e'd've found a faster road with a bit of wizard's magic," Catti-brie remarked. It wasn't the first time the woman had good-naturedly ribbed Drizzt about his refusal to accept Val-Doussen's offer. "We'd be well on our way back, I'm thinking, and with Wulfgar in tow."

"You sound more like a dwarf every day," Drizzt countered, using a stick to prod the fire upon which a fine stew was cooking. "You should begin to worry when you notice an aversion to open spaces, like the road we now travel.

"No, wait!" the drow sarcastically exclaimed, as if the truth had just come to him. "Are you not expressing just such an aversion?"

"Keep waggin' yer tongue, Drizzt Do'Urden," Catti-brie muttered quietly. "Ye might be fine with yer spinning blades, but how are ye with catching a few stinging arrows?"

"I have already cut your bowstring," the drow casually replied, leaning forward and taking a sip of the steaming stew.

Catti-brie actually started to look over at Taulmaril, lying unstrung at the side of the fallen log on which she now sat. She put on a smirk, though, and turned back to her sarcastic friend. "I'm just thinking we might have missed Sea Sprite as she put out for her last run o' the season," Catti-brie said, seriously, this time.

Indeed, the wind had taken on a bit of a bite over the last few days, autumn fast flowing past. Deudermont often took Sea Sprite out at this time of the year to haunt the waters off Water-deep for a couple of tendays before turning south to warmer climes and more active pirates.

Drizzt knew it, too, as was evident by the frown that crossed his angular features. That little possibility had been troubling him since he and Catti-brie had left the Hosttower, and made him wonder if his refusal of Val-Doussen's offer had been too selfish an act.

"All the fool mage wanted was a bit of talking," the woman went on. "A few hours of yer time would've made him happy and would have saved us a tenday of walking - and no, I'm not fearing the road or even bothered by it, and ye know it! There's no place in the world I'd rather be than on the road beside ye, but we've got others to think of, and it'd be better for Bruenor, and for Wulfgar, if we find him before he gets into too much more trouble."

Drizzt started to respond with a reminder that Wulfgar, if he was indeed with Deudermont and the crew of Sea Sprite, was in fine hands, was among allies at least as powerful as the Companions of the Hall. He held the words, though, and considered Catti-brie's argument more carefully, truly hearing what she was saying instead of reflexively formulating a defensive answer. He knew she was right, that Wulfgar, that all of them, would be better off if they were reunited. Perhaps he should have spent a few hours talking to Val-Doussen.

"So just tell me why ye didn't," Catti-brie gently prompted. "Ye could've got us to Waterdeep in the blink of a wizard's eye, and I'm knowing ye believe that to be a good thing. And yet ye didn't, so might ye be telling me why?"

"Val-Doussen is no scholar," Drizzt replied.

Catti-brie leaned in and took the spoon from him, then dipped it into the stew and, brushing her thick, long auburn hair back from her face, took a sip. She stared at Drizzt all the while, her inquisitive expression indicating that he should elaborate.

"His interest in Menzoberranzan is one of personal gain and nothing more," Drizzt remarked. "He had no desire for bettering the world, but only hoped that something I would tell him might offer him an advantage he could exploit."

Still Catti-brie stared at him, obviously not catching on. Even if Drizzt's words were true, why, given Drizzt's relationship with his wicked kin, did that even matter?

"He hoped I would unveil some of the mysteries of the drow," Drizzt continued, undaunted by his companion's expression.

"And even if ye did, from what I know of Menzoberranzan Val-Doussen couldn't be using yer words for anything more than his own doom," Catti-brie put in, and sincerely, for she had visited that exotic dark elf city, and she knew well the great power of the place.

Drizzt shrugged and reached for the spoon, but Catti-brie, smiling widely, pulled it away from him.

Drizzt sat back, staring at her, not sharing her smile. He was deep in concentration, needing to make his point. "Val-Doussen hoped to personally profit from my words, to use my tales for his own nefarious reasons, and at the expense of those my information delivered unto him. Be it my kin in Menzoberranzan, or Bruenor's in Mithral Hall, my actions would have been no less wicked."

