Drizzt called Guenhwyvar to his side when the companions came down to the lower trails. The panther sat quietly, expecting what was to come.
"Ye should bring the cat in," Catti-brie suggested, understanding Drizzt's intent. The barbarians, though they had come far from their tundra homes and their secluded ways, remained somewhat distrustful of magic, and the sight of the panther always unnerved more than a few of Berkthgar's people, and didn't sit so well with Berkthgar himself.
"It is enough for them that I will enter their settlement," Drizzt replied.
Catti-brie had to nod in agreement. The sight of Drizzt, of a dark elf, one of a race noted for magic and evil, was perhaps even more unnerving to the Northmen than the panther. "Still, it'd teach Berkthgar good if ye had the cat sit on him for a while," she remarked.
Drizzt chuckled as he conjured an image of Guenhwyvar stretching comfortably on the back of the large, wriggling man. "The folk of Settlestone will grow accustomed to the panther as they did to my own presence," the drow replied. "Think of how many years it took Bruenor to become comfortable around Guenhwyvar."
The panther gave a low growl, as if she understood their every word.
"It wasn't the years," Catti-brie returned. "It was the number of times Guen pulled me stubborn father's backside out of a hot fire!"
When Guenhwyvar growled again, both Drizzt and Catti-brie had a good laugh at surly Bruenor's expense. The mirth subsided as Drizzt took out the figurine and bade Guenhwyvar farewell, promising to call the panther back as soon as he and Catti-brie were on the trails once more, heading back to Mithril Hall.
The formidable panther, growling low, walked in circles about the figurine. Gradually those growls diminished as Guenhwyvar faded into gray mist, then into nothing at all.
Drizzt scooped up the figurine and looked to the plumes of smoke rising from nearby Settlestone. "Are you ready?" he asked his companion.
"He'll be a stubborn one," Catti-brie admitted.
"We just have to get Berkthgar to understand the depth of Bruenor's distress," Drizzt offered, starting off again for the town.
"We just have to get Berkthgar to imagine Bruenor's axe sweeping in for the bridge of his nose," Catti-brie muttered. "Right between the eyes."
Settlestone was a rocky, windswept cluster of stone houses set in a vale and protected on three sides by the climbing, broken sides of the towering mountains known as the Spine of the World. The rock structures, resembling houses of cards against the backdrop of the gigantic mountains, had been built by the dwarves of Mithril Hall, by Bruenor's ancestors, hundreds of years before, when the place had been called Dwarvendarrow. It had been used as a trading post by Bruenor's people and was the only place for merchants to peek at the wonders that came from Mithril Hall, for the dwarves did not wish to entertain foreigners in their secret mines.
Even one who did not know the history of Dwarvendarrow would reason that this place had been constructed by the bearded folk. Only dwarves could have imbued the rocks with such strength, for, though the settlement had been uninhabited for centuries, and though the wind sweeping down the channel of the tall mountain walls was unrelenting, the structures had remained. In setting the place up for their own use, Wulfgar's people had no more a task than to brace an occasional wall, sweep out the tons of pebbles that had half buried some of the houses, and flush out the animals that had come to live there.
So it was a trading post again, looking much as it had in the heyday of Mithril Hall, but now called Settlestone and now used by humans working as agents for the busy dwarves. The agreement seemed sound and profitable to both parties, but Berkthgar had no idea of how tentative things had suddenly become. If he did not relent on his demand to carry Aegis-fang, both Drizzt and Catti-brie knew, Bruenor would likely order the barbarian and his people off the land.
The proud barbarians would never follow such a command, of course. The land had been granted, not loaned.
The prospect of war, of Bruenor's people coming down from the mountains and driving the barbarians away, was not so outlandish.
All because of Aegis-fang.
"Wulfgar would not be so glad to know the source of the arguing," Catti-brie remarked as she and Drizzt neared the settlement. " 'Twas he who bringed them all together. Seems a pity indeed that it's his memory threatening to tear them apart."
A pity and a terrible irony, Drizzt silently agreed. His steps became more determined; put in that light, this diplomatic mission took on even greater significance. Suddenly Drizzt was marching to Settlestone for much more than a petty squabble between two unyielding rulers. The drow was going for Wulfgar's honor.
As they came down to the valley floor, they heard chanting, a rhythmic, solemn recitation of the deeds of a legendary warrior. They crossed into the empty ways, past the open house doors that the hardy folk never bothered to secure. Both knew where the chanting was coming from, and both knew where they would find the men and women and children of Settlestone.
