Drizzt pulled himself up over the dark stone and dexterously moved his foot atop the abutment. He started to leap over, quickly sorting out his landing area, but he relaxed and paused, noting that Guenhwyvar had the situation completely under control.
There stood the female drow, weapons in hand, but talking to the cat, bidding Guenhwyvar to back off and not kill her.
"Perhaps if you threw your weapons to the ground, Guenhwyvar would not seem so hungry," Drizzt called down, and he was surprised at how easily the little-used drow language came back to him.
"And when I do, you will instruct your panther to slay me," came the reply.
"I could instruct her so right now," Drizzt argued, "and could be down beside her quickly enough, I assure you. Your choices are few. Surrender, or fight and die."
The female glanced up at him - even from a distance, he could see her sneer - but then she looked back at Guenhwyvar and angrily threw her sword and dagger to the ground.
Guenhwyvar continued to circle her but did not advance.
"What is your name?" Drizzt asked, scrambling over the stone and picking a rocky path down to the small stone hollow where the cat had cornered the female.
"I am of family Soldou," the female replied tentatively. "Is that a name known to you?"
"It is not," Drizzt announced, suddenly right behind her, having fast-stepped around the bowl, out of sight. The suddenness of his arrival startled the female. "And in truth, your surname is not important to me. Not nearly as important as your purpose in being here."
Slowly, the female turned to face him. She was quite pretty, Drizzt noted, with her hair parted so that long strands covered half her face, including one of her reddish eyes - not the spidery bloodshot lines he often saw in orcs, but a general reddish hue.
"I escaped the Underdark much as you did, Drizzt Do'Urden," she answered, and though he did well to hide it, the references to him, the apparent knowledge of his course, did indeed surprise Drizzt. "If you knew of family Soldou, you would understand that we lost favor with the Spider Queen, by choice. As one, we forsook that wicked demon queen, and so we were destroyed almost to a one."
"But you got out?"
"Here I stand."
"Indeed, and in company quite fitting a follower of Lolth," Drizzt remarked, and he brought Twinkle up in a flash, the edge of the blade resting against the side of the female's neck.
She didn't flinch.
"Only so that I could survive," the female tried to explain. "I came out and still have not adapted to this fiery orb that burns its way across the high ceiling."
"It takes time."
"I found the other drow - his name is Ad'non - "
"Was," Drizzt corrected, and he shrugged.
The female didn't flinch.
"I would have killed him soon enough anyway," she went on. "I could not tolerate his vileness any longer. As soon as he stripped down to take advantage of the paralyzed elf, I meant to run him through."
Drizzt nodded, though of course he did not believe a word of it. For a supposed convert against the drow nature, she seemed quite willing to put a dart or two into him, after all.
"You still have not told me your name."
"Donnia," she answered, and Drizzt was somewhat relieved that she had not lied to him on that, at least. He had heard the male call her by name, after all-"I am Donnia Soldou, who seeks the blessing of Eilistraee."
That reference put Drizzt somewhat off his center, obviously so.
"You have heard of the Lady of the Dance?"
"Rumors," said Drizzt.
He believed that the female was lying, of course, but still, he couldn't help but be intrigued, for he had indeed heard whispers of the goddess Eilistraee and her followers - supposedly drow of like heart to his own.
"I am sorry that I turned on you in the cave of the elves," Donnia went on. She lowered her gaze. "You must understand that my companion was a powerful warrior and that I was alive only by his good graces. If he suspected that I was a traitor, he would have long-ago killed me."
"And you found no opportunities in all this time to be rid of him?"
Donnia stared up at him.
"Or is he not the only companion you have found?"
"Only Ad'non," Donnia said. "Well, Ad'non and his friends, the giants and the orcs. He has been here for many years, a rogue not unlike yourself - though his intent is far different. He haunts the tunnels among the upper Underdark and about the Spine of the World, finding his pleasures where he can."
"Then why did you not rid yourself of him and be on your way?" Drizzt asked.
Donnia nodded and rubbed a hand across her face.
"Then I would have been alone," she whispered. "Alone and up here, in this place I do not know. I was weak, Drizzt Do'Urden. Can you not understand?"
"I can indeed," Drizzt admitted.
