Her thick auburn hair bouncing below her shoulders, Catti-brie worked furiously to keep the drow's whirling scimitars at bay. She was a solidly built woman, a hundred and thirty pounds of muscles finely toned from living her life with Bruenor's dwarven clan. Catti-brie was no stranger to the forge or the sledge.

Or the sword, and this new blade, its white-metal pommel sculpted in the likeness of a unicorn's head, was by far the most balanced weapon she had ever swung. Still, Catti-brie was hard-pressed, indeed, overmatched, by her opponent this day. Few in the Realms could match blades with Drizzt Do'Urden, the drow ranger.

He was no larger than Catti-brie, a few pounds heavier perhaps, with his tight-muscled frame. His white hair hung as low as Catti-brie's mane and was equally thick, and his ebony skin glistened with streaks of sweat, a testament to the young woman's prowess.

Drizzt's two scimitars crossed in front of him (one of them glowing a fierce blue even through the protective padding that covered it), then went back out wide, inviting Catti-brie to thrust straight between.

She knew better than to make the attempt. Drizzt was too quick, and could strike her blade near its tip with one scimitar, while the other alternately parried low, batting the opposite way near the hilt. With a single step diagonally to the side, following his closer-parrying blade, Drizzt would have her beaten.

Catti-brie stepped back instead, and presented her sword in front of her. Her deep blue eyes peeked out around the blade, which had been thickened with heavy material, and she locked stares with the drow's lavender orbs.

"An opportunity missed?" Drizzt teased.

"A trap avoided," Catti-brie was quick to reply.

Drizzt came ahead in a rush, his blades crossing, going wide, and cutting across, one high and one low. Catti-brie dropped her left foot behind her and fell into a crouch, turning her sword to parry the low-rushing blade, dipping her head to avoid the high.

She needn't have bothered, for the cross came too soon, before Drizzt's feet had caught up to the move, and both his scimitars swished through the air, short of the mark.

Catti-brie didn't miss the opening, and darted ahead, sword thrusting.

Back snapped Drizzt's blades, impossibly fast, slamming the sword on both its sides. But Drizzt's feet weren't positioned correctly for him to follow the move, to go diagonally ahead and take advantage of Catti-brie's turned sword.

The young woman went ahead and to the side instead, sliding her weapon free of the clinch and executing the real attack, the slash at Drizzt's hip.

Drizzt's backhand caught her short, drove her sword harmlessly high.

They broke apart again, eyeing each other, Catti-brie wearing a sly smile. In all their months of training, she had never come so close to scoring a hit on the agile and skilled drow.

Drizzt's expression stole her glory, though, and the drow dipped the tips of his scimitars toward the floor, shaking his head In frustration.

"The bracers?" Catti-brie asked, referring to the magical wrist bands, wide pieces of black material lined with gleaming mithril rings. Drizzt had taken them from Dantrag Baenre, the deposed weapon master of Menzoberranzan's first house, after defeating Dantrag in mortal combat. Rumors said those marvelous bracers allowed Dantrag's hands to move incredibly fast, giving him the advantage in combat.

Upon battling the lightning-quick Baenre, Drizzt had come to believe those rumors, and after wearing the bracers in sparring for the last few weeks, he had confirmed their abilities. But Drizzt wasn't convinced that the bracers were a good thing. In the fight with Dantrag, he had turned Dantrag's supposed advantage against the drow, for the weapon master's hands moved too quickly for Dantrag to alter any started move, too quickly for Dantrag to improvise if his opponent made an unexpected turn. Now, in these sparring exercises, Drizzt was learning that the bracers held another disadvantage.

His feet couldn't keep up with his hands.

"Ye'll learn them," Catti-brie assured.

Drizzt wasn't so certain. "Fighting is an art of balance and movement," he explained.

"And faster ye are!" Catti-brie replied.

Drizzt shook his head. "Faster are my hands," he said. "A warrior does not win with his hands. He wins with his feet, by positioning himself to best strike the openings in his opponent's defenses."

"The feet'll catch up," Catti-brie replied. "Dantrag was the best Menzoberranzan had to offer, and ye said yerself that the bracers were the reason."