"I'd not be comparing Clan Battlehammer to - " Catti-brie started.

"I am not," Drizzt assured her. "I speak of nothing more here than my own principles. If Val-Doussen sought information of a goblin settlement that he could lead a preemptive assault against them, I would gladly comply, because I trust that such a goblin settlement would soon enough cause tragedy to any living nearby."

"And didn't yer own kin come to Mithral Hall?" Catti-brie asked, following the logic.

"Once," Drizzt admitted. "But as far as I know, my kin are not on their way back to the surface world in search of plunder and mayhem."

"As far as ye know."

"Besides, anything I offered to Val-Doussen would not have prevented any dark elf raids in any case," Drizzt went on, stepping lightly so that Catti-brie could not catch him in a logic trap. "No, more likely, the fool would have gone to Menzoberranzan, alone or with others, in some attempt at grand thievery. That most likely would have done no more than to stir up the dark elves into murderous revenge."

Catti-brie started to ask another question, but just sat back instead, staring at her friend. Finally, she nodded and said, "Ye're making a bit o' assumptions there."

Drizzt didn't begin to disagree, audibly or with his body language.

"But I'm seeing yer point that ye shouldn't be mixing yerself up with those of less than honorable intent."

"You respect that?" Drizzt asked.

Catti-brie gave what might have been an agreeing nod.

"Then give me the spoon," the dark elf said more forcefully. "I'm starving!"

In response, Catti-brie moved forward and dipped the spoon into the pot, then lifted it toward Drizzt's waiting lips. At the last moment, the drow's lavender eyes closed against the steam, the woman pulled the spoon back to her own lips.

Drizzt's eyes popped open, his surprised and angry expression overwhelmed by the playful and teasing stare of Catti-brie. He went forward in a sudden burst, falling over the woman and knocking her right off the back of the log, then wrestling with her for the spoon.

Neither Drizzt nor Catti-brie could deny the truth that there was no place in all the world they would rather be.

* * * * * * * * * *

The walls climbed up around the small party, a combination of dark gray-brown cliff facings and patches of steeply sloping green grass. A few trees dotted the sides of the gorge, small and thin things, really, unable to get firm footing or to send their roots very deep into the rocky ground.

The place was ripe for an ambush, Le'lorinel understood, but neither the elf nor the other four members of the party were the least bit worried of any such possibility. Sheila Kree and her ruffians owned this gorge. Le'lorinel had caught the group's leader, the brown-haired woman named Genny, offering a few subtle signals toward the peaks. Sentries were obviously in place there.

There would be no calls, though, for none would be heard beyond a few dozen strides. In the distance, Le'lorinel could hear the constant song of the river that had cut this gorge, flowing underground now, under the left-hand wall as they made their way to the south. Directly ahead, some distance away, the surf thundered against the rocky coast. The wind blew down from behind them, filling their ears. The chilling wind of Icewind Dale escaped the tundra through this mountain pass.

Le'lorinel felt strangely comfortable in this seemingly inhospitable and forlorn place. The elf felt a sense of freedom away from the clutter of society that had never held much interest. Perhaps there would be more to this relationship with Sheila Kree, Le'lorinel mused. Perhaps after the business with Drizzt Do'Urden was finished, Le'lorinel could stay on with Kree's band, serving as a sentry in this very gorge.

Of course, that all hinged on whether or not the elf remained alive after an encounter with the deadly dark elf, and in truth, unless Le'lorinel could find some way to get the enchanted ring back from Genny, that seemed a remote possibility indeed.

Without that ring, would Le'lorinel even dare to go against the dark elf?

A shudder coursed the elf's spine, one brought on by thoughts and not the chilly wind.

The party moved past several small openings, natural vents for the caverns that served as Kree's home in the three-hundred-foot mound to the left, a series of caves settled above the present-day river. Down around a bend in the gorge, they came to a wide natural alcove and a larger cave entrance, a place where the river had once cut its way out through the limestone rock.