He sheathed Icingdeath and moved Twinkle from Donnia's neck. With his free hand he began patting the female down. He found a dagger at her belt and took it away, along with her hand crossbow and a belt pouch filled with darts. One of those darts came out quickly and quietly, the ranger sliding it into his belt. Drizzt patted lower, along her leg, and noted the slightest lump at the top of one of her soft boots. He purposely ignored that bulge as he slid his hand down across her ankles. It was a knife, of course, and he made it look like he had just missed it in his inspection.
"Your weapons are drow-made," he remarked, tossing the discovered dagger and hand crossbow to the ground beside the sword and the other dagger. "They will do you little good up here if you plan to remain under the light of the sun." He slid Twinkle into its sheath. "Come along then," he instructed, and he started away, pointedly walking right past the discarded weapons.
He looked back at Donnia as he did, and noting that she wasn't paying him any heed at the moment, he hooked the hand crossbow with his foot and brought it up fast to catch it with his free hand and hook it on his belt.
"Come along," he instructed her once more, and he started away.
He heard Donnia suck in her breath slightly as she moved past the pile of weapons, and he knew what she was thinking. She believed that he was testing her, that he was ready to pull forth his blades and defend should she grab at one of those discarded weapons.
When they crossed by, the weapons still in their pile, Drizzt knew that Donnia believed she had passed that test. Little did she understand that first opportunity to be no more than a ruse.
"Guenhwyvar," the ranger called, baiting the trap all the more sweetly. "Too long have you tarried here. Go home now, I bid!"
Drizzt glanced sidelong at Donnia, watching her as she observed the great panther begin stalking in a circle, round and round until Guenhwyvar's lines blurred and she became a drifting gray mist, initially in the shape of a cat, but then drifting apart to nothingness.
"Guenhwyvar's time here is limited," Drizzt explained. "She tires easily and must return to her Astral home to rejuvenate."
"A marvelous companion," Donnia remarked.
"One of three," Drizzt replied. "Or five, if you count the pegasi, and I assure you that they should be counted."
"You are allied with the surface elves then?" Donnia asked, and before Drizzt could answer, she added, "That is good - they are fine companions for one of our kind who has forsaken the Spider Queen."
"Mighty companions," Drizzt agreed. "The female is a high priestess of an elf god, Corellon Larethian. She will wish to speak with you, no doubt, to determine your veracity."
He noted the slight hesitation in Donnia's step as she moved along right behind him.
"She has spells she will cast upon you," Drizzt pressed. "But fear not, for they are merely to detect if you are lying. Once she has seen the truth of Donnia Soldou..."
He ended his words with a sudden spin left to right, drawing Icingdeath from the sheath on his right hip as he turned. As he expected, the panicked Donnia was coming at him, dagger drawn from her boot and arm extended.
Drizzt's leading right hand slapped down over Donnia's wrist and turned her stabbing blade up high and wide, and in rushed the scimitar to poke hard against the female's ribs, drawing a long gash. Donnia spun and scrambled away, but not before she got hit again across the extended arm, hard enough so that she let go of her blade. Clutching her right arm and holding it in tight against the wound to her right side, Donnia stumbled.
Drizzt ran past her.
"All of it a lie - as if I should have ever expected anything else from a drow!" he cried, and he rushed to the side as Donnia veered.
"I will have the truth now, or I will have your head!" Drizzt demanded. "Why are you here? And how many of our kin are in your band?"
"Hundreds!" Donnia yelled at him, and still she scrambled, looking for some escape. "Thousands, Drizzt Do'Urden! And all of them with the edict to bring your head to the Spider Queen!"
Drizzt rushed to block the way before her, and Donnia summoned a globe of darkness around him.
She charged right into it, guessing correctly that he would go out one side or the other. She got past and rushed out of the darkness, coming to the lip of a long drop. Without hesitation, the drow leaped out, again bringing forth the innate magic of her station and race. Before she had plummeted twenty feet, she was drifting down slowly.
"You so disappoint me," she heard Drizzt say behind and above her, and she sensed sincerity in his voice, as if perhaps he truly wanted to believe her tale.