The only addition the barbarian settlers had made to the town was a large structure that could fit all four hundred people of Settlestone and a like number of visitors. Hengorot, "the Mead Hall," it was called. It was a solemn place of worship, of valor recalled, and ultimately of sharing food and drink.
Hengorot wasn't finished. Half its long, low walls were of stone, but the rest was enclosed by deerskin canopies. That fact seemed fitting to Drizzt, seemed to reflect how far Wulfgar's people had come, and how far they had to go. When they had lived on the tundra of Icewind Dale, they had been nomadic, following the reindeer herd, so all their houses had been of skin, which could be packed up and taken with the wandering tribe.
No longer were the hardy folk nomads; no longer was their existence dependent on the reindeer herd. It was an unreliable source that often led to warring between the various tribes, or with the folk of Ten-Towns, on the three lakes, the only non-barbarians in Icewind Dale.
Drizzt was glad to see the level of peace and harmony that the northmen had attained, but still it pained him to look at the uncompleted part of Hengorot, to view the skins and remember, too, the sacrifices these people had made. Their way of life, which had survived for thousands of years, was no more. Looking at this construction of Hengorot, a mere shade of the glories the mead hall had known, looking at the stone that now enclosed this proud people, the drow could not help but wonder if this way was indeed "progress."
Catti-brie, who had lived most of her young life in Icewind Dale, and who had heard countless tales of the nomadic barbarians, had understood the loss all along. In coming to Settlestone, the barbarians had given away a measure of their freedom and more than a bit of their heritage. They were richer now, far richer than they could have ever dreamt, and no longer would a harsh winter threaten their very existence. But there had been a price. Like the stars. The stars were different here beside the mountains. They didn't come down to the flat horizon, drawing a person's soul into the heavens.
With a resigned sigh, a bit of her own homesickness for Icewind Dale, Catti-brie reminded herself of the pressing situation. She knew that Berkthgar was being stubborn, but knew, too, how pained the barbarian leader was over Wulfgar's fall, and how pained he must be to think that a dwarf held the key to the warhammer that had become the most honored weapon in his tribe's history.
Never mind that the dwarf had been the one to forge that weapon; never mind that the man who had carried it to such glory had, in fact, been like that dwarf's son. To Berkthgar, Catti-brie knew, the lost hero was not the son of Bruenor, but was Wulfgar, son of Beornegar, of the Tribe of the Elk. Wulfgar of Icewind Dale, not of Mithril Hall. Wulfgar, who epitomized all that had been respected and treasured among the barbarian people. Perhaps most of all, Catti-brie appreciated the gravity of the task before them.
Two tall, broad-shouldered guards flanked the skin flap of the mead hall's opening, their beards and breath smelling more than a little of thick mead. They bristled at first, then moved hastily aside when they recognized the visitors. One rushed to the closest end of the long table set in the hall's center to announce Drizzt and Catti-brie, listing their known feats and their heritage (Catti-brie's at least, for Drizzt's heritage would not be a source of glory in Settlestone).
Drizzt and Catti-brie waited patiently at the door with the other man, who easily outweighed the two of them put together. Both of them focused on Berkthgar, seated halfway down the table's right-hand side, and he inevitably looked past the man announcing the visitors to stare back at them.
Catti-brie thought the man a fool in his argument with Bruenor, but neither she nor Drizzt could help but be impressed by the giant barbarian. He was nearly as tall as Wulfgar, fully six and a half towering feet, with broad shoulders and hardened arms the size of a fat dwarf's thighs. His brown hair was shaggy, hanging low over his shoulders, and he was beginning a beard for winter, the thick tufts on his neck and cheeks making him appear all the more fierce and imposing. Settlestone's leaders were picked in contests of strength, in matches of fierce battle, as the barbarians had selected their leaders through their history. No man in Settle-stone could defeat Berkthgar-Berkthgar the Bold, he was called-and yet, because of that fact, he lived, more than any of the others, in the shadow of a dead man who had become legend.
"Pray, join us!" Berkthgar greeted warmly, but the set of his expression told the two companions that he had been expecting this visit, and was not so thrilled to see them. The chieftain focused particularly on Drizzt, and Catti-brie read both eagerness and trepidation in the large man's sky-blue eyes.
Stools were offered to Drizzt and Catti-brie (a high honor for Catti-brie, for no other woman was seated at the table, unless upon the lap of a suitor). In Hengorot, and in all this society, the women and children, save for the older male children, were servants. They hustled now, placing mugs of mead before the newest guests.