A trio of guards sat among the crags to the right-hand wall within, huddled in the shadows, throwing bones and chewing near-raw mutton, their heavy weapons close at hand. Like the three who had accompanied Le'lorinel to this place, the guards were huge, obviously a product of mixed parentage, human and ogre, and favoring the ogre side indeed.

They bristled at the approach of the band but didn't seem too concerned, and Le'lorinel understood that the sentries along the gorge had likely warned them of the intruders.

"Where is the boss?" Genny asked.

"Chogurugga in her room," one soldier grunted in reply.

"Not Chogurugga," said Genny. "Sheila Kree. The real boss."

Le'lorinel didn't miss the scowl that came at the woman at that proclamation. The elf readily understood that there was some kind of power struggle going on here, likely between the pirates and the ogres.

One of the guards grunted and showed its nasty yellow teeth, then motioned toward the back of the cave.

The three accompanying soldiers took out torches and set them ablaze. On the travelers went, winding their way through a myriad of spectacular natural designs. At first, Le'lorinel thought running water was all around them, cascading down the sides of the tunnel in wide, graceful waterfalls, but as the elf looked closer the truth became evident. It was not water, but formations of rock left behind by the old river, limestone solidified into waterfall images still slick from the dripping that came with every rainfall.

Great tunnels ran off the main one, many winding up, spiraling into the mound, others branching off at this level often forming huge, boulder-filled chambers. So many shapes assaulted the elf's outdoor sensibilities! Images of animals and weapons, of lovers entwined and great forests, of whatever Le'lorinel's imagination allowed the elf to see! Le'lorinel was a creature of the forest, a creature of the moon, and had never before been underground. For the very first time, the elf gained some appreciation of the dwarves and the halflings, the gnomes and any other race that chose the subterranean world over that of the open sky.

No, not any other race, Le'lorinel promptly reminded. Not the drow, those ebon-skinned devils of lightless chambers. Certainly there was beauty here, but beauty only reflected in the light of the torches.

The party moved on in near silence, save the crackle of the torches, for the floor was of clay, smooth and soft. They descended for some time along the main chamber, the primary riverbed of ages past, and moved beyond several other guard stations, sometimes manned by half-ogres, once by a pair of true ogres, and once by normal-looking men - pirates, judging from their dress and from the company they kept.

Le'lorinel took it all in halfheartedly, too concerned with the forthcoming meeting, the all-important plea that had to be made to Sheila Kree. With Kree's assistance, Le'lorinel might find the end of a long, heart-wrenching road. Without Kree's favor, Le'lorinel would likely wind up dead and discarded in one of these side-passages.

And worse, to the elf's sensibilities, Drizzt Do'Urden would remain very much alive.

Genny turned aside suddenly, down a narrow side passage. Both Genny and Le'lorinel had to drop to all fours to continue on, crawling under a low overhang of solid stone. Their three larger companions had to get right down on their bellies and crawl. On the other side was a wide chamber of startling design, widening up and out to the left, its stalactite ceiling many, many feet above.

Genny didn't even look at it, though, but rather focused on a small hole in the floor, moving to a ladder that had been set into one wall. Down she went, followed by a guard, then Le'lorinel, then the other two.

Far down, perhaps a hundred steps, they came to another corridor and set off, arriving soon after in another cave. It was a huge cavern, open to the southwest, to the rocky bay and the sea beyond. Water poured in from many openings in the walls and ceiling, the river emptying into the sea.

In the cave sat Bloody Keel, moored to the western wall, with sailors crawling all over her repairing the rigging and hull damage.

"Now that you've seen this much, you would be wise to pray to whatever god you know that Sheila Kree accepts you," Genny whispered to the elf. "There are but two ways out of here: as a friend or as a corpse."

Looking at the ruffian crew scrambling all about the ship, cutthroats all, Le'lorinel didn't doubt those words for a moment.

