The Dark Elf Trilogy: Exile

10. The Weight of a Kings Mantle


The halfling hung by his ankles, suspended upside down with chains above a cauldron of boiling liquid. Not water, though, but something darker. A red hue, perhaps.

Blood, perhaps.

The crank creaked, and the halfling dropped an inch closer. His face was contorted, his mouth wide, as if in a scream.

But no screams could be heard. Just the groans of the crank and a sinister laugh from an unseen torturer.

The misty scene shifted, and the crank came into view, worked slowly by a single hand that seemed unattached to anything else.

There was a pause in the descent.

Then the evil voice laughed one final time. The hand jerked quickly, sending the crank spinning.

A scream resounded, piercing and cutting, a cry of agony - a cry of death.

* * *

Sweat stung Bruenor's eyes even before he had fully opened them. He wiped the wetness from his face and rolled his head, trying to shake away the terrible images and adjust his thoughts to his surroundings.

He was in the Ivy Mansion, in a comfortable bed in a comfortable room. The fresh candles that he had set out burned low. They hadn't helped; this night had been like the others: another nightmare.

Bruenor rolled over and sat up on the side of his bed. Everything was as it should be. The mithril armor and golden shield lay across a chair beside the room's single dresser. The axe that he had used to cut his way out of the duergar lair rested easily against the wall beside Drizzt's scimitar, and two helmets sat atop the dresser, the battered, one-horned helm that had carried the dwarf through the adventures of the last two centuries, and the crown of the king of Mithril Hall, ringed by a thousand glittering gemstones.

But to Bruenor's eyes, all was not as it should be. He looked to the window and the darkness of the night beyond. Alas, all he could see was the reflection of the candlelit room, the crown and armor of the king of Mithril Hall.

It had been a tough week for Bruenor. All the days had been filled with the excitement of the times, of talk of the armies coming from Citadel Adbar and Icewind Dale to reclaim Mithril Hall. The dwarf's shoulders ached from being patted so many times by Harpells and other visitors to the mansion, all anxious to congratulate him in advance for the impending return of his throne.

But Bruenor had wandered through the last few days absently, playing a role thrust upon him before he could truly appreciate it. It was time to prepare for the adventure Bruenor had fantasized about since his exile nearly two centuries before. His father's father had been king of Mithril Hall, his father before him, and back to the beginnings of Clan Battlehammer. Bruenor's birthright demanded that he lead the armies and retake Mithril Hall, that he sit in the throne he had been born to possess.

But it was in the very chambers of the ancient dwarven homeland that Bruenor Battlehammer had realized the truth of what was important to him. Over the course of the last decade, four very special companions had come into his life, not one of them a dwarf. The friendship the five had forged was bigger than a dwarven kingdom and more precious to Bruenor than all the mithril in the world. The realization of his fantasy conquest seemed empty to him.

The moments of the night now held Bruenor's heart and his concentration. The dreams, never the same but always with the same terrible conclusion, did not fade with the light of day.

"Another one?" came a soft call from the door. Bruenor looked over his shoulder to see Catti-brie peeking in on him. Bruenor knew that he didn't have to answer. He put his head down in one hand and rubbed his eyes.

"About Regis again?" asked Catti-brie, moving closer. Bruenor heard the door softly close.

"Rumblebelly," Bruenor softly corrected, using the nickname he had tagged on the halfling who had been his closest friend for nearly a decade.

Bruenor swung his legs back up on the bed. "I should be with him," he said gruffly, "or at least with the drow and Wulfgar, lookin' for him!"

"Yer kingdom awaits," Catti-brie reminded him, more to dispel his guilt than to soften his belief in where he truly belonged - a belief that the young woman wholeheartedly shared. "Yer kin from Icewind Dale'll be here in a month, the army from Adbar in two."

"Aye, but we can't be going to the halls till the winter's past."

Catti-brie looked around for some way to deflect the sinking conversation. "Ye'll wear it well," she said cheerfully, indicating the bejeweled crown.

"Which?" Bruenor retorted, a sharp edge to his tongue.