Drizzt couldn't disagree that the bracers greatly aided Dantrag, but he wondered how much they would benefit one of his skill, or one of Zaknafein's, his father's, skill. It could be, Drizzt realized, that the bracers would aid a lesser fighter, one who needed to depend on the sheer speed of his weapons. But the complete fighter, the master who had found harmony between all his muscles, would be put off balance. Or perhaps the bracers would aid someone wielding a heavier weapon, a mighty warhammer, such as Aegis-fang. Drizzt's scimitars, slender blades of no more than two pounds of metal, perfectly balanced by both workmanship and enchantment, weaved effortlessly, and, even without the bracers, his hands were quicker than his feet.

"Come on then," Catti-brie scolded, waving her sword in front of her, her wide blue eyes narrowing intently, her shapely hips swiveling as she fell into a low balance.

She sensed her chance, Drizzt realized. She knew he was fighting at a disadvantage and finally sensed her chance to pay back one of the many stinging hits he had given her in their sparring.

Drizzt took a deep breath and lifted the blades. He owed it to Catti-brie to oblige, but he meant to make her earn it!

He came forward slowly, playing defensively. Her sword shot out, and he hit it twice before it ever got close, on its left side with his right hand, and on its left side again, bringing his left hand right over the presented blade and batting it with a downward parry.

Catti-brie fell with the momentum of the double block, spinning a complete circle, rotating away from her adversary. When she came around, predictably, Drizzt was in close, scimitars weaving.

Still the patient drow measured his attack, did not come too fast and strong. His blades crossed and went out wide, teasing the young woman.

Catti-brie growled and threw her sword straight out again, determined to find that elusive hole. And in came the scimitars, striking in rapid succession, again both hitting the left side of Catti-brie's sword. As before, Catti-brie spun to the right, but this time Drizzt came in hard.

Down went the young woman in a low crouch, her rear grazing the floor, and she skittered back. Both of Drizzt's blades swooshed through the air above and before her, for again his cuts came before his feet could rightly respond and position him.

Drizzt was amazed to find that Catti-brie was no longer in front of him.

He called the move the "Ghost Step," and had taught it to Catti-brie only a week earlier. The trick was to use the opponent's swinging weapon as an optical shield, to move within the vision-blocked area so perfectly and quickly that your opponent would not know you had come forward and to the side, that you had, in fact, stepped behind his leading hip.

Reflexively, the drow snapped his leading scimitar straight back, blade pointed low, for Catti-brie had gone past in a crouch. He beat the sword to the mark, too quickly, and the momentum of his scimitar sent it sailing futilely in front of the coming attack.

Drizzt winced as the unicorn-handled sword slapped hard against his hip.

For Catti-brie, the moment was one of pure delight. She knew, of course, that the bracers were hindering Drizzt, causing him to make mistakes of balance-mistakes that Drizzt Do'Urden hadn't made since his earliest days of fighting-but even with the uncomfortable bracers, the drow was a powerful adversary, and could likely defeat most swordsmen.

How delicious it was, then, when Catti-brie found her new sword slicing in unhindered!

Her joy was stolen momentarily by an urge to sink the blade deeper, a sudden, inexplicable anger focused directly on Drizzt.

"Touch!" Drizzt called, the signal that he had been hit, and when Catti-brie straightened and sorted out the scene, she found the drow standing a few feet away, rubbing his sore hip.

"Sorry," she apologized, realizing she had struck far too hard.

"Not to worry," Drizzt replied slyly. "Surely your one hit does not equal the combined pains my scimitars have caused you." The dark elf's lips curled up into a mischievous smile. "Or the pains I will surely inflict on you in return!"

"Me thinking's that I'm catching ye, Drizzt Do'Urden," Catti-brie answered calmly, confidently. "Ye'll get yer hits, but ye'll take yer hits as well!"

They both laughed at that, and Catti-brie moved to the side of the room and began to remove her practice gear.

Drizzt slid the padding from one of his scimitars and considered those last words. Catti-brie was indeed improving, he agreed. She had a warrior's heart, tempered by a poet's philosophy, a deadly combination indeed. Catti-brie, like Drizzt, would rather talk her way out of a battle than wage it, but when the avenues of diplomacy were exhausted, when the fight became a matter of survival, then the young woman would fight with conscience clear and passion heated. All her heart and all her skill would come to bear, and in Catti-brie, both of those ingredients were considerable.

