Weapons flying, feet flapping, the two orcs had no desire to continue any battle with the deadly elf warrior on his flying horse - seeing three of their kin already down and dead was more than enough for their cowardly sensibilities, so they threw their weapons and ran away, sprinting along the rocky trail and shouting for help.
Behind and above them came the elf, astride his beautiful white charger, great wings driving them on. The orcs couldn't outrun him, certainly, nor could they hide unless they found a way underground.
And they would not, the elf knew.
He brought Sunrise out to the left, herding the pair back on the main, narrow trail.
Oblivious to anything but the pegasus and the elf, the orcs willingly veered and ran on at full speed. They came around a bend, one behind the other, and charged up a slight incline around another boulder.
At least, they tried to get around the boulder.
The second elf appeared, as beautiful as she was deadly. She came out in a spin from the left, from behind the boulder. The lead orc gave a shriek and stopped cold, throwing its hands out before it, but the elf didn't even strike at it. She rolled right around it, using the orc as an optical barrier to its running partner. The second orc pulled up fast, seeing its companion unexpectedly stopped, and didn't even notice the lithe form coming around on its companion's right until it was too late.
A sword skewered the orc through the chest.
The first orc opened its eyes again, and thought it had survived the attack, that the female elf had somehow gone right past it. Apparently, not one to pause and consider such a fortunate turn, the orc started to run again.
It got almost one full step before a sword bit it in the kidney. It got almost a second full step before the blade struck again. It got almost a third full step before the deadly sword came in yet again, across the back of its neck.
"I'm beginning to understand why Drizzt Do'Urden enjoys this existence," Tarathiel remarked, walking his mount up beside Innovindil.
"I do not think he enjoys it," Innovindil replied. She looked out across the rocks and gave a whistle. Sunset appeared, trotting her way. "He is driven by rage and is beyond all joy. We saw that when we came to his aid. He could not even accept our generosity."
Tarathiel wiped his bloody sword on the ratty tunic of one felled orc. His partner was right, he knew. He had hoped to begin a relationship with the dark elf when he and Innovindil had come upon Drizzt at the river. Tarathiel had hoped to speak with him about Ellifain, to learn what he might about her or to warn Drizzt that she was beyond reason and hunting for him.
But their discussion that day had never gotten even close to that point, and for exactly the reasons Innovindil had just espoused.
"Somewhere deep inside him, he must take some pleasure at killing these foul creatures," Tarathiel did respond. "He must recognize that his actions are for the betterment of the world."
"Let us hope," said Innovindil, in a less-than-convincing tone.
She looked up and around as she spoke, as if scanning for some sign of Drizzt.
The two moved along soon after, knowing that other orcs were converging on the area, rushing to investigate the screams of the five orcs the elves had killed. They kept the pegasi on the ground for the most part, trotting along, but used the flying mounts to cross ravines and small cliff faces to discourage any pursuit. They held high confidence that the grounded orcs could not possibly catch up.
The elves didn't return directly to their cave that night, though, preferring to scout out even wider in search of more prey.
Drizzt might be acting out of rage, but for Tarathiel and Innovindil, there was indeed a sense of accomplishment and even pleasure at the sport. And there was no shortage of orcs to hunt.
* * *
Donnia didn't even have to signal her pleasure to Ad'non when the glow of warmth led them to the pile of manure, for her evil smile summed it up perfectly.
Ad'non's expression showed that he was no less pleased.
The drow could see that most of the heat was gone from the pile, and they had a point of reference so that they could use that to determine the time the manure had been there. Dark elves were taught to judge heat dissipation from droppings from an early age, and the pile was similar in texture and size to that typical of the rothe cattle the dark elves farmed in their underground cities.
The pair flashed coordinating messages, and they set off on a roundabout path up the mountainside. Moving from bluff to bluff, from stone to stone, and from tree to tree, the pair made leap-frogging progress. Another pile of manure brought grins.
Then some more, down below them as they looked out from a flat stone.
Cave, Ad'non signaled, falling to his belly off to Donnia's right.
The two dark elves didn't know it, but they were atop the very same stone from which Drizzt had first glimpsed the cave of Tarathiel and Innovindil.
Donnia flicked a series of signals back to Ad'non, then slid forward on her belly to the very lip of the flat stone. A glance around and at Ad'non to ensure that he had his hand crossbow at the ready, and Donnia rolled right over the stone, holding securely to its Up, then skipping down the ten feet to hit the ground running across from the cave. At the side of the dark entrance, she drew out sword and hand crossbow.
