The Dark Elf Trilogy: Exile

4. The City of Splendors


They were back to the main road before dawn, thundering to the west, to the coast and the city of Waterdeep. With the visit to Malchor and the business with Agatha out of the way, Drizzt and Wulfgar once again focused their thoughts on the road ahead, and they remembered the peril their halfling friend faced if they failed in the rescue. Their mounts, aided by Malchor's enchanted horseshoes, sped along at a tremendous clip. All the landscape seemed only a blur as it rolled by.

They did not break when dawn came behind them, nor did they stop for a meal as the sun climbed overhead.

"We will have all the rest we need when we board ship and sail to the south," Drizzt told Wulfgar.

The barbarian, determined that Regis would be saved, needed no prompting.

The dark of night came again, and the thunder of the hooves continued unbroken. Then, when the second morning found their backs, a salty breeze filled the air and the high towers of Waterdeep, the City of Splendors, appeared on the western horizon. The two riders stopped atop the high cliff that formed the fabulous settlement's eastern border. If Wulfgar had been stunned earlier that year when he had first looked upon Luskan, five hundred miles up the coast, he now was stricken dumb. For Waterdeep, the jewel of the North, the greatest port in all the Realms, was fully ten times the size of Luskan. Even within its high wall, it sprawled out lazily and endlessly down the coast, with towers and spires reaching high into the sea mist to the edges of the companions' vision.

"How many live here?" Wulfgar gasped at Drizzt.

"A hundred of your tribes could find shelter within the city," the drow explained. He noted Wulfgar's anxiety with concern of his own. Cities were beyond the experiences of the young man, and the time Wulfgar had ventured into Luskan had nearly ended in disaster. And now there was Waterdeep, with ten times the people, ten times the intrigue - and ten times the trouble.

Wulfgar settled back a bit, and Drizzt had no choice but to put his trust in the young warrior. The drow had his own dilemma, a personal battle that he now had to settle. Gingerly he took the magical mask out of his belt pouch.

Wulfgar understood the determination guiding the drow's hesitant motions, and he looked upon his friend with sincere pity. He did not know if he could be so brave - even with Regis's life hanging on his actions.

Drizzt turned the plain mask over in his hands, wondering at the limits of its magic. He could feel that this was no ordinary item; its power tingled to his sensitive touch. Would it simply rob him of his appearance? Or might it steal his very identity? He had heard of other, supposedly beneficial, magical items that could not be removed once worn.

"Perhaps they will accept you as you are," Wulfgar offered hopefully.

Drizzt sighed and smiled, his decision made. "No," he answered. "The soldiers of Waterdeep would not admit a drow elf, nor would any boat captain allow me passage to the south." Without any more delays, he placed the mask over his face.

For a moment, nothing happened, and Drizzt began to wonder if all of his concerns had been for naught, if the mask were really a fake. "Nothing," he chuckled uneasily after a few more seconds, tentative relief in his tone. "It does not - " Drizzt stopped in midsentence when he noticed Wulfgar's stunned expression.

Wulfgar fumbled in his pack and produced a shiny metal cup. "Look," he bade Drizzt and handed him the makeshift mirror.

Drizzt took the cup in trembling hands - hands that trembled more when Drizzt realized they were no longer black - and raised it to his face. The reflection was poor - even poorer in the morning light to the drow's night eyes - but Drizzt could not mistake the image before him. His features had not changed, but his black skin now held the golden hue of a surface elf. And his flowing hair, once stark white, showed lustrous yellow, as shiny as if it had caught the rays of the sun and held them fast.

Only Drizzt's eyes remained as they had been, deep pools of brilliant lavender. No magic could dim their gleam, and Drizzt felt some small measure of relief, at least, that his inner person had apparently remained untainted.

Yet he did not know how to react to this blatant alteration. Embarrassed, he looked to Wulfgar for approval.

Wulfgar's visage had turned sour. "By all the measures known to me, you appear as any other handsome elven warrior," he answered to Drizzt's inquiring gaze. "And surely a maiden or two will blush and turn her eyes when you stride by."

Drizzt looked to the ground and tried to hide his uneasiness with the assessment.