And indeed, he had wanted to believe her. How badly Drizzt wanted to find a drow companion! Another of like mind to him to share his adventures, to truly understand the solitude that was ever in his heart.
Donnia had barely gotten the smile onto her face when she heard the click of a hand crossbow from behind and above, and she felt the sudden sting atop her shoulder. She held her place in midair, counteracting the pull of the ground completely with the levitation. Then she stared at the dart and felt the poison beginning to seep into her shoulder.
She was motionless, helpless, hanging there.
Drizzt looked down at her and sighed deeply. He dropped the hand crossbow - Donnia's own hand crossbow that he had scooped up from the pile as they had set out - and watched it drop past her, down, down, the two hundred feet to shatter on the stones below.
Drizzt fell into a crouch and put his head in his hand. He didn't look away, though, determined to bear witness.
The levitation soon expired and the paralyzed Donnia dropped. She couldn't even scream out as she fell, for her vocal chords could not function against the potent poison.
Drizzt looked away at the last second, not wanting to watch her hit. But then he looked back, to see the drow female splayed across the stones, warm blood pooling around her.
The ranger sighed again, though he wasn't really surprised it had ended like that. Still, the one emotion that dominated Drizzt Do'Urden at that moment was anger, just anger, at the futility of it all.
He gathered himself up a few moments later, reminding himself that Tarathiel and Innovindil were likely still fairly helpless in their cave, and he started back at a fast run. He found them safe and sound, and even beginning to move a bit once more.
Innovindil was reaching for her clothing as Drizzt entered, so he promptly retrieved the items and gave them over, then moved back near the entrance and began cleaning up the mess that was Ad'non.
"Well met again, Drizzt Do'Urden," Tarathiel said to him. "And a most fortunate meeting it is, for us at least."
"You have dealt with the remaining drow?" Innovindil asked.
"She is dead," Drizzt confirmed, his tone somber. "She fell from a cliff face."
"Did it pain you to kill them?" Innovindil asked.
Drizzt's head snapped around at her, his eyes narrow.
"Did it?" Innovindil asked again, not backing away at all.
Drizzt's visage softened.
"It always does," he admitted.
"Then your soul is intact," Tarathiel remarked. "Be afraid when the killing no longer affects you."
How profound that simple remark seemed to Drizzt at that moment, to the creature who seemed to be caught somewhere between his true self and the Hunter. Certainly he felt more soulless at those times when he was the Hunter. The deaths didn't bother him in that mode. He had felt nothing but the satisfaction of victory when he had beheaded Ad'non, but the death of Donnia had stung more than a little. There had to be some middle ground, Drizzt knew, a place where he could fight as the Hunter and yet hold on to his soul. He thought back across the years and believed that he had found that place before. He could only hope that he would find it again.
Drizzt rummaged through Ad'non's pockets, searching for some clue as to who the dark elf might be and why he was there. He found little, other than a few coins that he did not recognize. One other thing did catch his eye though: the fine light gray silk shirt that Ad'non wore under his cloak. That shirt had stopped Drizzt's scimitars; he could see the indentation marks where his fine blades had struck hard. Furthermore, though the area all around the corpse was deep in blood, none of it seemed to touch Ad'non's shirt.
"Strong magic," Innovindil remarked, and when Drizzt looked to her, she motioned for him to take the shirt as his own. "To the victor. . . ." she recited.
Drizzt began removing the shirt. His own chain mail, forged by Bruenor, was in sore need of repair, with many broken links, and some of them rubbing him uncomfortably.
"We are most grateful," Tarathiel remarked. "You understand that, of course?"
"I could not let them harm you, as I believe you would have come to my aid - indeed, as you have come to my aid," Drizzt replied.
"We are not your enemies," Tarathiel said, and the tone of his voice made Drizzt pause and consider him.
"I have never desired the enmity of any surface elf I have ever known," Drizzt replied, both his tone and his words leading.
He didn't miss the movement as Innovindil and Tarathiel exchanged concerned glances.
"We must tell you that you have made an enemy of one," Innovindil admitted. "Through no fault of your own."
"You remember Ellifain," Tarathiel added.
"Keenly," Drizzt assured him, and he sighed and lowered his gaze. "Though when I last met her, she was called Le'lorinel and was masquerading as a male."