Catti-brie looked at the dented helm, pitiful beside the glorious one, and nearly snorted aloud. But she turned to Bruenor before she commented, and the stern look stamped upon the dwarf's face as he studied the old helmet told her that Bruenor had not asked in jest. At that moment, Catti-brie realized, Bruenor saw the one-horned helmet as infinitely more precious than the crown he was destined to wear.

"They're halfway to Calimport," Catti-brie remarked, sympathizing with the dwarf's desires. "Maybe more."

"Aye, and few boats'll be leaving Waterdeep with the winter coming on," Bruenor muttered grimly, echoing the same arguments Catti-brie had leveled on him during his second morning in the Ivy Mansion, when he had first mentioned his desire to go after his friends.

"We've a million preparations before us," said Catti-brie, stubbornly holding her cheerful tone. "Suren the winter'll pass quickly, and we'll get the halls in time for Drizzt and Wulfgar and Regis's return."

Bruenor's visage did not soften. His eyes locked on the broken helmet, but his mind wandered beyond the vision, back to the fateful scene at Garumn's Gorge. He had at least made peace with Regis before they were separated...

Bruenor's recollections blew away from him suddenly. He snapped a wry glance upon Catti-brie. "Ye think they might be back in time for the fighting?"

Catti-brie shrugged. "If they put right back out," she replied, curious at the question, for she knew that Bruenor had more in mind than fighting beside Drizzt and Wulfgar in the battle for Mithril Hall. "They can be coverin' many miles over the southland - even in the winter."

Bruenor bounced off the bed and rushed for the door, scooping up the one-horned helmet and fitting it to his head as he went.

"Middle o' the night?" Catti-brie gawked after him. She jumped up and followed him into the hall.

Bruenor never slowed. He marched straight to Harkle Harpell's door and banged on it loudly enough to wake everyone in that wing of the house. "Harkle!" he roared.

Catti-brie knew better than to even try to calm him. She just shrugged apologetically to each curious head that popped into the hall to take a look.

Finally, Harkle, clad only in a nightshirt and ball-tipped cap, and holding a candle, opened his door.

Bruenor shoved himself into the room, Catti-brie in tow. "Can ye make me a chariot?" the dwarf demanded.

"A what?" Harkle yawned, trying futilely to brush his sleep away. "A chariot?"

"A chariot!" Bruenor growled. "Of fire. Like the Lady Alustriel bringed me here in! A chariot of fire!"

"Well," Harkle stammered. "I have never - "

"Can ye do it?" Bruenor roared, having no patience now for unfocused blabbering.

"Yes,...uh, maybe," Harkle proclaimed as confidently as he could. "Actually, that spell is Alustriel's specialty. No one here has ever..." He stopped, feeling Bruenor's frustrated glare boring into him. The dwarf stood straight-legged, one bare heel grinding into the floor, and his gnarled arms crossed over his chest, the stubby fingers of one hand tapping an impatient rhythm on his knotted biceps.

"I shall speak to the lady in the morning," Harkle assured him. "I am certain - "

"Alustriel's still here?" Bruenor interrupted.

"Why, yes," Harkle replied. "She stayed on a few extra - "

"Where is she?" Bruenor demanded.

"Down the hall."

"Which room?"

"I shall take you to her in the morn - " Harkle began.

Bruenor grabbed the front of the wizard's nightshirt and brought him down to a dwarf's eye level. Bruenor proved the stronger even with his nose, for the long, pointy thing pressed Harkle's nose flat against one of his cheeks. Bruenor's eyes did not blink, and he spoke each word of his question slowly and distinctly, just the way he wanted the answer. "Which room?"

"Green door, beside the bannister." Harkle gulped.

Bruenor gave the wizard a goodhearted wink and let him go. The dwarf turned right past Catti-brie, returning her amused smile with a determined shake of his head, and burst into the hall.

"Oh, he should not disturb the Lady Alustriel at this late hour!" Harkle protested.

Catti-brie could not help but laugh. "So stop him yerself!"