"But I like it not," Wulfgar continued sincerely. "Not at all." Drizzt looked back to him uncomfortably, almost sheepishly.

"And I like the look upon your face, the discomfort of your spirit, even less," Wulfgar continued, now apparently a bit perturbed. "I am a warrior who has faced giants and dragons without fear. But I would pale at the notion of battling Drizzt Do'Urden. Remember who you are, noble ranger."

A smile found its way onto Drizzt's face. "Thank you, my friend," he said. "Of all the challenges I have faced, this is perhaps the most trying."

"I prefer you without the thing," said Wulfgar.

"As do I," came another voice from behind them. They turned to see a middle-aged man, well muscled and tall, walking toward them. He seemed casual enough, wearing simple clothes and sporting a neatly trimmed black beard. His hair, too, was black, though speckles of silver edged it.

"Greetings, Wulfgar and Drizzt Do'Urden," he said with a graceful bow. "I am Khelben, an associate of Malchor. That most magnificent Harpell bade me to watch for your arrival."

"A wizard?" Wulfgar asked, not really meaning to speak his thoughts aloud.

Khelben shrugged. "A forester," he replied, "with a love for painting, though I daresay that I am not very good at it."

Drizzt studied Khelben, not believing either of his disclaimers. The man had an aura of distinction about him, a distinguished manner and confidence befitting a lord. By Drizzt's measure, Khelben was more likely Malchor's peer, at least. And if the man truly loved to paint, Drizzt had no doubt that he had perfected the art as well as any in the North. "A guide through Waterdeep?" Drizzt asked.

"A guide to a guide," Khelben answered. "I know of your quest and your needs. Passage on a ship is not an easy thing to come by this late in the year, unless you know where to inquire. Come, now, to the south gate, where we might find one who knows." He found his mount a short distance away and led them to the south at an easy trot.

They passed the sheer cliff that protected the city's eastern border, a hundred feet high at its peak. And where the cliff sloped down to sea level, they found another city wall. Khelben veered away from the city at this point, though the south gate was now in sight, and indicated a grassy knoll topped by a single willow.

A small man jumped down from the tree as they breached the knoll, his dark eyes darting nervously about. He was no pauper, by his dress, and his uneasiness when they approached only added to Drizzt's suspicions that Khelben was more than he had presumed.

"Ah, Orlpar, so good of you to come," Khelben said casually. Drizzt and Wulfgar exchanged knowing smiles; the man had been given no choice in the matter.

"Greetings," Orlpar said quickly, wanting to finish the business as expediently as possible. "The passage is secured. Have you the payment?"

"When?" Khelben asked.

"A week," replied Orlpar. "The Coast Dancer puts out in a week."

Khelben did not miss the worried looks that Drizzt and Wulfgar now exchanged. "That is too long," he told Orlpar. "Every sailor in port owes you a favor. My friends cannot wait."

"These arrangements take time!" Orlpar argued, his voice rising. But then, as if he suddenly remembered who he was addressing, he shrank back and dropped his eyes.

"Too long," Khelben reiterated calmly.

Orlpar stroked his face, searching for some solution. "Deudermont," he said, looking hopefully to Khelben. "Captain Deudermont takes the Sea Sprite out this very night. A fairer man you'll not find, but I do not know how far south he will venture. And the price will be high."

"Ah," Khelben smiled, "but fear not, my little friend. I have wondrous barter for you this day."

Orlpar looked at him suspiciously. "You said gold."

"Better than gold," Khelben replied. "Three days from Longsaddle my friends have come, but their mounts have not broken even a sweat!"

"Horses?" balked Orlpar.

"Nay, not the steeds," said Khelben. "Their shoes. Magical shoes that can carry a horse like the wind itself!"

"My business is with sailors!" Orlpar protested as vigorously as he dared. "What use would I find with horseshoes?"

"Calm, calm, Orlpar," Khelben said softly with a wink. "Remember your brother's embarrassment? You will find some way to turn magical horseshoes into profit, I know."

Orlpar took a deep breath to blow away his anger. Khelben obviously had him cornered. "Have these two at the Mermaid's Arms," he said. "I will see what I can do." With that, he turned and, trotted off down the hill toward the south gate.

"You handled him with ease," Drizzt remarked.

