Night of the Hunter by R. A. Salvatore


  “They are not people,” she said softly. “They are monsters. This is not true of the other races, not even of the tieflings, who claim demonic ancestry, for they, unlike goblinkin, have free will and reason in matters of conscience. Indeed, they have a conscience! True and full goblinkin do not, I say; Mielikki says. Were you to find a lion cub and raise it in your home, you would be safer than if you found and raised a goblin child, for the goblin child would surely murder you when it suited him, for gain, or even for the simple pleasure of the act.”

  Drizzt felt as if the floor was shifting beneath his feet. He didn’t doubt Catti-brie’s words, and didn’t doubt her claim that they had been inspired by the song of Mielikki. Ever had this been an issue of great tribulation for the drow—the rogue drow who had found the heart to walk away from the wicked ways of the city of his kin. Was she correct in her assessment? In her assessment of him most of all?

  Her words rang loudly in Drizzt’s thoughts. The burden you carry blurs your judgment. He didn’t want to believe it, wanted to find some logical counter to her reasoning. He thought of Montolio, his first mentor when he came to the surface, but a quick recollection of those days affirmed Catti-brie’s words, not his own heart in this, for Montolio had never offered him any advice about judging the content of the character of a goblin or orc. Drizzt considered Montolio Debrouchee to be as good a man as he had ever known—would Montolio have signed the Treaty of Garumn’s Gorge?

  Had Montolio ever suffered goblinkin to live?

  Drizzt could not imagine that he had.

  He looked plaintively at Catti-brie, but the woman loved him too much to offer him an easy out. He had to face the accusation she had just uttered—words that had come from the insights of Mielikki, from a common place in the hearts of Drizzt and Catti-brie.

  He wanted to believe that Obould’s actions were wrought of noble intent. He wanted to believe that an orc, or a goblin like Nojheim, could rise above the reputation of their respective races, because if they could, then so could he, and so, conversely, if he could, then so could, or so should, they.

  “The goblinkin are not people,” Catti-brie said. “Not human, not drow, nor any other race. You cannot judge them and cannot treat them by or from those perspectives.”

  “Ye durned right,” Bruenor put in. “Dwarfs’ve knowed it for centuries!”

  “Yet you signed the treaty,” Regis said, and all eyes flashed at the halfling, Bruenor’s scowl most prominent of all.

  But that glare was met by a wide, teasing, and ultimately infectious smile.

  “Bought yerself a bit more o’ the intestinal fortitude this time around, did ye?” Bruenor asked.

  Regis winked and grinned. “Let’s go kill some orcs.”

  Any anger Bruenor might have had about the comment washed away instantly at that invitation. “Bwahaha!” he roared and clapped Regis on the back.

  “The trails will soon open, and we can navigate them in any case,” Catti-brie said. “To Mithral Hall, then?

  “Aye,” said Bruenor, but as he spoke, he looked at Wulfgar. The barbarian had left the Companions of the Hall in the days of Obould, after all, returning to his first home and people on the tundra of Icewind Dale.

  “Aye,” Wulfgar heartily replied.

  “Ye got no mind to stay with yer folks, then?” Bruenor asked bluntly.

  “I returned to fight beside Drizzt and the rest of you,” Wulfgar said, completely at ease. “For adventure. For battle. Let us play.”

  Drizzt noted Catti-brie’s stare coming his way. He shared her surprise, and a pleasant surprise it was, for both of them.

  “Mithral Hall,” Drizzt agreed.

  “Not straight away,” Bruenor declared. “We got other business, then,” he explained, nodding with every word. “We got a friend in trouble, elf, one ye saw and left to die.”

  Drizzt looked at him curiously.

  Bruenor went to the side of the room, bent and reached under his cot and brought forth a familiar helmet, shield, and axe. The others were not surprised, but Drizzt, who had been too groggy and dazed that night on Kelvin’s Cairn to fully register Bruenor’s garb, surely was. For in light of the tales he had heard of his companions’ rebirth, he understood what they meant: Bruenor had visited his own grave!

  “Except our old friend was already dead,” Bruenor explained, “and not as strong as he thinked himself.”

  “Pwent,” Drizzt breathed, only then remembering the poor fellow. He had found Pwent outside of Neverwinter, outside of Gauntlgrym, inflicted with vampirism, and had left the dwarf in a cave, awaiting the sunrise to end his curse.

  “What of him?” Catti-brie asked.