Harkle listened to the dwarf's heavy footsteps resounding down the hall; Bruenor's bare feet thudded on the wooden floor like bouncing stones. "No," Harkle answered her offer, his smile widening to match her own. "I think not."

Abruptly awakened in the night, the Lady Alustriel appeared no less beautiful, her silvery mane somehow mystically connected to the soft glow of the evening. Bruenor composed himself when he saw the lady, remembering her station and his manners.

"Uh, begging the lady's pardon," he stammered, suddenly very embarrassed by his actions.

"It is late, good King Bruenor," Alustriel said politely, an amused smile on her face as she viewed the dwarf, dressed only in his nightshirt and broken helmet. "What might have brought you to my door at this hour?"

"What with all that's going on about, I did not even know ye were still in Longsaddle," Bruenor explained.

"I would have come to see you before I left," Alustriel replied, her tone still cordial. "No need to disturb your sleep or mine."

"Me thoughts weren't for good-byes," Bruenor said. "I be needing a favor."


Bruenor nodded emphatically. "A favor I should've asked afore we e'er got here."

Alustriel led him into her room and closed the door behind them, realizing the seriousness of the dwarf's business.

"I need another one of them chariots," said Bruenor. "To take me to the south."

"You mean to catch your friends and aid in the search for the halfling," Alustriel reasoned.

"Aye, I know me place."

"But I cannot accompany you," Alustriel said. "I have a realm to rule; it is not my place to journey unannounced to other kingdoms."

"I wouldn't be askin' ye to go," replied Bruenor.

"Then who will drive the team? You have no experience with such magic."

Bruenor thought for just a moment. "Harkle'll take me!" he blurted.

Alustriel couldn't hide a smirk as she thought of the possibilities for disaster. Harkle, like so many of his Harpell kin, usually hurt himself when spellcasting. The lady knew that she would not sway the dwarf, but she felt it her duty to point out all of the weaknesses of his plan.

"Calimport is a long way indeed," she told him. "The trip there on the chariot will be speedy, but the return could take many months. Will not the true king of Mithril Hall lead the gathering armies in the fight for his throne?"

"He will," Bruenor replied, "if it be possible. But me place's with me friends. I owe them at least that!"

"You risk much."

"No more than they've risked for me - many the times."

Alustriel opened the door. "Very well," she said, "and my respect on your decision. You will prove a noble king, Bruenor Battlehammer."

The dwarf, for one of the few times in his life, blushed.

"Now go and rest," said Alustriel. "I will see what I might learn this night. Meet me on the south slope of Harpell Hill before the break of dawn."

Bruenor nodded eagerly and found his way back to his room. For the first time since he had come to Longsaddle, he slept peacefully.

* * *

Under the lightening sky of predawn, Bruenor and Harkle met Alustriel at the appointed spot. Harkle had eagerly agreed to the journey; he had always wanted a crack at driving one of Lady Alustriel's famed chariots. He seemed out of place next to the battle-charged dwarf, though, wearing his wizard's robe - tucked into leather hip boots - and an oddly shaped silver helmet with fluffy white fur wings and a visor that kept flopping down over his eyes.

Alustriel had not slept the rest of that night. She had been busy staring into the crystal ball the Harpells had provided her, probing distant planes in search of clues to the whereabouts of Bruenor's friends. She had learned much in that short time and had even made a connection to the dead mage Morkai in the spirit world to garner further information.

And what she had learned disturbed her more than a little.

She stood now, components in hand and awaiting the break of dawn, quietly facing the east. As the first rays of the sun peeked over the horizon, she swept them into her grasp and executed the spell. Minutes later, a flaming chariot and two fiery horses appeared on the hillside, magically suspended an inch from the ground. The licks of their flames sent tiny streams of smoke rising from the bedewed grass.

"To Calimport!" Harkle proclaimed, rushing over to the enchanted carriage.

"Nay," Alustriel corrected. Bruenor turned a confused glance on her.

"Your friends are not yet in the Empire of the Sands," the lady explained. "They are at sea and will find grave danger this day. Set your course to the southwest, to the sea, then true south with the coast in sight." She tossed a heartshaped locket to Bruenor. The dwarf fumbled it open and found a picture of Drizzt Do'Urden inside.

