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.