  “He’s in Gauntlgrym, killing drow,” said Bruenor.

  “That would make him happy,” Regis remarked, and then with surprise, breathlessly added, “Gauntlgrym?”

  “Cursed as a vampire,” Drizzt explained.

  “Aye, and I ain’t for leavin’ him,” said Bruenor.

  “You mean to kill him?” Wulfgar asked.

  Bruenor shrugged, but Drizzt turned to Catti-brie. “Is there another way?”

  The woman matched Bruenor’s shrug with a helpless one of her own. She was a priestess, but surely no expert in the issues regarding undeath, a realm foreign to, and indeed contrary to, the tenets of Mielikki.

  “Gauntlgrym?” Regis asked again.

  “Aye, we found it,” said Bruenor. “In the Crags north o’ Neverwinter. Pwent’s there, lost and dead, and so’re some drow, and I ain’t much likin’ that thought o’ them folk with the Forge o’ me ancestors!”

  “We’ll find our answers along the road, then,” said Catti-brie.

  “Jarlaxle’s in Luskan,” Regis remarked, and the others perked up at that name.

  But Catti-brie was thinking along other lines, Drizzt realized, for now she was shaking her head. She mouthed “Longsaddle.”

  Drizzt couldn’t hide his astonishment, for the home of the Harpells was not a place that typically inspired confidence!

  CHAPTER 3

  THE FESTIVAL OF THE FOUNDING

  AND NOW YOU UNDERSTAND WHY I HAVE NEVER BOTHERED TO HUNT Drizzt Do’Urden down and kill him,” Gromph said to Quenthel when they were back at the Baenre compound and the matron mother had recovered from the illithid’s attack.

  “The goddess uses him.” Quenthel nodded.

  She was not smiling, though, Gromph noted, and given the memories, the core of Yvonnel, which Methil had imparted to his sister, the archmage doubted that he would ever see her smile again, unless it was from the pleasure of exacting pain upon another.

  He noted his sister’s pensive pose, so similar to the one his mother often used to wear, and one he had never before seen from the inferior Quenthel.

  “Why tempt him?” she asked. “With so many other greater needs arising all about us, why now?”

  A good question, the archmage thought, and one he had discussed at length with Minolin Fey just the previous tenday. The Spider Queen was expanding her power now—in the realm of the gods, not among mere mortals—so why would she bother with a rogue drow of such little real importance or consequence?

  “That is a matter for priestesses, not wizards,” he replied.

  Quenthel narrowed her eyes for she understood now, of course, the direction of Lolth’s designs, a course that surely elevated Gromph and his wizardly ilk. “And you have spoken to priestesses … one in particular,” she reminded him. “And about this very topic.”

  Gromph sat up straighter behind his desk, matching his sister’s intense stare with careful scrutiny of his own. “My dear sister—” he started.

  “Never call me that again,” she interrupted, her voice even and confident and clearly threatening.

  “Matron Mother Quenthel,” he corrected.

  Gromph brought his hands up to tap-tap his fingers before his pursed lips, his typical posture when digesting some rather startling possibilities. He knew that he was looking at a being much greater tha
n the one he had led out of Menzoberranzan only a short while before. Methil El-Viddenvelp had infused Quenthel with so many of the memories of Matron Mother Yvonnel Baenre, with their dead mother’s understanding of Lolth, and, it would seem, with more than a little of their dead mother’s personality as well. He had known this would be a possibility—bringing Quenthel out to receive the collected insights of an illithid had been an exercise to fortify her in this time of Lady Lolth’s need. She was the Matron Mother of Menzoberranzan, and so ruled supreme in the city, but in truth, all who knew the inner workings of House Baenre understood that Gromph, the eldest, the most veteran, the most wizened, had been working his will behind the scenes.

  It had always been a risk that taking Quenthel to Methil would empower her enough to change that dynamic.

  “The gods are in turmoil, so said Mistress Minolin Fey,” he answered, lowering his hands, though surely not lowering his gaze. “The realignment is well under way, in many different corners.”

  “The Spider Queen has bigger concerns.”

  “Why are you asking me, and not her? You are the Matron Mother of Menzoberranzan …”

  “Do not deign to tell me who I am or how I am to act,” Matron Mother Quenthel replied. “I would not bother Lolth for answers that others can provide, nor trouble her handmaidens in unweaving the web that I might learn what others in my city already know.”

  “Do you think personal pettiness is above the gods?” Gromph asked bluntly.