And she was barely into her twenties! In Menzoberranzan, had she been a drow, she would be in Arach-Tinilith now, the school of Lloth, her strong morals being assaulted daily by the lies of the

Spider Queen's priestesses. Drizzt shook that thought away; he didn't even want to think of Catti-brie in that awful place. Suppose she had gone to the drow school of fighters, Melee-Magthere, instead, he mused. How would she fare against the likes of young drow?

Well, Drizzt decided, Catti-brie would be near the top of her class, certainly among the top ten or fifteen percent, and her passion and dedication would get her there. How much could she improve under his tutelage? Drizzt wondered, and his expression soured as he considered the limitations of Catti-brie's heritage. He was in his sixties, barely more than a child by drow standards, for they could live to see seven centuries, but when Catti-brie reached his tender age, she would be old, too old to fight well.

That notion pained Drizzt greatly. Unless the blade of an enemy or the claws of a monster shortened his life, he would watch Catti-brie grow old, would watch her pass from this life.

Drizzt looked at her now as she removed the padded baldric and unclasped the metal collar guard. Under the padding above the waist, she wore only a simple shirt of light material. It was wet with perspiration now and clung to her.

She was a warrior, Drizzt agreed, but she was also a beautiful young woman, shapely and strong, with the spirit of a foal first learning to run and a heart filled with passion.

The sound of distant furnaces, the sudden, increased ringing of hammer on steel, should have alerted Drizzt that the room's door had opened, but it simply didn't register in the distracted drow's consciousness.

"Hey!" came a roar from the side of the chamber, and Drizzt turned to see Bruenor storm into the room. He half expected the dwarf, Catti-brie's adoptive, overprotective, father, to demand what in the Nine Hells Drizzt was looking at, and Drizzt's sigh was one of pure relief when Bruenor, his fiery red beard foamed with spittle, instead took up a tirade about Settlestone, the barbarian settlement south of Mithril Hall.

Still, the drow figured he was blushing (and hoped that his ebon-hued skin would hide it) as he shook his head, ran his fingers through his white hair to brush it back from his face, and likewise began to remove the practice gear.

Catti-brie walked over, shaking her thick auburn mane to get the droplets out. "Berkthgar is being difficult?" she reasoned, referring to Berkthgar the Bold, Settlestone's new chieftain.

Bruenor snorted. "Berkthgar can't be anything but difficult!"

Drizzt looked up at beautiful Catti-brie. He didn't want to picture her growing old, though he knew she would do it with more grace than most.

"He's a proud one," Catti-brie replied to her father, "and afraid."