Both Drizzt and Catti-brie eyed the drinks suspiciously, knowing they had to keep their heads perfectly clear, but when Berkthgar offered a toast to them and held his own mug high, custom demanded they likewise salute. And in Hengorot, one simply did not sip mead!
Both friends downed their mugs to rousing cheers, and both looked to each other despairingly as another full mug quickly replaced the emptied one.
Unexpectedly, Drizzt rose and deftly hopped up on the long table.
"My greetings to the men and women of Settlestone, to the people of Berkthgar the Bold!" he began, and a chorus of deafening cheers went up, roars for Berkthgar, the focus of the town's pride. The huge, shaggy-haired man got slapped on the back a hundred times in the next minute, but not once did he blink, and not once did he take his suspicious gaze from the dark elf.
Catti-brie understood what was going on here. The barbarians had come to grudgingly accept Drizzt, but still he was a scrawny elf, and a dark elf on top of it all! The paradox was more than a little uncomfortable for them. They saw Drizzt as weak-probably no stronger than some of their hardy womenfolk-and yet they realized that not one of them could defeat the drow in combat. Berkthgar was the most uncomfortable of all, for he knew why Drizzt and Catti-brie had come, and he suspected this issue about the hammer would be settled between him and Drizzt.
"Truly we are grateful, nay, thrilled, at your hospitality. None in all the Realms can set a table more inviting!" Again the cheers. Drizzt was playing them well, and it didn't hurt that more than half of them were falling-down drunk.
"But we cannot remain for long," Drizzt said, his voice suddenly solemn. The effect on those seated near the drow was stunning, as they seemed to sober immediately, seemed to suddenly grasp the weight of the drow's visit.
Catti-brie saw the sparkle of the ruby pendant hanging about Drizzt's neck, and she understood that though Drizzt wasn't actively using the enchanting gem, its mere presence was as intoxicating as any amount of thick mead.
"The heavy sword of war hangs over us all," Drizzt went on gravely. "This is the time of allian-"
Berkthgar abruptly ended the drow's speech by slamming his mug on the table so brutally that it shattered, splattering those nearby with golden-brown mead and glass fragments. Still holding the mug's handle, the barbarian leader unsteadily clambered atop the table to tower over the dark elf.
In the blink of an eye, Hengorot hushed.
"You come here claiming alliance," the barbarian leader began slowly. "You come asking for alliance." He paused and looked around at his anxious people for dramatic effect. "And yet you hold prisoner the weapon that has become a symbol of my people, a weapon brought to glory by Wulfgar, son of Beornegar!"
Thunderous cheers erupted, and Catti-brie looked up to Drizzt and shrugged helplessly. She always hated it when the barbarians referred to Wulfgar by his legacy, as the son of Beornegar. For them to do so was an item of pride, and pride alone never sat well with the pragmatic woman.
Besides, Wulfgar needed no claim of lineage to heighten his short life's achievements. His children, had he sired any, would have been the ones to rightfully speak of their father.
"We are friends of the dwarf king you serve, dark elf," Berkthgar went on, his booming voice resonating off the stone sections of Hengorot's walls. "And we ask the same of Bruenor Battle-hammer, son of Bangor, son of Garumn. You shall have your alliance, but not until Aegis-fang is delivered to me.
"I am Berkthgar!" the barbarian leader bellowed.
"Berkthgar the Bold!" several of the man's advisors quickly piped in, and another chorus went up, a toast of mugs lifted high to the mighty chieftain of Settlestone.
"Bruenor would sooner deliver his own axe," Drizzt replied, thoroughly fed up with Berkthgar's glories. The drow understood then that he and Catti-brie had been expected in Settlestone, for Berkthgar's little speech, and the reaction to it, had been carefully planned, even rehearsed.
"And I do not think you would enjoy the way he would deliver that axe," the drow finished quietly, when the roaring had died away. Again came the hush of expectation, for the drow's words could be taken as a challenge, and Berkthgar, blue eyes squinting dangerously, seemed more than ready to pick up the gauntlet.
"But Bruenor is not here," the barbarian leader said evenly. "Will Drizzt Do'Urden champion his cause?"
Drizzt straightened, trying to decide the best course.
Catti-brie's mind, too, was working fast. She held little doubt that Drizzt would accept the challenge and put Berkthgar down at once, and the men of Settlestone surely would not tolerate that kind of embarrassment.