"The locket will warm when you approach the ship that carries your friends," Alustriel said. "I created it many weeks ago, that I might have known if your group approached Silverymoon on your return from Mithril Hall." She avoided Bruenor's probing gaze, knowing the myriad of questions that must have been going through the dwarf's mind. Quietly, almost as if embarrassed, she added, "I should like it returned."

Bruenor kept his sly remarks to himself. He knew of the growing connection between Lady Alustriel and Drizzt. It became clearer and clearer every day. "Ye'll get it back," he assured her. He scooped the locket up in his fist and moved to join Harkle.

"Tarry not," Alustriel told them. "Their need is pressing this day!"

"Wait!" came a call from the hill. All three turned to see Catti-brie, fully outfitted for the road, with Taulmaril, the magical bow of Anariel that she had recovered from the ruins of Mithril Hall, slung easily over her shoulder. She ran down to the back of the chariot. "Ye weren't meaning to leave me so?" she asked Bruenor.

Bruenor couldn't look her in the eye. He had indeed meant to leave without so much as a good-bye to his daughter. "Bah!" he snorted. "Ye'd have only tried to stop me going!"

"Never I would!" Catti-brie growled right back at him. "Me thinkin's that yer doing right. But ye'd do righter if ye'd move over and make room for me!"

Bruenor shook his head emphatically.

"I've as much the right as yerself!" Catti-brie protested.

"Bah!" Bruenor snorted again. "Drizzt and Rumblebelly are me truest friends!"

"And mine!"

"And Wulfgar's been akin to a son to me!" Bruenor shot back, thinking he had won the round.

"And a might bit more than that to me," Catti-brie retorted, "if he gets back from the South!" Catti-brie didn't even need to remind Bruenor that she had been the one who introduced him to Drizzt. She had defeated all of the dwarf's arguments. "Move aside, Bruenor Battlehammer, and make room! I've as much at stake as yerself, and I'm meaning to come along!"

"Who'll be seeing to the armies?" Bruenor asked.

"The Harpells'll put them up. They won't be marching to the halls until we're back, or until the spring, at least."

"But if both of you go and do not return," Harkle interjected, letting the thought hang over them for a moment. "You are the only ones who know the way."

Bruenor saw Catti-brie's crestfallen look and realized how deeply she desired to join him on his quest. And he knew she was right in coming, for she had as much at stake in the chase across the southland as he. He thought for a moment, suddenly shifting to Catti-brie's side in the debate. "The lady knows the way," he said, indicating Alustriel.

Alustriel nodded. "I do," she replied. "And I would gladly show the armies to the halls. But the chariot will carry only two riders."

Bruenor's sigh was as loud as Catti-brie's. He shrugged helplessly at his daughter. "Better that ye stay," he said softly. "I'll bring 'em back for ye."

Catti-brie wouldn't let it go so easily. "When the fighting starts," she said, "and suren it will, would ye rather ye had Harkle and his spells beside ye, or me and me bow?"

Bruenor glanced casually at Harkle and immediately saw the young woman's logic. The wizard stood at the reins of the chariot, trying to find some way to keep the visor of his helmet up on his brow. Finally Harkle gave up and just tilted his head back far enough so he could see under the visor.

"Here, ye dropped a piece of it," Bruenor said to him. "That's why it won't stay up!"

Harkle turned and saw Bruenor pointing to the ground off the back of the chariot. He shuffled around beside Bruenor and bent over, trying to see what the dwarf was pointing at.

As Harkle bent to look, the weight of his silver helmet - which actually belonged to a cousin much large than he - toppled him over and left him sprawled face down on the lawn. In the same moment, Bruenor swept Catti-brie into the chariot beside him.

"Oh, drats!" Harkle whined. "I would have so loved to go!"

"The lady'll make ye another one to fly," Bruenor said to comfort him. Harkle looked to Alustriel.

"Tomorrow morning," Alustriel agreed, quite amused by the whole scene. Then to Bruenor she asked, "Can you guide the chariot?"