"Bah!" Bruenor retorted. "What's he got to be afraid of? Got a couple hunnerd strong men around him and not an enemy in sight.""He is afraid he will not stand well against the shadow of his predecessor," Drizzt explained, and Catti-brie nodded.Bruenor stopped in midbluster and considered the drow's words. Berkthgar was living in Wulfgar's shadow, in the shadow of the greatest hero the barbarian tribes of faraway Icewind Dale had ever known. The man who had killed Dracos Icingdeath, the white dragon; the man who, at the tender age of twenty, had united the fierce tribes and shown them a better way of living.Bruenor didn't believe any human could shine through the spectacle of Wulfgar's shadow, and his resigned nod showed that he agreed with, and ultimately accepted, the truth of the reasoning. A great sadness edged his expression and rimmed his steel-gray eyes, as well, for Bruenor could not think of Wulfgar, the human who had been a son to him, without that sadness."On what point is he being difficult?" Drizzt asked, trying to push past the difficult moment."On the whole damned alliance," Bruenor huffed.Drizzt and Catti-brie exchanged curious expressions. It made no sense, of course. The barbarians of Settlestone and the dwarves of Mithril Hall already were allies, working hand in hand, with Bruenor's people mining the precious mithril and shaping it into valuable artifacts, and the barbarians doing the bargaining with merchants from nearby towns, such as Nesme on the Trollmoors, or Silverymoon to the east. The two peoples, Bruenor's and Wulfgar's, had fought together to clear Mithril Hall of evil gray dwarves, the duergar, and the barbarians had come down from their homes in faraway Icewind Dale, resolved to stay, only because of this solid friendship and alliance with Bruenor's clan. It made no sense that Berkthgar was being difficult, not with the prospect of a drow attack hanging over their heads."He wants the hammer," Bruenor explained, recognizing Drizzt and Catti-brie's doubts.That explained everything. The hammer was Wulfgar's hammer, mighty Aegis-fang, which Bruenor himself had forged as a gift for Wulfgar during the years the young man had been indentured to the red-bearded dwarf. During those years, Bruenor, Drizzt, and Catti-brie had taught the fierce young barbarian a better way.Of course Berkthgar would want Aegis-fang, Drizzt realized. The warhammer had become more than a weapon, had become a symbol to the hardy men and women of Settlestone. Aegis-fang symbolized the memory of Wulfgar, and if Berkthgar could convince Bruenor to let him wield it, his stature among his people would increase tenfold.It was perfectly logical, but Drizzt knew Berkthgar would never, ever convince Bruenor to give him the hammer.The dwarf was looking at Catti-brie then, and Drizzt, in regarding her as well, wondered if she was thinking that giving the hammer to the new barbarian leader might be a good thing. How many emotions must be swirling in the young woman's thoughts! Drizzt knew. She and Wulfgar were to have been wed; she and Wulfgar had grown into adulthood together and had learned many of life's lessons side by side. Could Catti-brie now get beyond that, beyond her own grief, and follow a logical course to seal the alliance?"No," she said finally, resolutely. "The hammer he cannot have."Drizzt nodded his agreement, and was glad that Catti-brie would not let go of her memories of Wulfgar, of her love for the man. He, too, had loved Wulfgar, as a brother, and he could not picture anyone else, neither Berkthgar nor the god Tempus himself, carrying Aegis-fang."Never thought to give it to him," Bruenor agreed. He wagged an angry fist in the air, the muscles of his arm straining with the obvious tension. "But if that half-son of a reindeer asks again, I'll give him something else, don't ye doubt!"Drizzt saw a serious problem brewing. Berkthgar wanted the hammer, that was understandable, even expected, but the young, ambitious barbarian leader apparently did not appreciate the depth of his request. This situation could get much worse than a strain on necessary allies, Drizzt knew. This could lead to open fighting between the peoples, for Drizzt did not doubt Bruenor's claim for a moment. If Berkthgar demanded the hammer as ransom for what he should give unconditionally, he'd be lucky to get back into the sunshine with his limbs attached."Me and Drizzt'll go to Settlestone," Catti-brie offered. "We'll get Berkthgar's word and give him nothing in return.""The boy's a fool!" Bruenor huffed."But his people are not foolish," Catti-brie added. "He's wanting the hammer to make himself more the leader. We'll teach him that asking for something he cannot have will make him less the leader."Strong, and passionate, and so wise, Drizzt mused, watching the young woman. She would indeed accomplish what she had claimed. He and Catti-brie would go to Settlestone and return with everything Catti-brie had just promised her father.The drow blew a long, low sigh as Bruenor and Catti-brie moved off, the young woman going to retrieve her belongings from the side of the room. He watched the renewed hop in Bruenor's step, the life returned to the fiery dwarf. How many years would King Bruenor