Genny led the way out of another exit, this one winding back up into the mountain from the back of the docking cave. The passages smelled of smoke, and were torch-lit all the way, so the escorting guards doused their own torches and put them away, Higher and higher they climbed into the mountain, passing storerooms and barracks, crossing through an area that seemed to Le'lorinel to be reserved for the pirates, and another horribly smelly place that housed the ogre clan.

More than a few hungry gazes came the elf's way as they passed by the ravenous ogres, but none came close enough to even prod Le'lorinel. Their respect for Kree was tremendous, the elf recognized, simply from the fact that they weren't causing any trouble. Le'lorinel had enough experience with ogres to know that they were usually unruly and more than ready to make a meal of any smaller humanoid they encountered.

They came to the highest levels of the mound soon after, pausing in an open chamber lined by several doors. Genny motioned for the other four to wait there while she went to the center door of the room, knocked, and disappeared through the door. She returned a short while later.

"Come," she bade Le'lorinel.

When the three brutish guards moved to escort the elf, Genny held them at bay with an upraised hand. "Go get some food," the brown-haired woman instructed the half-ogres.

Le'lorinel glanced at the departing half-ogres curiously, not sure whether this signaled that Sheila Kree trusted Genny's word, or whether the pirate was simply too confident or too well-protected to care.

Le'lorinel figured it must be the latter.

Sheila Kree, dressed in nothing more than light breeches and a thin, sleeveless shirt, was standing in the room within, amongst piles of furs, staring out her window at the wide waters. She turned when Genny announced Le'lorinel, her smile bright on her freckled face, her green eyes shining under the crown of her tied-up red hair.

"I've been told ye're fearing for me life, elf," the pirate leader remarked. "I'm touched by yer concern."

Le'lorinel stared at her curiously.

"Ye've come to warn me of a dark elf, so says Genny," the pirate clarified.

"I have come to slay a dark elf," Le'lorinel corrected. "That my actions will benefit you as well is merely a fortunate coincidence."

Sheila Kree gave a great belly laugh and strode over to stand right in front of the elf, towering over Le'lorinel. The pirate's eyes roamed up and down Le'lorinel's slender, even delicate form. "Fortunate for yerself, or for me?"

"For both, I would guess," Le'lorinel answered.

"Ye must hate this drow more than a bit to have come here," Sheila Kree remarked.

"More than you can possibly imagine."

"And would ye tell me why?"

"It is a long tale," Le'lorinel said.

"Well, since winter's fast coming and Bloody Keel's, still in dock, it's looking like I've got the time," Sheila Kree said with another laugh. She swept her arm out toward some piles of furs, motioning for Le'lorinel to join her.

They talked for the rest of the afternoon, with Le'lorinel giving an honest, if slanted account of the many errors of Drizzt Do'Urden. Sheila Kree listened intently, as did Genny, as did a third woman, Bellany, who came in soon after the elf had begun the tale. All three seemed more than a little amused and interested, and as time went on, Le'lorinel relaxed even more.

When the tale was done, both Bellany and Genny applauded, but just for a moment stopping and looking to Sheila for a cue.

"A good tale," the pirate leader decided. "And I find that I believe yer words. Ye'll understand that we've much to check on afore we let ye have a free run."

"Of course," Le'lorinel agreed, giving a slight bow.

"Ye give over yer weapons, and we'll set ye in a room," Sheila explained. "I've no work for ye right now, so ye can get yer rest from the long road." As she finished, the pirate held out her hand.

Le'lorinel considered things for just a moment, then decided that Kree and her associates - especially the one named Bellany, who Le'lorinel had concluded was a spellcaster, likely a sorceress - in truth made surrendering the weapons nothing more than symbolic. With a smile at the fiery pirate, the elf turned over the dagger and sword.

* * * * * * * * * * *

"I suppose you consider this humorous," Drizzt said dryly, his tone interrupted only by the occasional wheeze as he tried to draw breath.