Again the two elves looked to each other, Tarathiel nodding.
"That was how she evaded us in Silverymoon," he said to his partner.
"She came after you," Innovindil reasoned. "We knew that such was her course, though we knew not where you might be. We tried to stop her - you must believe us when we tell you that Ellifain was beyond reason and was acting on her own and against the wishes of our people."
"She was beyond reason," Drizzt agreed.
"And you met her in battle?" Tarathiel quietly asked, his voice full of concern.
Drizzt glanced up at him but lowered his eyes almost immediately and sighed yet again.
"I had no desire to ... had I known, I would have ..." he stammered. He took a deep breath and looked directly at the pair. "I caught up to her in the company of some thieves that I and my companions were pursuing. I had no idea of who she was - or even that she was a 'she' - when we joined in combat. It was not until..."
"Until you struck the killing blow," Tarathiel reasoned, and Innovindil looked away.
Drizzt's responding silence spoke volumes.
"I feared that it would end this way," Tarathiel said to Drizzt. "We tried to save Ellifain from herself - no doubt you did as well, or that you would have, had you known."
"But she was full of a rage that transcended all rationality," Innovindil added. "With every tale we heard about your exploits in the service of the goodly races, she grew even more outraged, convinced that it was all a lie. Convinced that Drizzt Do'Urden was all a lie."
Drizzt didn't blink as he responded, "Perhaps I am."
"Is that what you believe?" Innovindil asked, and Drizzt merely shrugged.
"We do not judge you harshly for defending yourself against Ellifain," Tarathiel remarked.
"It would change nothing if you did," said Drizzt, and that seemed to take the pair off their balance a bit.
"And so we can fight together in our common cause," Tarathiel went on. "Side-by-side."
Drizzt stared at him for a short while, then looked back at Innovindil. It was a tempting offer, but it entailed a commitment that Drizzt was not yet ready to take. He looked back to Tarathiel and shook his head.
"I hunt alone," he explained. "But I will be there to support you if I may, in times when you are in need."
He gathered up the marvelous silken shirt then and started to go.
"We will always be in need of your help," Tarathiel said from behind him. "And would you not be stronger if..."
"Let him go," Drizzt heard Innovindil remark to her companion. "He is not yet ready."
* * *
The next morning, Drizzt Do'Urden sat on a bluff looking back at the area of the elves' cave, mulling over the generous offer Tarathiel had given him. He had just admitted to killing their friend and kin, and yet, neither had judged him at all harshly.
It put a whole new light on the unfortunate Ellifain incident for Drizzt Do'Urden, but he just wasn't certain of how that light might yet shine.
And he was confronted with the prospect of new friendship, of new allies, and while the thought tempted him on a very basic level, it also frightened him profoundly.
He had known great friends once and the greatest allies anyone could ever hope to command.
So he sat and he stared, torn apart inside, wondering what might be and what should be.
Always, always, he found the image of the blasted tower tumbling, taking Bruenor down with it.
Drizzt felt an urgent need to go back to his own cave then, to feel the one-horned helmet, to smell the scent of Bruenor, and to remember his lost friends. He started off.
Before the end of the day, though, he was drawn back to that bluff, looking across the stones to the lair of Innovindil and Tarathiel.
He watched with great interest as one of the pegasi swooped past, bearing Tarathiel down to the cave entrance. To his surprise, the elf dismounted and did not go right in, but rather, ran out his way and called to him.
"Drizzt Do'Urden!" Tarathiel cried. "Come! I have news that concerns us all!"
Despite his reservations, despite the deep pain that pervaded his every fiber, Drizzt found himself trotting along to join the pair.
* * *
"Yet another tribe crawls from its dark hole," Innovindil said to Drizzt when he entered the cave. "Tarathiel has seen them marching along the foothills of the Spine of the World."
"You called me in to tell me of orcs in the area?" Drizzt asked incredulously. "There is no shortage of - "
"Not just any orcs, but a new tribe," Tarathiel interrupted. "We have seen them flocking to this cause, one tribe after another. Now we have found a group that has not yet linked up."