Battlehammer rule? Drizzt wondered. A hundred? Two hundred?Unless the blade of an enemy or the claws of a monster shortened his life, the dwarf, too, would watch Catti-brie grow old and pass away.It was an image that Drizzt, watching the light step of this spirited young foal, could not bear to entertain.Khazid'hea, or Cutter, rested patiently on Catti-brie's hip, its moment of anger passed. The sentient sword was pleased by the young woman's progress as a fighter. She was able, no doubt, but still Khazid'hea wanted more, wanted to be wielded by the very finest warrior.Right now, that warrior seemed to be Drizzt Do'Urden.The sword had gone after Drizzt when the drow renegade had killed its former wielder, Dantrag Baenre. Khazid'hea had altered its pommel, as it usually did, from the sculpted head of a fiend (which had lured Dantrag) to one of a unicorn, knowing that was the symbol of Drizzt Do'Urden's goddess. Still, the drow ranger had bade Catti-brie take the sword, for he favored the scimitar.Favored the scimitar!How Khazid'hea wished that it might alter its blade as it could the pommel! If the weapon could curve its blade, shorten and thicken it...But Khazid'hea could not, and Drizzt would not wield a sword. The woman was good, though, and getting better. She was human, and would not likely live long enough to attain as great a proficiency as Drizzt, but if the sword could compel her to slay the drow...There were many ways to become the best.Matron Baenre, withered and too old to be alive, even for a drow, stood in the great chapel of Menzoberranzan's first house, her house, watching the slow progress as her slave workers tried to extract the fallen stalactite from the roof of the dome-shaped structure. The place would soon be repaired, she knew. The rubble on the floor had already been cleared away, and the bloodstains of the dozen drow killed in the tragedy had long ago been scoured clean.But the pain of that moment, of Matron Baenre's supreme embarrassment in front of every important matron mother of Menzoberranzan, in the very moment of the first matron mother's pinnacle of power, lingered. The spearlike stalactite had cut into the roof, but it might as well have torn Matron Baenre's own heart. She had forged an alliance between the warlike houses of the drow city, a joining solidified by the promise of new glory when the drow army conquered Mithril Hall.New glory for the Spider Queen. New glory for Matron Baenre.Shattered by the point of a stalactite, by the escape of that renegade Drizzt Do'Urden. To Drizzt she had lost her eldest son, Dantrag, perhaps the finest weapon master in Menzoberranzan. To Drizzt she had lost her daughter, wicked Vendes. And, most painful of all to the old wretch, she had lost to Drizzt and his friends the alliance, the promise of greater glory. For when the matron mothers, the rulers of Menzoberranzan and priestesses all, had watched the stalactite pierce the roof of this chapel, this most sacred place of Lloth, at the time of high ritual, their confidence that the goddess had sanctioned both this alliance and the coming war had crumbled. They had left House Baenre in a rush, back to their own houses, where they sealed their gates and tried to discern the will of Lloth.Matron Baenre's status had suffered greatly.Even with all that had happened, though, the first matron mother was confident she could restore the alliance. On a necklace about her neck she kept a ring carved from the tooth of an ancient dwarven king, one Gandalug Battlehammer, patron of Clan Battle-hammer, founder of Mithril Hall. Matron Baenre owned Gandalug's spirit and could exact answers from it about the ways of the dwarven mines. Despite Drizzt's escape, the dark elves could go to Mithril Hall, could punish Drizzt and his friends.She could restore the alliance, but for some reason that Matron Baenre did not understand, Lloth, the Spider Queen herself, held her in check. The yochlol, the handmaidens of Lloth, had come to Baenre and warned her to forego the alliance and instead focus her attention on her family, to secure her house defenses. It was a demand no priestess of the Spider Queen would dare disobey.She heard the harsh clicking of hard boots on the floor behind her and the jingle of ample jewelry, and she didn't have to turn about to know that Jarlaxle had entered."You have done as I asked?" she questioned, still looking at the continuing work on the domed ceiling."Greetings to you as well, First Matron Mother," the always sarcastic male replied. That turned Baenre to face him, and she scowled, as she and so many other of Menzoberranzan's ruling females scowled when they looked at the mercenary.He was swaggering-there was no other word to describe him. The dark elves of Menzoberranzan, particularly the lowly males, normally donned quiet, practical clothes, dark-hued robes adorned with spiders or webs, or plain black jerkins beneath supple chain mail armor. And, almost always, both male and female drow wore camouflaging piwafwis, dark cloaks that could hide them from the probing eyes of their many enemies.Not so with Jarlaxle. His head was shaven and always capped by an outrageous wide-brimmed hat feathering the gigantic plume of a diatryma bird. In