"As well as he, by me guess!" the dwarf proclaimed, grabbing up the fiery reins. "Hold on, girl. We've half a world to cross!" He snapped the reins, and the chariot lifted into the morning sky, cutting a fiery streak across the blue-gray haze of dawn.

The wind rushed past them as they shot into the west, the chariot rocking wildly from side to side, up and down. Bruenor fought frantically to hold his course; Catti-brie fought frantically just to hold on. The sides wobbled, the back dipped and climbed, and once they even spun in a complete vertical circle, though it happened so fast - luckily - that neither of the riders had time to fall out!

A few minutes later, a single thundercloud loomed ahead of them. Bruenor saw it, and Catti-brie yelled a warning, but the dwarf hadn't mastered the subtleties of driving the chariot well enough to do anything about their course. They blew through the darkness, leaving a hissing steam tail in their wake, and rocketed out above the cloud.

And then Bruenor, his face glistening with wetness, found the measure of the reins. He leveled off the chariot's course and put the rising sun behind his right shoulder. Catti-brie, too, found her footing, though she still clung tightly to the chariot's rail with one hand, and to the dwarf's heavy cloak with the other.

* * *

The silver dragon rolled over onto its back lazily, riding the morning winds with its legs - all four - crossed over it and its sleepy eyes half closed. The good dragon loved its morning glide, leaving the bustle of the world far below and catching the sun's untainted rays above the cloud level.

But the dragon's marvelous orbs popped open wide when it saw the fiery streak rushing at it from the east. Thinking the flames to be the forerunning fires of an evil red dragon, the silver swooped around into a high cloud and poised to ambush the thing. But the fury left the dragon's eyes when it recognized the strange craft, a fiery chariot, with just the helm of the driver, a one-horned contraption, sticking above the front of the carriage and a young human woman standing behind, her auburn locks flying back over her shoulders.

Its huge mouth agape, the silver dragon watched as the chariot sped past. Few things piqued the curiosity of this ancient creature, who had lived so very many years, but it seriously considered following this unlikely scene.

A cool breeze wafted in then and washed all other thoughts from the silver dragon's mind. "Peoples," it muttered, rolling again onto its back and shaking its head in disbelief.

* * *

Catti-brie and Bruenor never even saw the dragon. Their eyes were fixed squarely ahead, where the wide sea was already in sight on the western horizon, blanketed by a heavy morning mist. A half-hour later, they saw the high towers of Waterdeep to the north and moved out from the Sword Coast and over the water. Bruenor, getting a better feel of the reins, swung the chariot to the south and dropped it low.

Too low.

Diving into the gray shroud of mist, they heard the lapping of the waves below them and the hiss of steam as the spray hit their fiery craft.

"Bring her up!" Catti-brie yelled. "Ye're too low!"

"Need to be low!" Bruenor gasped, fighting the reins. He tried to mask his incompetence, but he fully realized that they were indeed too close to the water. Struggling with all his might, he managed to bring the chariot up a few more feet and level it off. "There," he boasted. "Got it straight, and got it low."

He looked over his shoulder at Catti-brie. "Need to be low," he said again into her doubting expression. "We have to see the durn ship to find it!"

Catti-brie only shook her head.

But then they did see a ship. Not the ship, but a ship nonetheless, looming up in the mist barely thirty yards ahead.

Catti-brie screamed - Bruenor did, too - and the dwarf fell back with the reins, forcing the chariot upward at as steep an angle as possible. The ship's deck rolled out below them.

And the masts still towered above them!

If all the ghosts of every sailor who had ever died on the sea had risen from their watery graves and sought vengeance on this particular vessel, the lookout's face would not have held a truer expression of terror. Possibly he leaped from his perch - more likely he toppled in fright - but either way, he missed the deck and dropped safely into the water at the very last second before the chariot streaked past his crow's nest and nipped the top of the mainmast.

Catti-brie and Bruenor composed themselves and looked back to see the tip of the ship's mast burning like a single candle in the gray mist.

"Ye're too low," Catti-brie reiterated.

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