Up above, Ad'non went over in a similar manner and quick-stepped his way to the wall opposite the entrance from Donnia.
Warm ashes within, Donnia flashed, a sure sign that the place was being used as a campsite.
Ad'non fell low and peered around, taking his time with the scan.
Empty, he silently told his companion. But not deserted.
Neither had to signal the other that they should set an ambush.
The drow elves moved around outside the cave, looking for some promis-ing vantage points for an ambush. They didn't remain too close to the entrance, though, nor did they go in, showing proper respect for their dangerous adver-saries. Soon after, Donnia stumbled upon something even more promising: a second cave.
_This one is deeper_, she signaled.
Ad'non came up to the lip of the small tunnel. He studied the descent within and the general angle of the corridor, then measured both against the location of the cave the surface elves were obviously using as a base. He motioned Donnia back, then fell to his belly and turned his head away as he gingerly slid his hand into the cave, delicate and practiced fingers working around the rim in search of any cunning traps. Gradually, Ad'non's arm went in deeper, feeling every inch.
With a glance at Donnia, the drow male slithered into the small hole, disappearing from view.
Donnia moved to the lip and glanced in just in time to see Ad'non's feet slip around the first bend in the corridor. With a look all around, she gently put one ear to the stone. The tapping of a predetermined code sent her into motion, falling flat and slipping in. The going was tight and tighter still when she worked around that first bend, and she came to a hole in the floor that could be negotiated only by going in head first, and blindly. Few rational creatures would have continued through such an uncomfortable obstacle, but to the dark elves, who had spent so many decades working through countless similar corridors in the honeycombed Underdark, it was not so daunting.
The corridor below the hole was a bit wider, though the ceiling was too low for Donnia to lift her head as she crawled along. It widened even more and opened into a higher chamber, and there she found her companion, sitting on a stone.
_We should go down lower_, Ad'non reasoned, and he motioned to the several choices offered to them: a pair of corridors winding out of the chamber, a wider area up a steep incline that seemed to extend over a wall of piled stones, and a broken-walled, rocky hole winding down deeper.
Donnia knew better than to argue with Ad'non concerning underground direction sense, for the scout had always shown a remarkable ability to navigate such tunnels. He was possessed of a keen instinct for that type of searching, as if he could innately sense the structure of any cave complex, as if he could somehow step back from the smaller areas visible to them at any given time and view the whole of the region. Perhaps it was the flow of the air or gradations of heat or light, but however he did it, Ad'non always seemed to follow the best course along a maze of tunnels.
And sure enough, after squeezing down the rocky shaft, crawling under a low overhang of rock and following yet another winding tunnel, the dark elves came into a small chamber. A slight breeze blew through the far wall. Not much of a wind, but one that sounded clearly to the keen ears of the drow.
_Dead end_? Donnia asked.
Ad'non signed her to be patient, then he moved to that far wall and began feeling along the stone. He looked back and grinned wickedly, and when Donnia rushed up to join him, she soon understood.
For they had come into a chamber adjacent to the cave the surface elves were using as their camp, and while there was no access between the chambers, the dark elves were able to work enough of the stone to give them a view of the other room.
They carefully replaced the stones and went back out into the night.
* * *
Drizzt went down to one knee and stared out across the early-morning landscape. Mist rose from the many mountain streams, dulling the sharp lines of ridges and outcroppings and adding a surreal quality to the morning light, dispersing it in a haze of orange and yellow. That mist dulled the sounds, too. The cry of birds, the rumble of loose stones, the babble of running water.
The scream of orcs.
Drizzt followed those screams out across a valley to another ridge across the way, and he made out the winged form of one pegasus, lifting into the air, then diving suddenly, and again, while its rider let fly a line of arrows from a longbow.
That would be Tarathiel, Drizzt supposed, for he was usually the one chasing the orcs into Innovindil's ambush.
Drizzt shook his head and gave a grin at their efficiency, for the pair had been out hunting before the last sunset and were out again at the first signs of dawn. He doubted that they had even returned to their cave during the night. He watched the chase a bit longer, then padded off softly for a secluded glade that he knew of nearby. Once there, he found a quiet place off to the side where he could watch the grassy area unnoticed, and he waited.
Sure enough, barely half an hour later, a pair of pegasi trotted onto the meadow, the two elves walking beside them and talking easily. The mounts needed to rest and to eat and needed to be wiped down as well, for their white coats glistened with sweat.
Drizzt had figured as much, and thus, he had expected the elf pair. Once again, the thought of going to them nagged at him. Was it not his responsibility to tell them of Ellifain and the tragedy in the west?
