Drizzt and Catti-brie skipped down the rocky trails, weaving in and out of boulder tumbles as effortlessly and spiritedly as two children at play. Their trek became an impromptu race as each hopped breaks in the stone, leaped to catch low branches, then swung down as far as the small mountain trees would carry them. They came onto one low, level spot together, where each leaped a small pool (though Catti-brie didn't quite clear it) and split up as they approached a slab of rock taller than either of them. Catti-brie went right and Drizzt started left, then changed his mind and headed up the side of the barrier instead.
Catti-brie skidded around the slab, pleased to see that she was first to the other side.
"My lead!" she cried, but even as she spoke she saw her companion's dark, graceful form sail over her head.
"Not so!" Drizzt corrected, touching down so lightly that it seemed as if he had never been off the ground. Catti-brie groaned and kicked into a run again, but pulled up short, seeing that Drizzt had stopped.
"Too fine a day," the dark elf remarked. Indeed, it was as fine a day as the southern spur of the Spine of the World ever offered once the autumn winds began to blow. The air was crisp, the breeze cool, and puffy white clouds-gigantic snowballs, they seemed-raced across the deep blue sky on swift mountain winds.
"Too fine for arguing with Berkthgar," Catti-brie added, thinking that was the direction of the drow's statement. She bent a bit and put her hands to her thighs for support, then turned her head back and up, trying to catch her breath.
"Too fine to leave Guenhwyvar out of it!" Drizzt clarified happily.
Catti-brie's smile was wide when she looked down to see Drizzt take the onyx panther figurine out of his backpack. It was among the most beautiful of artworks Catti-brie had ever seen, perfectly detailed to show the muscled flanks and the true, insightful expression of the great cat. As perfect as it was, though, the figurine paled beside the magnificent creature that it allowed Drizzt to summon.
The drow reverently placed the item on the ground before him. "Come to me, Guenhwyvar," he called softly. Apparently the panther was eager to return, for a gray mist swirled about the item almost immediately, gradually taking shape and solidifying.
Guenhwyvar came to the Material Plane with ears straight up, relaxed, as though the cat understood from the inflections of Drizzt's call that there was no emergency, that she was being summoned merely for companionship.
"We are racing to Settlestone," Drizzt explained. "Do you think you can keep pace?"
The panther understood. A single spring from powerful hind legs sent Guenhwyvar soaring over Catti-brie's head, across the twenty-foot expanse to the top of the rock slab she and Drizzt had just crossed. The cat hit the rock's flat top, backpedaled, and spun to face the duo. Then for no other reason than to give praise to the day, Guenhwyvar reared and stood tall in the air, a sight that sent her friends' hearts racing. Guenhwyvar was six hundred pounds, twice the size of an ordinary panther, with a head almost as wide as Drizzt's shoulders, a paw that could cover a man's face, and spectacular, shining green eyes that revealed an intelligence far beyond what an animal should possess. Guenhwyvar was the most loyal of companions, an unjudging friend, and every time Drizzt or Catti-brie, or Bruenor or Regis, looked at the cat, their lives were made just a bit warmer.
"Me thinking's that we should get a head start," Catti-brie whispered mischievously.
Drizzt gave a slight, inconspicuous nod, and they broke together, running full-out down the trail. A few seconds later they heard Guenhwyvar roar behind them, still from atop the slab of rock. The trail was relatively clear and Drizzt sprinted out ahead of Catti-brie, though the woman, young and strong, with a heart that would have been more appropriate in the chest of a sturdy dwarf, could not be shaken.
"Ye're not to beat me!" she cried, to which Drizzt laughed. His mirth disappeared as he rounded a bend to find that stubborn and daring Catti-brie had taken a somewhat treacherous shortcut, light-skipping over a patch of broken and uneven stones, to take an unexpected lead.Suddenly this was more than a friendly competition. Drizzt lowered his head and ran full-out, careening down the uneven ground so recklessly that he was barely able to avoid smacking face first into a tree. Catti-brie paced him, step for step, and kept her lead.Guenhwyvar roared again, still from the slab, they knew, and they knew, too, that they were being mocked.Sure enough, barely a few seconds later, a black streak rebounded off a wall of stone to Drizzt's side, crossing level with the drow's head. Guenhwyvar cut back across the trail between the two companions, and passed Catti-brie so quickly and so silently that she hardly realized she was no longer leading.Sometime later, Guenhwyvar let her get ahead again, then Drizzt took a treacherous shortcut and slipped into the front-only to be passed again by the panther. So it went, with competitive Drizzt and Catti-brie working hard, and Guenhwyvar merely hard at play.The three were exhausted-at least Drizzt and Catti-brie were; Guenhwyvar wasn't even breathing hard-when they broke for lunch on a small clearing, protected from the wind by a high wall on the north and east, and dropping off fast in a sheer cliff to the south. Several rocks dotted the clearing, perfect stools for the tired companions. A grouping of stones was set in the middle as a fire pit, for this was a usual campsite of the oft-wandering drow.Catti-brie relaxed while Drizzt brought up a small fire. Far below she could see the gray plumes of smoke rising lazily into the clear air from the houses of Settlestone. It was a sobering sight, for it reminded the young woman, who had spent the morning at such a pace, of the gravity of her mission and of the situation. How many runs might she and Drizzt and Guenhwyvar share if the dark elves came calling?Those plumes of smoke also reminded Catti-brie of the man who had brought the tough barbarians to this place from Icewind Dale, the man who was to have been her husband. Wulfgar had died trying to save her, had died in the grasp of a yochlol, a handmaiden of evil Lloth. Both Catti-brie and Drizzt had to bear some responsibility for that loss, yet it wasn't guilt that pained the young woman now, or that pained Drizzt. He, too, had noticed the smoke and had taken a break from his fire-tending to watch and contemplate.The companions did not smile now, for simple loss, because they had taken so many runs just like this one, except that Wulfgar had raced beside them, his long strides making up for the fact that he could not squeeze through breaks that his two smaller companions could pass at full speed."I wish..." Catti-brie said, and the words resonated in the ears of the similarly wishing dark elf."Our war, if it comes, would be better fought with Wulfgar, son of Beornegar, leading the men of Settlestone," Drizzt agreed, and what both he and Catti-brie silently thought was that all their lives would be better if Wulfgar were alive.There. Drizzt had said it openly, and there was no more to say. They ate their lunch silently. Even Guenhwyvar lay very still and made not a sound.Catti-brie's mind drifted from her friends, back to Icewind Dale, to the rocky mountain, Kelvin's Cairn, dotting the otherwise flat tundra. It was so similar to this very place. Colder, perhaps, but the air held the same crispness, the same clear, vital texture. How far she and her friends, Drizzt and Guenhwyvar, Bruenor and Regis, and, of course, Wulfgar, had come from that place! And in so short a time! A frenzy of adventures, a lifetime of excitement and thrills and good deeds. Together they were an unbeatable force.So they had thought.Catti-brie had seen the emotions of a lifetime, indeed, and she was barely into her twenties. She had run fast through life, like her run down the mountain trails, free and high-spirited, skipping without care, feeling immortal.Almost.