  Then came a smile, surprising him. A wry and knowing grin, an evil one that the Elderboy of House Baenre knew well, though he had not seen it in well over a century.

  “Then the insolent rogue remains inconsequential,” Matron Mother Quenthel reasoned. “A thorn to be used against a rival goddess, turned to the glorious darkness for no practical reason than to pain the witch Mielikki.”

  “Or turned into failure yet again for the Spider Queen, and thus the scream of pain you heard that began your most recent journey.”

  “In heart and soul, the rogue Do’Urden betrayed Lady Lolth yet again.”

  As when the rogue Do’Urden killed you, Gromph thought, but did not say, though he might as well have said it, he realized, for his grin had surely betrayed the notion.

  “Mielikki won that minor battle for the heart of Drizzt Do’Urden.” Gromph nodded as he spoke, looking away from his sister. Indeed, he was looking into the past, trying to figure out how his mother might have handled such news. How might Quenthel ultimately weigh against that standard, he wondered?

  “Shall I go and exterminate the rogue Do’Urden?” the archmage asked.

  Matron Mother Quenthel fixed him with an incredulous, almost pitying stare, and Gromph had his answer. The mind flayer had given her so much! For of course, that was the correct answer, the answer Gromph would have given, the answer Yvonnel would have given, the answer Lolth needed from Matron Mother Quenthel of the City of Spiders.

  Possessed of this information regarding the source of Lady Lolth’s scream before her encounter with the illithid, petty Quenthel would have already sent Gromph and a dozen other assassins on their way to exterminate the puny rogue of House Do’Urden, a useless endeavor that would reap nothing but a momentary flash of vengeful joy, soon to be lost in the knowledge that the rogue was then with his goddess, and that goddess was not Lolth, and that Lolth was not sated … and then, with such a simple matter of the finality of death, the goddess could never be.

  “To take with the sword is easy,” Matron Mother Quenthel stated. “To take with the heart is desirable.”

  “And yet the goddess could not take his heart.”

  Quenthel smiled again—no, Gromph couldn’t think of her as Quenthel any longer, he realized. Matron Mother Quenthel smiled again, an awful, wicked, delicious, inspiring smile.

  “What we cannot take, we break,” Matron Mother Quenthel quietly observed.

  Yes, Gromph knew, he had relegated himself to subservient status once more, in more than official rank. All of the years he had nurtured Minolin Fey, his student in the ways of intrigue, his puppet in his plans of dominion over his pathetic sister, his lover—all of that would likely unwind now that Quenthel had looked so intimately into the mind of Yvonnel.

  Yvonnel the Eternal, he thought, remembering the moniker he had often heard attached to his powerful mother, one that had seemed a cruel joke when the axe of the dwarf king had so sundered Yvonnel’s withered old skull. But perhaps that moniker had been more than a passing reference after all. Perhaps, through Methil’s waggling tentacles, “eternal” remained a fitting description.

  And Gromph had just given that “eternal” insight to his sister.

  As Lady Lolth had demanded of him.

  So be it.

  “Tomorrow is the Festival of the Founding,” Matron Mother Quenthel said.

  Gromph stared at her incredulously, but only at first, only until he reminded himself that this was not merely Quenthel seated across from him. Then his look turned to suspicion. After all, when had House Baenre observed the festival in any but the most cursory, and even cynical, way? The twentieth of Ches, the third month, was heralded as the anniversary of Menzoberranzan’s founding, and on that day, the collective defensive crouch of the city relaxed into a profound communal sigh. House gates were less guarded, indeed even opened, for passersby, for Lolth was known, occasionally, to appear in some avatar form in the city, and a blessing it was upon the whole of the city in that case.

  To House Baenre, so much closer to the goddess, and with so much more to lose by letting down its guard, the Festival of the Founding had, in the days of Yvonnel (the Sable Years, they were called in Menzoberranzan), been a mere formality, rarely mentioned, lightly observed, and used by the House—through Bregan D’aerthe spies, typically—to gain information on the defenses and weaknesses of those other noble Houses.

  “Matron Byrtyn Fey has extended …” Matron Mother Quenthel paused and gave a wicked little laugh, then corrected, “Matron Byrtyn will extend a most gracious invitation for us to dine in her worthy home, and we will accept, of course, as the Founding requires of us.”

