhere to be found, and clothing was stolen from a farmhouse to the west of the city. Likely that one is long on the road out of Icewind Dale, and a glad farewell I offer her."
Regis wasn't thinking along those same lines. He wondered if Jule Pepper presented any threat to his friends. Jule knew of Drizzt, obviously and likely held a grudge against him. If she was returning to her old hunting band, perhaps she and the drow would cross paths once more.
Regis forced himself to calm down, remembering the two friends, Drizzt and Catti-brie, that he was fearing for. If Jule Pepper crossed paths with that pair, then woe to her, he figured, and he let it go at that.
"I must get to Bruenor," he said to Cassius. Regis snapped the parchment up tight in his hand and rushed out of the elderman's house, sprinting across Brynn Shander in the hopes that he might catch up to a merchant caravan he knew to be leaving for the dwarven mines that very morning.
Luck was with him, and he talked his way into a ride on a wagon full of grain bags. He slept nearly all the way.
Bruenor was in a foul mood when Regis finally caught up to him late that same night - a mood that had been common with the dwarf since Drizzt and Catti-brie had left Ten-Towns.
"Ye're bringing up weak stone!" the red-bearded dwarf king howled at a pair of young miners, their faces and beards black with dirt and dust. Bruenor held up one of the rock samples he had proffered from their small cart and crumbled it in one hand. "Ye're thinking there's ore worth taking in that?" he asked incredulously.
"A tough dig," remarked one of the younger dwarves, his black beard barely reaching the middle of his thick neck. "We're down the deepest hole, hanging upside down . . ."
"Bah, but ye're mixing me up for one who's caring to hear yer whining!" Bruenor roared. The dwarf king gritted his teeth, clenched his fists, and gave a great growl, trembling as if he was throwing all of the rage right out of his body.
"Me king!" the black-bearded dwarf exclaimed. "We'll go and get better stone!"
"Bah!" Bruenor snorted.
He turned and slammed his body hard against the laden cart, overturning it. As if that one explosion had released the tension, Bruenor stood there, staring at the overturned cart and the stones strewn about the corridor, stubby hands on hips. He closed his eyes.
"Ye're not needing to go back down there," he said calmly to the pair. "Ye go get yerselves cleaned and get yerselves some food. Ain't a thing wrong with most o' that ore - it's yer king who's needing a bit o' toughening, by me own eyes and ears."
"Yes, me king," both young dwarves said in unison.
Regis came up from the other side, then, and nodded to the pair, who turned and trotted away, mumbling.
The halfling walked up and put his hand on Bruenor's shoulder. The dwarf king nearly jumped out of his boots, spinning about, his face a mask of fury.
"Don't ye be doing that!" he roared, though he did calm somewhat when he saw that it was only Regis. "Ain't ye supposed to be in a council meeting?"
"They can get through it without me," the halfling replied, managing a smile. "I think you might need me more."
Bruenor looked at him curiously, so Regis just turned and led the dwarfs gaze down the corridor, to the departing pair. "Criminals?" the halfling asked sarcastically.
Bruenor kicked a stone, sending it flying against the wall, seeming again as if he was so full of rage and frustration that he would simply explode. The dark cloud passed quickly, though, replaced by a more general air of gloom, and the dwarfs shoulders slumped. He bowed his head and shook it slowly.
"I can't be losin' me boy again," he admitted.
Regis was beside him in an instant, one hand comfortingly placed on Bruenor's shoulder. As soon as the dwarf looked up at his buddy, Regis offered a wide smile and held the parchment up before him. "From Drizzt," the halfling explained.
The words had barely left Regis's mouth before Bruenor grabbed the parchment away and pulled it open.
"He and Catti-brie found me boy!" the dwarf howled, but he stopped short as he read on.
"No, but they found out how Wulfgar got separated from Aegis-fang," Regis was quick to add, for that, after all, had been the primary source of their concern that the barbarian might be dead.