lieu of a cloak or robe, he wore a shimmering cape that flickered through every color of the spectrum, both in light and under the scrutiny of heat-sensing eyes looking in the infrared range. His sleeveless vest was cut high to show the tight muscles of his stomach, and he carried an assortment of rings and necklaces, bracelets, even anklets, that chimed gratingly-but only when the mercenary wanted them to. Like his boots, which had sounded so clearly on the hard chapel floor, the jewelry could be silenced completely.Matron Baenre noted that the mercenary's customary eye patch was over his left eye this day, but what, if anything, that signified, she could not tell.For who knew what magic was in that patch, or in those jewels and those boots, or in the two wands he wore tucked under his belt, and the fine sword he kept beside them? Half those items, even one of the wands, Matron Baenre believed, were likely fakes, with little or no magical properties other than, perhaps, the ability to fall silent. Half of everything Jarlaxle did was a bluff, but half of it was devious and ultimately deadly.That was why the swaggering mercenary was so dangerous.That was why Matron Baenre hated Jarlaxle so, and why she needed him so. He was the leader of Bregan D'aerthe, a network of spies, thieves, and killers, mostly rogue males made houseless when their families had been wiped out in one of the many inter-house wars. As mysterious as their dangerous leader, Bregan D'aerthe's members were not known, but they were indeed very powerful-as powerful as most of the city's established houses- and very effective."What have you learned?" Matron Baenre asked bluntly."It would take me centuries to spew it all," the cocky rogue replied.Baenre's red-glowing eyes narrowed, and Jarlaxle realized she was not in the mood for his flippancy. She was scared, he knew, and, considering the catastrophe at the high ritual, rightly so."I find no conspiracy," the mercenary honestly admitted.Matron Baenre's eyes widened, and she swayed back on her heels, surprised by the straightforward answer. She had enacted spells that would allow her to detect any outright lies the mercenary spoke, of course. And of course, Jarlaxle would know that. Those spells never seemed to bother the crafty mercenary leader, who could dance around the perimeters of any question, never quite telling the truth, but never overtly lying.This time, though, he had answered bluntly, and right to the heart of the obvious question. And as far as Matron Baenre could tell, he was telling the truth.Baenre could not accept it. Perhaps her spell was not functioning as intended. Perhaps Lloth had indeed abandoned her for her failure, and was thus deceiving her now concerning Jarlaxle's sincerity."Matron Mez'Barris Armgo," Jarlaxle went on, referring to the matron mother of Barrison del'Armgo, the city's second house, "remains loyal to you, and to your cause, despite the..." He fished about for the correct word. "The disturbance," he said at length, "to the high ritual. Matron Mez'Barris is even ordering her garrison to keep on the ready in case the march to Mithril Hall is resumed. And they are more than eager to go, I can assure you, especially with..." The mercenary paused and sighed with mock sadness, and Matron Baenre understood his reasoning.Logically, Mez'Barris would be eager to go to Mithril Hall, for with Dantrag Baenre dead, her own weapon master, mighty Uthegental, was indisputably the greatest in the city. If Uthegental could get the rogue Do'Urden, what glories House Barrison del'Armgo might know!Yet that very logic, and Jarlaxle's apparently honest claim, flew in the face of Matron Baenre's fears, for without the assistance of Barrison del'Armgo, no combination of houses in Menzoberran-zan could threaten House Baenre."The minor shuffling among your surviving children has commenced, of course," Jarlaxle went on. "But they have had little contact, and if any of them plan to move against you, it will be without the aid of Triel, who has been kept busy in the Academy since the escape of the rogue."Matron Baenre did well to hide her relief at that statement. If Triel, the most powerful of her daughters, and certainly the one most in Lloth's favor, was not planning to rise against her, a coup from within seemed unlikely."It is expected that you will soon name Berg'inyon as weapon master, and Gromph will not oppose," Jarlaxle remarked.Matron Baenre nodded her agreement. Gromph was her elder-boy, and as Archmage of Menzoberranzan, he held more power than any male in the city (except for, perhaps, sly Jarlaxle). Gromph would not disapprove of Berg'inyon as weapon master of House Baenre. The ranking of Baenre's daughters seemed secure as well, she had to admit. Triel was in place as Mistress Mother of Arach-Tinilith in the Academy, and, though those remaining in the house might squabble over the duties and powers left vacant by the loss of Vendes, it didn't seem likely to concern her.Matron Baenre looked back to the spike Drizzt and his companions had put through the ceiling, and was not satisfied. In cruel and merciless Menzoberranzan, satisfaction and the smugness that inevitably accompanied it too often led to an untimely demise.