"I held every advantage," Khelben replied. "Orlpar's brother heads a noble house in the city. At times, this proves a great benefit to Orlpar. Yet, it is also a hindrance, for he must take care not to bring public embarrassment to his family.

"But enough of that business," Khelben continued. "You may leave the horses with me. Off with you, now, to the south gate. The guards there will guide you to Dock Street, and from there you will have little trouble finding the Mermaid's Arms."

"You are not to come with us?" asked Wulfgar, slipping down from his saddle.

"I have other business," Khelben explained. "It is better that you go alone. You will be safe enough; Orlpar would not cross me, and Captain Deudermont is known to me as an honest seaman. Strangers are common in Waterdeep, especially down in the Dock Ward."

"But strangers wandering beside Khelben, the painter, might draw attention," Drizzt reasoned with good-humored sarcasm.

Khelben smiled but did not answer.

Drizzt dropped from his saddle. "The horses are to be returned to Longsaddle?"

"Of course."

"Our thanks to you, Khelben," said Drizzt. "Surely you have aided our cause greatly." Drizzt thought for a moment, eyeing his horse. "You must know that the enchantment Malchor put on the shoes will not remain. Orlpar will not profit from the deal he made this day."

"Justice," chuckled Khelben. "That one has turned many an unfair deal, let me assure you. Perhaps this experience will teach him humility and the error of his ways."

"Perhaps," said Drizzt, and with a bow, he and Wulfgar started down the hill.

"Keep your guard, but keep your calm," Khelben called after them. "Ruffians are not unknown on the docks, but the police are ever-present. Many a stranger spends his first night in the city dungeons!" He watched the two of them descend the knoll and remembered, as Malchor had remembered, those long-ago days when it was he who followed the roads to distant adventures.

"He had the man cowed," Wulfgar remarked when he and Drizzt were out of Khelben's earshot. "A simple painter?"

"More likely a wizard - a powerful wizard," Drizzt replied. "And our thanks again are owed to Malchor, whose influence has eased our way. Mark my words, 'twas no simple painter that tamed the likes of Orlpar."

Wulfgar looked back to the knoll, but Khelben and the horses were nowhere to be seen. Even with his limited understanding of the black arts, Wulfgar realized that only magic could have moved Khelben and the three horses from the area so quickly. He smiled and shook his head, and marveled again at the eccentric characters the wide world kept showing him.

* * *

Following the directions given to them by the guards at the south gate, Drizzt and Wulfgar were soon strolling down Dock Street, a long lane that ran the length of Waterdeep Harbor on the south side of the city. Fish smells and salty air filled their nostrils, gulls complained overhead, and sailors and mercenaries from every stretch of the Realms wandered about, some busy at work, but most ashore for their last rest before the long journey to points south.

Dock Street was well outfitted for such merrymaking; every corner held a tavern. But unlike the city of Luskan's dockside, which had been given over to the rabble by the lords of the city long ago, Dock Street in Waterdeep was not an evil place. Waterdeep was a city of laws, and members of the Watch, Waterdeep's famed city guard, seemed always in sight.

Hardy adventurers abounded here, battle-hardened warriors that carried their weapons with cool familiarity. Still, Drizzt and Wulfgar, found many eyes focused upon them, with almost every head turning and watching as they passed. Drizzt felt for his mask, at first worrying that it had somehow slipped off and revealed his heritage to the amazed onlookers. A quick inspection dispelled his fears, for his hands still showed the golden luster of a surface elf.

And Drizzt nearly laughed aloud when he turned to ask Wulfgar for confirmation that the mask still disguised his facial features, for it was then the dark elf realized that he was not the object of the gawks. He had been so close to the young barbarian for the last few years that he was used to Wulfgar's physical stature. Nearly seven feet tall, with corded muscles that thickened every year, Wulfgar strode down Dock Street with the easy air of sincere confidence, Aegis-fang bouncing casually on one shoulder. Even among the greatest warriors in the Realms, this young man would standout.

"For once, it seems that I am not the target of the stares," said Drizzt.

"Take off the mask, drow," Wulfgar replied, his face reddening with a rush of blood. "And take their eyes from me!"

"I would, but for Regis," Drizzt answered with a wink.