"We're goin'," Bruenor declared.
"Going?" Regis echoed. "Going where?"
"To find Drizzt and Catti-brie. To find me boy!" the dwarf roared. He stormed away down the corridor. "We're leaving tonight, Rumblebelly. Ye'd best get yerself ready."
"But . . ." Re'gis started to reply. He stuttered over the beginnings of a series of arguments, the primary of which was the fact that it was getting late in the season to be heading out of Ten-Towns. Autumn was fast on the wane, and Icewind Dale had never been known for especially long autumn seasons, with winter seeming ever hungry to descend upon the region.
"We'll get to Luskan, don't ye worry, Rumblebelly!" Bruenor howled.
"You should take dwarves with you," Regis stammered, skittering to catch up. "Yes, sturdy dwarves who can brave the winter snows, and who can fight. , . ."
"Don't need me kin," Bruenor assured him. "I've got yerself beside me, and I know ye wouldn't be missing the chance to help me find me boy."
It wasn't so much what Bruenor had said as it was the manner in which he had said it, a flat declaration that left no hint at all that he would even listen to contrary arguments.
Regis sputtered out a few undecipherable sounds, then just huffed through a resigned sigh. "All of my supplies for the road are in Lonelywood," the halfling did manage to complain.
"And anything ye'll be needin' is right here in me caves," Bruenor explained. "We'll put through Brynn Shander on our way so ye can apologize to Cassius - he'll see to yer house and yer possessions."
"Indeed," Regis mumbled under his breath, and in purely sarcastic tones, for the last time he had left the region, as in all the times he had wandered out of Icewind Dale, he had returned to find that he had nothing left waiting for him. The folk of Ten-Towns were honest enough as neighbors, but perfectly vulture-like when it came to picking clean abandoned houses - even if they were only supposed to be abandoned for a short time.
True to Bruenor's word, the halfling and the dwarf were on the road that very night, rambling along under crystalline skies and a cold wind, following the distant lights to Brynn Shander. They arrived just before the dawn, and though Regis begged for patience Bruenor led the way straight to Cassius's house and banged hard on the door, calling out loudly enough to not only wake Cassius but a substantial number of his neighbors as well.
When a sleepy-eyed Cassius at last opened his door, the dwarf bellowed, "Ye got five minutes!" and shoved Regis through.
And when, by Bruenor's count, the appropriated time had passed, the dwarf barged through the door, collected the halfling by the scruff of his neck, offered a few insincere apologies to Cassius, and pulled Regis out the door. Bruenor prodded him along all the way across the city and out the western gate.
"Cassius informed me that the fishermen are expecting a gale," Regis said repeatedly, but if Bruenor even heard him, the determined dwarf wasn't showing it. "The wind and rain will be bad enough, but if it turns to snow and sleet. . . ."
"Just a storm," Bruenor said with a derisive snort. "Ain't no storm to stop me, Rumblebelly, nor yerself. I'll get ye there!"
"The yetis are out in force this time of year," Regis cautioned.
"Good enough for keeping me axe nice and sharp," Bruenor countered. "Hard-headed beasts."
The storm began that same night, a cold and biting, steady rain, pelting them more horizontally than vertically in the driving wind.
Thoroughly miserable and soaked to the bone, Regis complained continually, though he knew Bruenor, in the sheer volume of the wind, couldn't even hear him. The wind was directly behind them, at least, propelling them along at a great pace, which Bruenor pointed out often and with a wide smile.
But Regis knew better, and so did the dwarf. The storm was coming from the southeast, off the mountains, the most unlikely direction, and often the most ominous. In Icewind Dale, such storms, if they progressed as expected, were known as Nor'westers. If the gale made its way across the dale and to the sea, the cold northeasterly wind would hold it there, over the moving ice, sometimes for days on end,
The pair stopped at a farmhouse for the evening and were welcomed in, though told that they could sleep in the barn with the livestock and not in the main house. Huddled about a small fire, naked and with their clothes drying on a rafter above, Regis again appealed to Bruenor's common sense.