"Wulfgar was to be my husband!" she yelled, rising from her chair just as Drizzt was about to respond. "And I am the daughter of Bruenor-by rights, the princess of Mithril Hall. If anyone here is to champion my father's cause-"
"You will name him," Berkthgar reasoned.
"I will be... her," Catti-brie replied grimly.
Roars went up again, all about the mead hall, and more than a few women at the back of the room tittered and nodded hopefully.
Drizzt didn't seem so pleased, and the look he put over Catti-brie was purely plaintive, begging her to calm this situation before things got fully out of hand. He didn't want a fight at all. Neither did Catti-brie, but the room was in a frenzy then, with more than half the voices crying for Berkthgar to "Fight the woman!" as though Catti-brie's challenge had already been launched.
The look that Berkthgar put over Catti-brie was one of pure outrage.
She understood and sympathized with his predicament. She had meant to go on and explain that she would be Bruenor's only champion, if there was to be a champion, but that she had not come here to fight. Events had swept her past that point, however.
"Never!" Berkthgar roared above the din, and the room calmed somewhat, eager cries dying away to whispers. "Never have I battled a woman!"
That's an attitude Berkthgar had better overcome soon, Drizzt thought, for if the dark elves were indeed marching to Mithril Hall, there would be little room for such inhibitions. Females were typically the strongest of drow warriors, both magically and with weapons.
"Fight her!" cried one man, obviously very drunk, and he was laughing as he called, and so, too, were his fellows about him.
Berkthgar looked from the man to Catti-brie, his huge chest heaving as he tried to take in deep breaths to calm his rage.
He could not win, Catti-brie realized. If they fought, he could not win, even if he battered her. To the hardy men of Settlestone, even lifting a weapon against her would be considered cowardly.
Catti-brie climbed onto the table and gave a slight nod as she passed in front of Drizzt. Hands on hips-and her hip out to the side to accentuate her feminine figure-she gave a wistful smile to the barbarian leader. "Not with weapons, perhaps," she said. "But there are other ways a man and woman might compete."
All the room exploded at that comment. Mugs were lifted so forcefully in toast that little mead remained in them as they came back down to the eager mouths of the men. Several in the back end of Hengorot took up a lewd song, clapping each other on the back at every crescendo.
Drizzt's lavender eyes grew so wide that they seemed as if they would simply roll out of their sockets. When Catti-brie took the moment to regard him, she feared he would draw his weapons and kill everyone in the room. For an instant, she was flattered, but that quickly passed, replaced by disappointment that the drow would think so little of her.
She gave him a look that said just that as she turned and jumped down from the table. A man nearby reached out to catch her, but she slapped his hands away and strode defiantly for the door.
"There's fire in that one!" she heard behind her.
"Alas for poor Berkthgar!" came another rowdy cry.
On the table, the stunned barbarian leader turned this way and that, purposely avoiding the dark elf's gaze. Berkthgar was at a loss; Bruenor's daughter, though a famed adventurer, was not known for such antics. But Berkthgar was also more than a little intrigued. Every man in Settlestone considered Catti-brie, the princess of Mithril Hall, the fairest prize in all the region.
"Aegis-fang will be mine!" Berkthgar finally cried, and the roar behind him, and all about him, was deafening.
The barbarian leader was relieved to see that Drizzt was no longer facing him, was no longer anywhere in sight, when he turned back. One great leap had taken the dark elf from the table, and he strode eagerly for the door.
Outside Hengorot, in a quiet spot near an empty house, Drizzt took Catti-brie by the arm and turned her to face him. She expected him to shout at her, even expected him to slap her.
He laughed at her instead.
"Clever," Drizzt congratulated. "But can you take him?"
"How do ye know that I did not mean what I said?" Catti-brie snapped in reply.
"Because you have more respect for yourself than that," Drizzt answered without hesitation.
It was the perfect answer, the one Catti-brie needed to hear from her friend, and she did not press the point further.
"But can you take him?" the drow asked again, seriously. Catti-brie was good, and getting better with every lesson, but Berkthgar was huge and tremendously strong.
"He's drunk," Catti-brie replied. "And he's slow, like Wulfgar was before ye showed him the better way o' fighting." Her blue eyes, rich as the sky just before the dawn, sparkled. "Like ye showed me."
Drizzt patted her on the shoulder lightly, understanding then that this fight would be as important to her as it was to Berkthgar. The barbarian came storming out of the tent then, leaving a horde of sputtering comrades leering out of the open flap.
"Taking him won't be half the trouble as figuring out how to let him keep his honor," Catti-brie whispered.