The Mermaid's Arms was no different that any other of the multitude of taverns that laced this section of Waterdeep. Shouts and cheers drifted out of the place, on air heavily scented with cheap ale and wine. A group of rowdies, pushing and shoving each other and throwing curses to the men they called friends, had gathered in front of the door...

Drizzt looked at Wulfgar with concern. The only other time the young man had been in such a place - at the Cutlass in Luskan - Wulfgar had torn apart the tavern, and most of its patrons, in a brawl. Clinging to ideals of honor and courage, Wulfgar was out of place in the unprincipled world of city taverns.

Orlpar came out of the Mermaid's Arms then and sifted adeptly through the rowdy crowd. "Deudermont is at the bar," he whispered out of the corner of his mouth. He passed Drizzt and Wulfgar and appeared to take no notice of them. "Tall; blue jacket and yellow beard," added Orlpar.

Wulfgar started to respond, but Drizzt kept him moving forward, understanding Orlpar's preference for secrecy.

The crowd parted as Drizzt and Wulfgar strode through, all their stares squarely on Wulfgar. "Bungo'll have 'im," one of them whispered when the two companions had moved into the bar.

"Be worth the watchin', though," chuckled another.

The drow's keen ears caught the conversation, and he looked again at his huge friend, noting how Wulfgar's size always seemed to single the barbarian out for such trouble.

The inside of the Mermaid's Arms offered no surprises. The air hung thick with the smoke of exotic weeds and the stench of stale ale. A few drunken sailors lay facedown on tables or sat propped against walls while others stumbled about, spilling their drinks - often on more sober patrons, who responded by shoving the offenders to the floor. Wulfgar wondered how many of these men had missed the sailing of their ships. Would they stagger about in here until their money ran out, only then to be dropped into the street to face the coming winter penniless and without shelter? "Twice I have seen the bowels of a city," Wulfgar whispered to Drizzt. "And both times I have been reminded of the pleasures of the open road!"

"The goblins and the dragons?" Drizzt retorted lightheartedly, leading Wulfgar to an empty table near the bar.

"A far lot better than this," Wulfgar remarked.

A serving wench was upon them before they had even sat down. "What's yer pleasure?" she asked absently, having long ago lost interest in the patrons she served.

"Water," Wulfgar answered gruffly.

"And wine," Drizzt quickly added, handing over a gold piece to dispel the woman's sudden scowl.

"That must be Deudermont," Wulfgar said, deflecting any forthcoming scolding concerning his treatment of the wench. He pointed to a tall man leaning over the bar rail.

Drizzt rose at once, thinking it prudent to be done with their business and out of the tavern as quickly as possible. "Hold the table," he told Wulfgar.

Captain Deudermont was not the average patron of the Mermaid's Arms. Tall and straight, he was a refined man accustomed to dining with lords and ladies. But as with all of the ship captains who put into Waterdeep Harbor, especially on the day of their departures, Deudermont spent most of his time ashore, keeping a watchful eye on his valued crew and trying to prevent them from winding up in Waterdeep's overfilled jails.

Drizzt squeezed in next to the captain, brushing away the inquiring look of the barkeep. "We have a common friend," Drizzt said softly to Deudermont.

"I would hardly number Orlpar among my friends," the captain replied casually. "But I see that he did not exaggerate about the size and strength of your young friend."

Deudermont was not the only one who had noticed Wulfgar. As did every other tavern in this section of Waterdeep - and most bars across the Realms - the Mermaid's Arms had a champion. A bit farther down the bar rail, a massive, hulking slob named Bungo had eyed Wulfgar from the minute the young barbarian had walked through the door. Bungo didn't like the looks of this one, not in the least. Even more than the corded arms, Wulfgar's graceful stride and the easy way he carried his huge war hammer revealed a measure of experience beyond his age.

Bungo's supporters crowded around him in anticipation of the coming brawl, their twisted smiles and beer-reeking breath spurring their champion to action. Normally confident, Bungo had to work to keep his anxiety under control. He had taken many hits in his seven-year reign at the tavern. His frame was bent now, and dozens of bones had been cracked and muscles torn. Looking at the awesome spectacle of Wulfgar, Bungo honestly wondered if he could have won this match even in his healthier youth.