The halfling found that target a hard one to locate.
"Nor'wester," Regis explained. "Could storm for a tenday and could turn colder."
"Not a Nor'wester yet," the dwarf replied gruffly.
"We can wait it out. Stay here - or go to Bremen, perhaps. But to cross the dale in this could be the end of us!"
"Bah, it's just a bit o' rain," Bruenor grumbled. He bit a huge chunk off the piece of mutton their hosts had provided. "Seen worse - used to play in worse when I was but a boy in Mithral Hall. Ye should've seen the snows in the mountains out there, Rumblebelly. Twice a dwarfs height in a single fall!"
"And a quarter of that will stop us cold on the road," Regis answered. "And leave us frozen and dead in a place where only the yetis will ever find us."
"Bah!" Bruenor snorted. "No snow'll stop me from me boy, or I'm a bearded gnome! Ye can turn about if ye're wantin' - ye should be able to get to Targos easy enough, and they'll get ye across the lake to yer home. But I'm for going on, soon as I get me sleep, and I'm not for stopping until I see Luskan's gate, until I find that tavern Drizzt wrote about, the Cutlass."
Regis tried to hide his frown and just nodded.
"I'm not holdin' a bit o' yer choices against ye," Bruenor said. "If ye ain't got the heart for it, then turn yerself about."
"But you are going on?" Regis asked.
"All the way."
What Regis didn't have the heart for, despite what his common sense was screaming out at him, was abandoning his friend to the perils of the road. When Bruenor left the next day, Regis was right beside him.
The only change that next day was that the wind was now from the northwest instead of the southeast, blowing the rain into their faces, which made them all the more miserable and slowed their progress considerably, Bruenor didn't complain, didn't say a word, just bent low into the gale and plowed on.
And Regis went with him, stoically, though the halfling did position himself somewhat behind and to the left of the dwarf, using Bruenor's wide body to block a bit of the rain and the wind.
The dwarf did concede to a more northerly route that day, one that would bring them to another farmhouse along the route, a homestead that was quite used to having visitors. In fact, when the dwarf and halfling arrived, they met with another group who had started on their way to Luskan. They had pulled in two days before, fearing that the mud would stop their wagon wheels dead in their tracks.
"Too early in the season," the lead driver explained to the duo. "Ground's not frozen up yet, so we've no chance of getting through."
"Seems as if we'll be wintering in Bremen," another of the group grumbled.
"Happened before, and'll happen again," the lead driver said. "We'll take ye on with us to Bremen, if ye want."
"Not going to Bremen," Bruenor explained between bites of another mutton dinner. "Going to Luskan."
Every member of the other group glanced incredulously at each other, and both Bruenor and Regis heard the word "Nor'wester" mumbled more than once.
"Got no wagons to get stuck in the mud," Bruenor explained.
"Mud that'll reach more than halfway up yer little legs," said another, with a chuckle that lasted only as long as it took Bruenor to fix him with a threatening scowl.
The other group, even the lead driver, appealed to the pair to be more sensible, but it was Regis, not Bruenor, who finally said, "We will see you on the road. Next spring. We'll be returning as you're leaving."
That brought a great belly laugh out of Bruenor, and sure enough, before dawn the next day, before any members of the farm family or the other group had even opened their eyes, the dwarf and the halfling were on the road, bending into the cold wind. They knew they'd spent their last comfortable night for a long while, knew they'd have a difficult time even finding enough shelter to start a fizzling fire, knew that deep mud awaited them and possibly with deep snow covering it.
But they knew, too, that Drizzt and Catti-brie waited for them, and, perhaps, so did Wulfgar.