Drizzt nodded and patted her shoulder again, then walked away, going in a wide circuit about Berkthgar and back toward the tent. Catti-brie had taken things into hand, he decided, and he owed her the respect to let her see this through.
The barbarians fell back as the drow came into the tent and pointedly closed the flap, taking one last look at Catti-brie as he did, to see her walking side by side with Berkthgar (and he so resembled huge Wulfgar from the back!) down the windswept lane.
For Drizzt Do'Urden, the image was not a pleasant one."Ye're not surprised?" Catti-brie asked as she removed the practice padding from her backpack and began sliding it over the fine edge of her sword. She felt a twinge of emotion as she did so, a sudden feeling of disappointment, even anger, which she did not understand."I did not believe for a moment that you had brought me out here for the reason you hinted at," Berkthgar replied casually. "Though if you had-""Shut yer mouth," Catti-brie sharply interrupted.Berkthgar's jaw went firm. He was not accustomed to being talked to in that manner, particularly not from a woman. "We of Settlestone do not cover our blades when we fight," he said boastfully.Catti-brie returned the barbarian leader's determined look, and as she did, she slid the sword back out from its protective sheath. A sudden rush of elation washed over her. As with the earlier feeling, she did not understand it, and so she thought that perhaps her anger toward Berkthgar was more profound than she had dared to admit to herself.Berkthgar walked away then, to his house, and soon returned wearing a smug smile and a sheath strapped across his back. Above his right shoulder Catti-brie could see the hilt and cross-piece of his sword-a crosspiece nearly as long as her entire blade!-and the bottom portion of the sheath poked out below Berkthgar's left hip, extending almost to the ground.Catti-brie watched, awestruck, wondering what she had gotten herself into, as Berkthgar solemnly drew the sword to the extent of his arm. The sheath had been cut along its upper side after a foot of leather so that the barbarian could then extract the gigantic blade.And gigantic indeed was Berkthgar's flamberge! Its wavy blade extended over four feet, and after that came an eight-inch ricasso between the formal crosspiece and a second, smaller one of edged steel.With one arm, muscles standing taut in ironlike cords, Berkthgar began spinning the blade, creating a great "whooshing" sound in the air above his head. Then he brought its tip to the ground before him and rested his arm on the crosspiece, which was about shoulder height to his six-and-a-half-foot frame."Ye meaning to fight with that, or kill fatted cows?" Catti-brie asked, trying hard to steal some of the man's mounting pride."I would still allow you to choose the other contest," Berkthgar replied calmly.Catti-brie's sword snapped out in front of her, at the ready, and she went down in a low, defensive crouch.The barbarian hooted and went into a similar pose, but then straightened, looking perplexed. "I cannot," Berkthgar began. "If I were to strike you even a glancing blow, King Battlehammer's heart would break as surely as would your skull."Catti-brie came forward suddenly, jabbing at Berkthgar's shoulder and tearing a line in his furred jerkin.He looked down at the cut, then his eyes came slowly back to regard Catti-brie, but other than that, he made no move."Ye're just afraid because ye're knowing that ye can't move that cow-killer fast enough," the young woman taunted.Berkthgar blinked very slowly, exaggerated the movement as if to show how boring he thought this whole affair was. "I will show you the mantle where Bankenfuere is kept," he said. "And I will show you the bedding before the mantle.""The thing's better for a mantle than a swordsman's hands!" Catti-brie growled, tired of this one's juvenile sexual references. She sprang ahead again and slapped the flat of her blade hard against Berkthgar's cheek, then jumped back, still snarling. "If ye're afraid, then admit it!"Berkthgar's hand went immediately to his wound, and when it came away, the barbarian saw that his fingers were red with blood. Catti-brie winced at that, for she hadn't meant to hit him quite so hard.Subtle were the intrusions of Khazid'hea."I am out of patience with you, foolish woman," snarled the barbarian, and up came the tip of tremendous Bankenfuere, the Northern Fury.Berkthgar growled and leaped ahead, both hands on the hilt this time as he swung the huge blade across in front of him. He attacked with the flat of his blade, as had Catti-brie, but the young woman realized that would hardly matter. Getting hit by the flat of that tremendous flamberge would still reduce her bones to mush!Catti-brie wasn't anywhere near Berkthgar at that point, the woman in fast retreat (and wondering again if she was in over her head) as soon as the sword went up. The flamberge curled in an arc back over, left to right, then came across a second time, this cut angling down. Faster than Catti-brie expected, Berkthgar reversed