But the regulars of the Mermaid's Arms looked up to him. This was their domain, and he their champion. They provided his free meals and drinks - Bungo could not let them down.

He quaffed his full mug in a single gulp and pushed himself off the rail. With a final growl to reassure his supporters, and callously tossing aside anyone in his way, Bungo made his way toward Wulfgar.

Wulfgar had seen the group coming before it had ever started moving. This scene was all too familiar to the young barbarian, and he fully expected that he would once again, as had happened at the Cutlass in Luskan, be singled out because of his size.

"What're ye fer?" Bungo said with a hiss as he towered, hands on hips, over the seated man. The other ruffians spread out around the table, putting Wulfgar squarely within their ring.

Wulfgar's instincts told him to stand and drop the pretentious slob where he stood. He had no fears about Bungo's eight friends. He considered them cowards who needed their leader to spur them on. If a single blow put Bungo down - and Wulfgar knew it would - the others would hesitate before striking, a delay that would cost them dearly against the likes of Wulfgar.

But over the last few months, Wulfgar had learned to temper his anger, and he had learned a broader definition of honor. He shrugged, making no move that resembled a threat. "A place to sit and a drink," he replied calmly. "And who might you be?"

"Name's Bungo," said the slob, spittle spraying with every word. He thrust his chest out proudly, as if his name should mean something to Wulfgar.

Again Wulfgar, wiping Bungo's spray from his face, had to resist his fighting instincts. He and Drizzt had more important business, he reminded himself.

"Who said ye could come to my bar?" Bungo growled, thinking, hoping - that he had put Wulfgar on the defensive. He looked around at his friends, who leaned closer over Wulfgar, heightening the intimidation.

Surely Drizzt would understand the necessity to put this one down, Wulfgar reasoned, his fists tightening at his sides. "One shot," he muttered silently, looking around at the wretched group, a group that would look better sprawled out unconscious in the corners of the floor.

Wulfgar summoned an image of Regis to ward off his welling rage, but he could not ignore the fact that his hands were now clenched on the rim of the table so tightly that his knuckles had whitened for lack of blood.

* * *

"The arrangements?" Drizzt asked.

"Secured," replied Deudermont. "I've room on the Sea Sprite for you, and I welcome the added hands - and blades - especially of such veteran adventurers. But I've a suspicion that you might be missing our sailing." He grasped Drizzt's shoulder to turn him toward the trouble brewing at Wulfgar's table.

"Tavern champion and his cronies," Deudermont explained, "though my bet would be with your friend."

"Money well placed," Drizzt replied, "but we have no time..."

Deudermont guided Drizzt's gaze across to a shadowy corner of the tavern and to four men sitting calmly watching the growing tumult with interest. "The Watch," Deudermont said. "A fight will cost your friend a night in the dungeons. I cannot hold port."

Drizzt searched the tavern, looking for some out. All eyes seemed to be closing in on Wulfgar and the ruffians, eagerly anticipating the fight. The drow realized that if he went to the table now, he would probably ignite the whole thing.

* * *

Bungo thrust his belly forward, inches from Wulfgar's face, to display a wide belt notched in a hundred places. "Fer every man I beat," he boasted. "Give me somethin' to do on my night in jail." He pointed at a large cut to the side of the buckle. "Killed that one there. Squashed 'is head real good. Cost me five nights."

Wulfgar eased his grip, not impressed, but wary now of the potential consequences of his actions. He had a ship to catch.

"Perhaps it was Bungo I came to see," he said, crossing his arms and leaning back in his chair.

"Get 'im, then!" growled one of the ruffians.

Bungo eyed Wulfgar wickedly. "Come lookin' fer a fight?"

"Nay, I think not," Wulfgar retorted. "A fight? Nay, I am but a boy out to see the wide world."

Bungo could not hide his confusion. He looked around to his friends, who could only shrug in response.

"Sit," Wulfgar offered. Bungo made no move.

The ruffian behind Wulfgar poked him hard in the shoulder and growled, "What're ye fer?"