Regis did not register a single complaint that third day, nor the fourth, nor the fifth, though they were out of dry clothes and the wind had turned decidedly colder, and the rain had become sleet and snow. They plowed on, single file, Bruenor's sheer strength and determination plowing a trail ahead of Regis, though the mud grabbed at his every stride and the snow was piling as deep as his waist.
The fifth night they built a dome of snow for shelter and Bruenor did manage a bit of a fire, but neither could feel their feet any longer. With the current pace of the snowfall they expected to wake up to find the white stuff as deep as the horn on Bruenor's helmet.
"I shouldn't have taked ye along," Bruenor admitted solemnly, as close to an admission of defeat as Regis had ever heard from the indomitable dwarf. "Should've trusted in Drizzt and Catti-brie to bring me boy back in the spring."
"We're almost out of the dale," Regis replied with as much enthusiasm as he could muster. It was true enough. Despite the weather, they had made great progress, and the mountain pass was in sight, though still a day's march away. "The storm has kept the yetis at bay."
"Only because the damn things're smarter than us," Bruenor grumbled. He put his toes practically into the fire, trying to thaw them.
They had a difficult time falling asleep that night, expecting the wind and the storm to collapse the dome atop them. In fact, when Regis awoke in the darkness, everything seeming perfectly still - too still! He knew in his heart that he was dead.
He lay there for what seemed like days, when finally the snow dome above him began to lighten and even glow.
Regis breathed a sigh of relief, but where was Bruenor? The halfling rolled to his side and propped himself up on his elbows, glancing all about. In the dim light, he finally made out Bruenor's bedroll, tossed asunder. Before he could even begin to question the scene, he heard a commotion by the low tunnel to the igloo and sucked in his breath.
It was Bruenor coming through, and wearing less clothing than Regis had seen him in for several days.
"Sun's up," the dwarf said with a wide smile. "And the snow's fast melting. We best get our things and ourselves outta here afore the roof melts in on us!"
They didn't travel very far that day, for the warming weather fast melted the snows, making the mud nearly impossible to traverse. At least they weren't freezing anymore, though, and so they took the slowdown in good stride. Bruenor managed to find a dry spot for their camp, and they enjoyed a hearty meal and a fretful night filled with the sounds of wolves howling and yetis growling.
Still, they managed to find a bit of sleep, but when they awoke they had to wonder how good a thing that was. In the night a wolf, by the shape of the tracks, had come in and made off with a good deal of their supplies.
Despite loss and weariness, it was in good spirits that they made the beginning of the pass that day. No snow had fallen there, and the ground was stony and dry. They camped just within the protective walls of stone that night and were surprised when other lights appeared in the darkness. There was a camp of some sort higher up on the gorge's eastern wall.
"Well, go and see what that's all about," Bruenor bade Regis.
Regis looked at him skeptically.
"Ye're the sneak, ain't ye?" the dwarf said.
With a helpless chuckle, Regis picked himself up from the stone on which he had been enjoying his meal, gave a series of belches, and rubbed his full belly.
"Get all the wind outta ye afore ye try sneakin' up on our friends," the dwarf advised.
Regis burped again and patted his belly, then, with a resigned sigh (he always seemed to be doing that around Bruenor), he turned and started off into the dark night, leaving Bruenor to do the clean-up.
The smell of venison cooking as he neared the encampment, climbing quietly up a steep rock face, made the halfling think that perhaps Bruenor had been right in sending him out. Perhaps they would find a band of rangers willing to share the spoils of their hunt, or a band of merchants who had ridden out of the dale before them, and would be glad to hire them on as guards for the duration of the journey to Luskan.
Lost in fantasies of comfort, so eager to get his mouth on that beautiful-smelling venison, Regis nearly pulled himself full over the ledge with a big smile. Caution got the better of the halfling, though, and it was a good thing it did. As he pulled himself up slowly, lifting to just peek over the ledge, he saw that these were not rangers and were not merchants, but orcs. Big, smelly, ugly, nasty orcs. Fierce mountain orcs, wearing the skins of yetis, tearing at the hocks of venison with abandon, crunching cartilage and bone, swearing at each other and jostling for every piece they tore 'off the cooking carcass.