He was lying on the ground, facedown in the dirt, with six hundred pounds of panther draped over him. He had called up Guenhwyvar to do some hunting while he and Catti-brie continued their mock battle over the stew, but then the woman had whispered something in Guen's ear, and the cat, obviously gender loyal, had brought Drizzt down with a great flying tackle.

A few feet away, Catti-brie was thoroughly enjoying her stew.

"Ye do look a bit ridiculous," she admitted between sips.

Drizzt scrambled, and almost slipped out from under the panther. Guenhwyvar dropped a huge paw on his shoulder, extracting long claws and holding him fast.

"Ye keep on with yer fighting and Guen'll have herself a meal," Catti-brie remarked.

Drizzt's lavender eyes narrowed. "There remains a small matter of repayment," he said quietly.

Catti-brie gave a snort, then moved down close to him, on her knees. She lifted a spoon full of stew and blew on it gently, then moved it out toward Drizzt, slowly, teasingly. It almost reached his mouth when the woman pulled it back abruptly, the spoon disappearing into her mouth.

Her smile went away fast, though, as she saw Guenhwyvar dissipating into a gray mist. The cat protested, but the dismissal of her master, Drizzt, could not be ignored.

Catti-brie darted off into the woods with Drizzt in fast pursuit.

He caught her with a leaping tackle a short distance away, bearing her to the ground beneath him, then using his amazing agility and deceptive strength to roll her over and pin her. The firelight was lost behind the trees and shrubs, the starlight and the glow of a half moon alone highlighting the woman's beautiful features.

"Ye call this repayment?" the woman teased when Drizzt was atop her, straddling her and holding her arms to the ground above her head.

"Only beginning," he promised.

Catti-brie started to laugh, but stopped suddenly, her look to Drizzt becoming serious, even concerned.

"What is it?" the perceptive drow asked. He backed off a bit, letting go of her arms.

"With any luck, we'll be finding Wulfgar," Catti-brie said.

"That is our hope, yes," the drow agreed.

"How're ye feeling about that?" the woman asked bluntly.

Drizzt sat up straighter, staring at her hard. "How should I feel?"

"Are ye jealous?" Catti-brie asked. "Are ye fearing that Wulfgar's return - if he should return with us, I mean - will change some things in yer life that ye're not wanting changed?"

Drizzt gave a helpless chuckle, overwhelmed by Catti-brie's straightforwardness and honesty. Something was beginning to burn between them, the drow knew, something long overdue yet still amazing and unexpected. Catti-brie had once loved Wulfgar, had even been engaged to marry him before his apparent demise in Mithral Hall, so what would happen if Wulfgar returned to them now - not the Wulfgar who had run away, the Wulfgar who had slapped Catti-brie hard - but the man they had once known, the man who had once taken Catti-brie's heart?

"Do I hope that Wulfgar's return will not affect our relationship in any negative way?" he asked. "Of course I do. And saying that, do I hope that Wulfgar returns to us? Of course I do. And I pray that he has climbed out of his darkness, back to the man we both once knew and loved."

Catti-brie settled comfortably and didn't interrupt, her interested expression prompting him to elaborate.

Drizzt began with a shrug. "I do not wish to live my life in a jealous manner," he said. "And I especially can not think in those terms with any of my true friends. My stake in Wulfgar's return is no less than your own. My happiness will be greater if once again the proud and noble barbarian I once adventured beside returns to my life.

"As for our friendship and what may come of it," Drizzt continued quietly, but with that same old self-assurance, that inner guidance that had walked the drow out of wicked Menzoberranzan and had carried him through so many difficult adventures and decisions ever since.

He gave a wistful smile and a shrug. "I live my life in the best manner I can," he said. "I act honestly and in good faith and with the hopes of good friendship, and I hope that things turn out for the best. I can only be this drow you see before you, whether or not Wulfgar returns to us. If in your heart and in mine, there is meant to be more between us, then it shall be. If not. . . ." He stopped and smiled and shrugged again.

"There ye go, with yer tongue wandering about again," Catti-brie said. "Did ye ever think ye should just shut up and kiss me?"

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