Wulfgar had to consciously catch his own hand before it shot across and squashed the ruffian's filthy fingers together. But he had control now. He leaned closer to the huge leader. "Not to fight; to watch," he said quietly. "One day, perhaps, I might deem myself worthy to challenge the likes of Bungo, and on that day I will return, for I have no doubt that you will still be the champion of this tavern. But that day is many years away, I fear. I have so much to learn."

"Then why've ye come?" Bungo demanded, his confidence brimming over. He leaned over Wulfgar, threateningly close.

"I have come to learn," Wulfgar replied. "To learn by watching the toughest fighter in Waterdeep. To see how Bungo presents himself and goes about his affairs."

Bungo straightened and looked around at his anxious friends, who were leaning nearly to the point of falling over the table. Bungo flashed his toothless grin, customary before he clobbered a challenger, and the ruffians tensed. But then their champion surprised them, slapping Wulfgar hard on the shoulder - the clap of a friend.

Audible groans issued throughout the tavern as Bungo pulled up a chair to share a drink with the impressive stranger.

"Get ye gone!" the slob roared at his companions. Their faces twisted in disappointment and confusion, but they did not dare disobey. The one behind Wulfgar poked him again for good measure, then followed the others back to the bar.

* * *

"A wise move," Deudermont remarked to Drizzt.

"For both of them," the drow replied, relaxing against the rail.

"You have other business in the city?" the captain asked.

Drizzt shook his head. "No. Get us to the ship," he said. "I fear that Waterdeep can bring only trouble."

A million stars filled the sky that cloudless night. They reached down from the velvety canopy to join with the distant lights of Waterdeep, setting the northern horizon aglow. Wulfgar found Drizzt above decks, sitting quietly in the rolling serenity offered by the sea.

"I should like to return," Wulfgar said, following his friend's gaze to the now distant city.

"To settle a score with a drunken ruffian and his wretched friends," Drizzt concluded.

Wulfgar laughed but stopped abruptly when Drizzt wheeled on him.

"To what end?" Drizzt asked. "Would you then replace him as the champion of the Mermaid's Arms?"

"That is a life I do not envy," Wulfgar replied, chuckling again, though this time uncomfortably.

"Then leave it to Bungo," Drizzt said, turning back to the glow of the city.

Again Wulfgar's smile faded.

Seconds, minutes perhaps, slipped by, the only sound the slapping of the waves against the prow of the Sea Sprite. On an impulse, Drizzt slid Twinkle from its sheath. The crafted scimitar came to life in his hand, the blade glowing in the starlight that had given Twinkle its name and its enchantment.

"The weapon fits you well," Wulfgar remarked.

"A fine companion," Drizzt acknowledged, examining the intricate designs etched along the curving blade. He remembered another magical scimitar he had once possessed, a blade he had found in the lair of a dragon that he and Wulfgar had slain. That blade, too, had been a fine companion. Wrought of ice magic, the scimitar was forged as a bane to creatures of fire, impervious, along with its wielder, to their flames. It had served Drizzt well, even saving him from the certain and painful death of a demon's fire.

Drizzt cast his gaze back to Wulfgar. "I was thinking of our first dragon," he explained to the barbarian's questioning look. "You and I alone in the ice cave against the likes of Icingdeath, an able foe."

"He would have had us," Wulfgar added, "had it not been for the luck of that huge icicle hanging above the dragon's back."

"Luck?" Drizzt replied. "Perhaps. But more often, I dare to say, luck is simply the advantage a true warrior gains in executing the correct course of action."

Wulfgar took the compliment in stride; he had been the one to dislodge the pointed icicle, killing the dragon.

"A pity I do not have the scimitar I plundered from Icingdeath's lair to serve as a companion for Twinkle," Drizzt remarked.

"True enough," replied Wulfgar, smiling as he remembered his early adventures beside the drow. "But, alas, that one went over Garumn's Gorge with Bruenor."

Drizzt paused and blinked as if cold water had been thrown in his face. A sudden image flooded through his mind, its implications both hopeful and frightening. The image of Bruenor Battlehammer drifting slowly down into the depths of the gorge on the back of a burning dragon.

A burning dragon!

It was the first time Wulfgar had ever noted a tremble in the voice of his normally composed friend, when Drizzt rasped out, "Bruenor had my blade?"
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