It took Regis a few moments to even realize that his arms had gone weak, and he had to catch himself before falling off the thirty-foot cliff. Slowly, trying hard not to scream out, trying hard not to breathe too loudly, he lowered himself back below lip.
In times past, that would have been the end of it, with Regis scrambling back down then running to Bruenor to report that there was nothing to be gained. But now, bolstered by the confidence that had come through his efforts on the road over the last few months, where he had worked hard to play an important role in his friends' heroics, and still stung by the nearly constant dismissal others showed to him when speaking of the Companions of the Hall, Regis decided it was not yet time to turn back. Far from it.
The halfling would get himself a meal of venison and one for Bruenor, too. But how?
The halfling worked himself around to the side, just a bit. Once out of the illumination of the firelight, he peeked over the ledge again. The orcs remained engrossed in their meal. One fight nearly broke out as two reached for the same chunk of meat, the first one even trying to bite the arm of the second as it reached in.
In the commotion that ensued, Regis went up over the ledge, staying flat on his belly and crawling behind a rock. A few moments later, with another squabble breaking out at the camp, the halfling picked a course and moved closer, and closer again.
"O, but now I've done it," Regis silently mouthed. "I'll get myself killed, to be sure. Or worse, captured, and Bruenor will get himself killed coming to find me!"
The potential of that thought weighed heavily on the little halfling. The dwarf was a brutal foe, Regis knew, and these ores would feel his wrath terribly, but they were big and tough, and there were six of them after all.
The thought that he might get his friend killed almost turned the halfling back.
Eventually he was close enough to smell the ugly brutes, and, more importantly, to notice some of the particulars about them. Like the fact that one was wearing a fairly expensive bracelet of gold, with a clasp that Regis knew he could easily undo.
A plan began to take shape.
The orc with the bracelet had a huge chunk of deer, a rear leg, in that hand. The nasty creature brought it up to its chomping mouth, then brought it back down to its side, then up and down, repeatedly and predictably.
Regis waited patiently for the next struggle that orc had with the beast to its left, as he knew that it would, as they all were, one after the other. As the bracelet-wearing brute held the venison out to the right defensively, fending off the advance of the creature on its left, a small hand came up from the shadows, taking the bracelet with a simple flick of plump little fingers.
The halfling brought his hand down, but to the right and not back, taking his loot to the pocket of the orc sitting to the right of his victim. In it went, softly and silently, and Regis took care to hang the end of the chain out in open sight.
The halfling quickly went back behind his rock and waited.
He heard his victim start with surprise a moment later.
"Who taked it?" the orc asked in its own brutish tongue, some of which Regis understood.
"Take what?" blustered the orc to the left. "Yer got yerself the bestest piece, ye glutton!"
"Yer taked me chain!" the victimized orc growled. It brought the deer leg across, smacking the other ore hard on the head.
"Aw, now how's Tuko got it?" asked another of the group. Ironically, it was the one with the chain hanging out of its pocket. "Yer been keeping yer hand away from Tuko all night!"
Things calmed for a second. Regis held his breath.
"Yer right, ain't ye, Ginick?" asked the victimized orc, and from its sly tone, Regis knew that the dim-witted creature had spotted something.
A terrible row ensued, with Regis's victim leaping up and swinging the deer leg in both hands like a club, aiming for Ginick's head. The target orc blocked with a burly arm and came up hard, catching the other about the waist and bearing it right over poor Tuko the other way. Soon all six were into it - pulling each other's hair, clubbing, punching, and biting.
Regis crept away soon after, enough venison in hand to satisfy a hungry dwarf and a hungrier halfling.
And wearing on his left wrist a newly acquired gold bracelet, one that had conveniently dropped from the pocket of a falsely accused orc thief.