"If we strike at them hard, they might go back to their holes," Innovindil explained. "That would be a great victory to our cause." When Drizzt didn't overtly react, she added, "It would be a great victory for those dwarves defending Mithral Hall."
"How many?" Drizzt heard himself asking.
"A small tribe - perhaps fifty," Tarathiel replied.
"The three of us are to kill fifty orcs?" Drizzt asked.
"Better to kill ten and turn the other forty around," Tarathiel replied.
"Let them whisper in their tunnels about certain death awaiting any who go to the call of the orc leader," Innovindil added.
"The orcs and giants have amassed a great army," Tarathiel explained. "Thousands of orcs and hundreds of giants, we fear, and truthfully, our efforts against such a great army will prove a minor factor in the end result. But the more ominous cloud for those in the region, the dwarves of Mithral Hall, the elves of the Moonwood, the people of Silverymoon, are the seemingly limitless reinforcements pouring out of the Spine of the World."
"Tens of thousands more orcs and goblins may flock to the call of whoever it is who leads this army," Innovindil put in.
"But perhaps we can stem that flow of vermin," said Tarathiel. "Let us turn back the orcs, that they warn their fellows about leaving the mountains. Our kills could be multiplied many times over concerning monsters who choose not to join in." He paused and stared hard at Drizzt.
"This is, perhaps, our chance to make a real difference in this war. Just we three."
Drizzt couldn't deny the potential of Tarathiel's plan.
"Quickly, then," Tarathiel remarked when it became obvious that Drizzt wasn't going to argue. "We must hit them before they travel far from the caves, before the fall of night."
* * *
Drizzt marveled at how precisely the two elves angled their descending mounts, putting themselves in line with the setting sun as they approached the orc force.
Beside the drow, Guenhwyvar gave an anxious growl, but Drizzt held her back.
In came the two elves and their winged mounts, and their bows began to hum. And the orcs began to shriek and to point up to the sky.
"Now, Guen," Drizzt whispered, and he turned the panther loose.
Guenhwyvar bounded away along a line north of the orcs, while Drizzt sprinted off the other way, hemming the tribe on the south. He found his first battle soon after, even as orcs across the way screamed out in terror at the sight of Guenhwyvar. Drizzt leaped atop a boulder and stood staring down at a pair of orcs who had taken cover from the elves' arrow barrage. He waited for them to finally look up before dropping between them.
Out went Twinkle, a killing blow to his left, while he turned Icingdeath to the flat side as he slapped hard at the orc on his right, sending the creature scrambling away.
Behind him and to his left, the pegasi set down, and the two elves let fly another round of arrows, then leaped free and drew their weapons.
"For the Moon wood!" Drizzt heard Tarathiel cry.
Despite the urgent moment, Drizzt Do'Urden was wearing a grin when he came out hard from behind that boulder, leaping into a devastating spin at the closest ranks of orcs.
At his side, Tarathiel and Innovindil linked arms and went into their deadly dance.
The orcs fell back. One tried to call out commands for them to regroup, but Drizzt immediately engulfed the creature in a globe of darkness.
Another shouted out a command - right before a flying Guenhwyvar buried it.
Within moments, the orcs were running back the way they had come, and when the last rays of daylight winked out, they were still running, and still with Guenhwyvar flanking them on the left and Drizzt on the right and Tarathiel and Innovindil and their powerful mounts pressing them from behind.
Soon after, Drizzt watched the last pair run into a dark, wide cave. He charged up behind them, calling out threats. When one slowed and started to glance back, he rushed ahead and cut the creature down.
Its companion did not look back.
Nor did any others of the tribe.
Drizzt stood in the cave entrance, hands resting against his hips, staring down the deep tunnel beyond.
Guenhwyvar padded up beside him, and soon he heard the clopping of pegasi hooves.
"Exactly as I had hoped," Tarathiel remarked, dismounting and moving to stand beside Drizzt.
He lifted a hand and patted the drow on the shoulder, and though he did flinch a bit initially, Drizzt did not pull away.
"Our technique will only strengthen with practice," Innovindil said as she walked up on Drizzt's other side.
The drow looked deeply into her eyes and saw that she had just challenged him yet again, had just invited him yet again.
He did not openly deny her, nor did he pull away when she moved very close to his side.