  “We will go to Narbondellyn?” Gromph asked with open and determined skepticism, referring to the neighborhood of manor houses, theaters, and arenas, and the compounds of two of Menzoberranzan’s eight ruling Houses. While Narbondellyn was a fashionable enough address in the City of Spiders, and indeed Gromph often visited the area, rarely before had all the nobles of House Baenre left Qu’ellarz’orl, the grandest district of the city, wherein resided the greatest of the noble Houses—except to go to war. The tradition of the Festival of the Founding called upon unallied Houses to dine together in a rare show of unity, but House Baenre usually used that tradition to host Matron Mez’Barris and her Second House, Barrison Del’Armgo, or vice versa.

  “I await Matron Byrtyn’s invitation,” Matron Mother Quenthel said slyly, her grin now firmly aimed at Gromph. With that, she rose and departed, leaving the old mage quite flummoxed.

  House Fey-Branche, the Sixth House of Menzoberranzan, the House of Minolin.

  Why had Quenthel—Matron Mother Baenre—arranged this, Gromph wondered, and indeed, how?

  She was among the oldest drow in Menzoberranzan and the longest-serving matron mother, even though her House, Barrison Del’Armgo was the second youngest of all the great Houses in the city, having formed a mere eight centuries earlier. Under her guidance, House Barrison Del’Armgo had climbed the ranks swiftly to the penultimate rank in the city. Barely a quarter-millennium before, the little known House had been considered no higher than the forty-seventh House of the city, barely known and with little consideration of any of the true powers of Menzoberranzan. The leap in ranking, all the way to sixteenth, had caught their attention, though, and when the matrons of the Ruling Council had at last bothered to look more closely at the Armgo ways and powers, it had become quite obvious that Mez’Barris would not be watching the Ruling Council from afar for long.

&n
bsp; Mez’Barris had found her niche of power. Other Houses competed for the favor of Lolth by building chapels and training priestesses, but Matron Mez’Barris had veered her family down an opposite path. Barrison Del’Armgo was known for its House wizards, as were their arch-rivals, the Xorlarrins, but more than that, this House was the home of many of Menzoberranzan’s greatest warriors. Every year, the ranks of Melee-Magthere, the drow academy of warriors, included a full complement of budding Armgo warriors.

  The thousand soldiers of Barrison Del’Armgo formed the backbone of the city’s martial garrison and granted Mez’Barris the firmest foundation for her House army, one not subject to the whims of a fickle deity or the ebbs and flows of magic.

  And now things had become more interesting. Matron Mez’Barris was well aware of the growing instability within the one House, House Baenre, that kept her from the pinnacle of Menzoberranzan’s power.

  “They march as if the entire city should stand and gape in awe,” High Priestess Taayrul said to her mother as they stood together on one of the more obscure balconies in the sprawling compound. Only recently had Barrison Del’Armgo relocated to Qu’ellarz’orl from their previous location in Narbondellyn, and so their compound was not nearly as magnificent or magic-highlighted yet as the great Baenre compound.

  “They are Baenre,” said Malagdorl, Elderboy and Weapons Master of Barrison Del’Armgo. “Let Menzoberranzan embrace them with awe, for those are the admiring looks we will know soon enough.”

  “Do not speak of such things openly, my impetuous child,” Mez’Barris scolded, but her tone showed more pride than anger. She could well imagine the parade below her being the march of her own House someday soon.

  But she couldn’t deny the pageantry and beauty of the procession of House Baenre, soldiers marching crisply, in disciplined precision, in their battle armor, so finely cut and fitted. The glint of hundreds of weapons shone and sparkled in the accented magical lighting, all done to exacting precision, with spells set and aimed perfectly to catch the gleaming metal of sword or battle-axe or javelin tip. Faerie fire of purple, blue, and orange highlighted the group commanders and their great subterranean lizards. Light spells seemed to emanate from within the accompanying magical jade spiders, pony-sized versions of the great monstrosities that guarded the Baenre compound and several other Houses on Qu’ellarz’orl. Those spiders flanked the most important contingent, the noble priestesses, and it didn’t take Mez’Barris long to spot Matron Mother Quenthel as she glided out of the Baenre gates, floating on a translucent disc of purple and blue energies, her eldest daughter and Sos’Umptu close behind and flanking, left and right, on discs of their own. A magical red flame burned in the center of their triangle, backlighting Quenthel perfectly so that she seemed seated in a halo of red light. That hue caught the matching color of her eyes so keenly that Mez’Barris could see her eyes even from this distance. For just a moment it seemed that Quenthel was staring right back at her.

 
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