And yet, as the minutes passed, with Tarathiel and Innovindil untacking the Pegasi, the drow did not move.
He watched their movements as they gently watered down the marvelous steeds with water from a nearby brook. He watched Tarathiel bring a bucket up before each pegasus in turn, gently stroking the sides of their heads as they bent low to drink. He watched Innovindil bring forth some type of root. She put it in her mouth and stood before her mount teasingly, and the pegasus reached out and took the root from her in what could only be described as a kiss. The stallion reared then, but not threateningly, and Innovindil merely laughed and did not move as the great equine creature waved its front hooves in the air before her.
Drizzt's hand went to his belt pouch and the onyx figurine at the sight of the intimate interaction, for the way Tarathiel and Innovindil acted with their pegasi seemed a deeper level than master and creature, seemed a friendship more than anything else. Drizzt above all others understood such a relationship.
Again the drow felt the urge to go to them, to talk to them and to tell them the truth. He paused and looked down, then closed his eyes and relived that fateful battle with the disturbed Ellifain. For many minutes, he sat there quietly, remembering the encounter and the one previous with Ellifain, in the Moonwood and with Tarathiel nearby. He understood the pain Tarathiel would feel upon hearing of Ellifain's fate, for he had seen the compassion Tarathiel had shown to the disturbed elf female.
He didn't want to bring that pain to those two.
But they had a right to know, and he a responsibility to tell them.
Yes, he had to tell them.
But when he looked up, the elves were already gone. Drizzt moved from his hiding place, a low crook on a tree nestled among several others. He went to the edge of the meadow, scanning, and he saw the pegasi lift into the air from over the other end.
Drizzt knew that they weren't going hunting. The mounts were too weary and so were the elves, likely. He watched their progress and figured their direction.
They were going back to their cave.
Drizzt wondered if he really had the strength to go to them and tell them his tale.
* * *
"We should return to the Moonwood and gather the clan," Tarathiel said to his companion as the two elves settled their pegasi outside the antechamber of their cave shelter.
"Are you ready to abandon Drizzt Do'Urden when you have not yet learned of Ellifain?" Innovindil replied.
"Soon," Tarathiel replied.
He began stripping off his bloodstained clothing and carefully hung his sword belt on a natural wall hook above his bedroll, then pulled off his tunic. Noticing a wound on his shoulder, he went back to the sword belt and reached into his pouch to produce a jar of salve.
Across from him, Innovindil was similarly stripping down and carefully laying out her dirty clothes.
"One scored a hit on you," she remarked, seeing the long scratch along Tarathiel's shoulder and upper arm.
"A branch, I believe," Tarathiel corrected, and he winced as he rubbed the cleansing salve over the wound. "During Sunrise's dive."
He replaced the top on the jar of salve and dropped it down to his bedroll, then pulled off his breeches and knelt down, straightening the blankets.
"Not too deep?" Innovindil asked.
"Not at all," came the assurance from Tarathiel, but the reply ended abruptly, and when Innovindil turned to regard him, she saw him crumple down on the bedroll.
"Are you that weary?" she asked lightheartedly, at first thinking nothing of it.
A few seconds slipped past.
"Tarathiel?" she asked, for he hadn't responded at all and lay very still. Innovindil moved over to him and bent low. "Tarathiel?"
A slight noise turned her head up to look at the back wall, and she spotted the hole in the stones and the small contraption - a hand crossbow - set in it.
The click of its release halted her questioning gasp, and she watched the small dart zoom across the short expanse. She tried to dodge but was too close. She threw her hand up instinctively to block, but the dart was already past that Point - already past the waving hand and sticking deep into the base of her neck, just above her collarbone.
Innovindil staggered backward, her hand still held out before her. The hand was trembling, and violently, she realized only by looking at it. Even then the drow poison was coursing through her veins, numbing her extremities, dulling her thoughts. She realized she was sitting, though she hadn't intended to.
Then she was on her back, staring up at the ceiling of the cave. She tried to call out, but her lips wouldn't move to her command. She tried to turn her head to regard her companion, but she could not.
* * *
Behind the wall, Ad'non and Donnia exchanged grins and quickly moved away. They moved out of the back tunnel in a few moments' time and rushed around the hill to the front entrance of the cave. They each reached into their innate magic and summoned a globe of darkness, one over each of the pegasi milling around the entrance. The pegasi whinnied and stomped the ground in protest, and the dark elves rushed past them quickly.
Ad'non led the way up to the two paralyzed surface elves, Innovindil lying on her back before him and Tarathiel beyond her, crumpled in the fetal position.
"Beautiful, naked, and helpless," Ad'non remarked as he lewdly regarded the elf female.
With a wide grin and a quick glance back to Donnia, the drow crouched over and began stroking the elf's bare shoulder. Innovindil shuddered and jerked spasmodically, obviously trying to curl up and cower away from the touch.
That brought a chuckle from Ad'non, and from Donnia, who was enjoying the show.
"Beautiful, naked and helpless," Ad'non said again, and he glanced back at his drow companion. "Just the way I like my fairies."
Part Three - Courage And Cowardice
How strange it was for me to watch the two elves come to my aid that day at the river. How out of sorts I felt, and how off-balance. I knew the hunting pair were in the area, of course, but to actually confront them on such terras took me to places where I did not dare to venture.
Took me back to the cave in the west, where Ellifain, their friend, lay dead at the end of my bloody blade.
How convenient the situation was to me in that moment of recognition, for there was truth in my advisement that we should flee along separate trails to discourage pursuit. There was justification in my reasoning.
But that cannot hide the truth I know in my own heart. I ran off down a different path because I was afraid, because courage in battle and courage in personal and emotional matters are often two separate attributes, and an abundance of one does not necessarily translate into an ample amount of the other.
I fear little from enemies. I fear more from friends. That is the paradox of my life. I can face a giant, a demon, a dragon, with scimitars drawn and enthusiasm high, and yet it took me years to admit my feelings for Catti-brie, to let go of the fears and just accept our relationship as the most positive aspect of my entire life.
And now I can throw myself into a gang of orcs without regard, blades slashing, a song of battle on my lips, but when Tarathiel and Innovindil presented themselves to me, I felt naked and helpless. I felt like a child again in Menzoberranzan, hiding from my mother and my vicious sisters. I do not think those two meant me any harm; they did not aid me in my battle just so they could find the satisfaction of killing me themselves. They came to me openly, knowing my identity.
But not knowing of my encounter with poor Ellifain, I am fairly certain.
I should have told them. I should have confessed all. I should have explained my pain and my regret, should have bowed before them with sorrow and humility, should have prayed with them for the safekeeping of poor Ellifain's spirit.
I should have trusted them. Tarathiel knows me and once trusted me with one of the precious horses of the Moonwood. Tarathiel saw the truth and believed that I had acted nobly on that long-ago night when the drow raiding party had crept out of the Underdark to slaughter Ellifain's clan.
He would have understood my encounter with Ellifain. He would have seen the futility of my position and the honest pain within my heart and soul.
And he should know the fate of his old friend. By all rights, he and Innovindil deserve to know of the death of Ellifain, of how she fell, and perhaps together we could then determine why she fell.
But I couldn't tell them. Not there. Not then. The wave of panic that rolled through me was as great as any I have ever known. All that I could think of was how I might get out of there, of how I might get away from these two allies, these two friends of dead Ellifain.
And so I ran.
With my scimitars, I am Drizzt the Brave, who shies from no battle. I am Drizzt who walked into a verbeeg lair beside Wulfgar and Guenhwyvar, knowing we were outmatched and outnumbered but hardly afraid! I am Drizzt, who survived alone in the Underdark for a decade, who accepted his fate and his inevitable death (or so I thought) rather than compromise those principles that I knew to be the true guiding lights of my existence.
But I am also Drizzt the Coward, fearing no physical challenge but unable to take an emotional leap into the arms of Catti-brie. I am Drizzt the Coward, who flees from Tarathiel because he cannot confess.
I am Drizzt, who has not returned to Mithral Hall after the fall of Shallows because without that confirmation of what I know to be true, that my friends are all dead, I can hold a sliver of hope that somehow some of them managed to escape the carnage. Regis, perhaps, using his ruby pendant to have the orcs carry him to waiting Batdehammer arms. Wulfgar, perhaps, raging beyond sensibility, reverting to his time in the Abyss and a pain and anger beyond control, scattering orcs before him until all those others ran from him and did not pursue.
And Catti-brie with him, perhaps.
It is all folly, I know.
I heard the orcs. I know the truth.
I am amazed at how much I hide behind these blades of mine. I am amazed at how little I fear death at an enemy's hands, and yet, at how greatly I fear having to tell Tarathiel the truth of Ellifain.
Still, I know that to be my responsibility. I know that to be the proper and just course.
I know that.
In matters of the heart, courage cannot overcome cowardice until I am honest with myself, until I admit the truth.
My reasoning in running away from the two elves that day in the river was sound and served to deflect their curiosity. But that reasoning was also a lie, because I cannot yet dare to care again.
I know that.