the flow, the blade swishing horizontally again, this time left to right, then settled back at the ready beside the barbarian's muscular shoulder.An impressive display indeed, but Catti-brie had watched the routine carefully, no longer through awestruck eyes, and she noticed more than a few holes in the barbarian's defenses.Of course, she had to be perfect in her timing. One slip, and Bankenfuere would turn her into worm food.On came Berkthgar, with another horizontal cut, a predictable attack, for there were only so many ways one could maneuver such a weapon! Catti-brie fell back a step, then an extra step just to make sure, and darted in behind the lumbering sweep of the blade, looking to score a hit on the barbarian's arm. Berkthgar was quicker than that, though, and he had the blade coming around and over so fast that Catti-brie had to abort the attack and scramble hard just to get out of the way.Still, she had won that pass, she figured, for now she had a better measure of Berkthgar's reach. And by her thinking, every passing moment favored her, for she saw the sweat beading on the drunken barbarian's forehead, his great chest heaving just a bit more than before."If ye do other things as poorly as ye fight, then suren I'm glad I chose this contest," Catti-brie said, a taunt that sent proud Berkthgar into another wild-swinging tirade.Catti-brie dodged and scrambled as Bankenfuere came across in several titanic, and ultimately futile, swipes. Across it came again, the barbarian's fury far from played out, and Catti-brie leaped back. Around and over went the blade, Berkthgar charging ahead, and Catti-brie went far out to the side, just ahead as the great sword came whipping down and across."I shall catch up to you soon enough!" Berkthgar promised, turning square to the young woman and whipping his mighty blade left to right once more, bringing it to the ready beside his right shoulder.Catti-brie started in behind the cut, taking a long stride with her right foot, extending her sword arm toward Berkthgar's exposed hip. She dug her left foot in solidly, though, and had no intention of continuing the move. As soon as Bankenfuere came across to intercept, Catti-brie leaped back, pivoted on her anchor leg, and rushed in behind the blade, going for Berkthgar's right hip instead, and scored a nasty, stinging hit.The barbarian growled and spun so forcefully that he nearly overbalanced.Catti-brie stood a few feet away, crouched low, ready. There was no doubt that swinging the heavy weapon was beginning to take a toll on the man, especially after his generous swallows of mead."A few more passes," Catti-brie whispered, forcing herself to be patient.And so she played on as the minutes passed, as Berkthgar's breathing came as loudly as the moaning wind. Through each attack, Catti-brie confirmed her final routine, one that took advantage of the fact that Berkthgar's huge blade and thick arms made a perfect optical barricade.Drizzt suffered through the half-hour of rude comments."Never has he lasted this long!" offered one barbarian."Berkthgar the Brauzen!" cried another, the barbarian word for stamina."Brauzen!" all the rowdy men shouted together, lifting their mugs in cheer. Some of the women in the back of Hengorot tittered at the bawdy display, but most wore sour expressions."Brauzen," the drow whispered, and Drizzt thought the word perfectly fitting for describing his own patience during those insufferably long minutes. As angry as he was at the rude jokes at Catti-brie's expense, he was more fearful that Berkthgar would harm her, perhaps defeat her in battle and then take her in other ways.Drizzt worked hard to keep his imagination at bay. For all his boasting, for all of his people's boasting, Berkthgar was an honorable man. But he was drunk...I will kill him, Drizzt decided, and if anything the drow feared had come to pass, he indeed would cut mighty Berkthgar down.It never got to that point, though, for Berkthgar and Catti-brie walked back into the tent, looking a bit ruffled, the barbarian's stubbly beard darkened in one area with some dried blood, but otherwise seeming okay.Catti-brie winked subtly as she passed the drow.Hengorot fell into a hush, the drunken men no doubt expecting some lewd tales of their leader's exploits.Berkthgar looked to Catti-brie, and she wouldn't blink."I will not carry Aegis-fang," the barbarian leader announced.Moans and hoots erupted, as did speculation about who won the "contest."Berkthgar blushed, and Drizzt feared there would be trouble.Catti-brie went up on the table. "Not a better man in Settle-stone!" she insisted.Several barbarians rushed forward to the table's edge, willing to take up that challenge."Not a better man!" Catti-brie growled at them, her fury driving them back."I'll not carry the warhammer, in honor of Wulfgar," Berkthgar explained. "And for the honor of Catti-brie."Blank stares came back at him."If I am to properly suit the daughter of King Bruenor, our friend and ally," the barbarian leader went on, and Drizzt smiled at that reference, "then it is my own weapon, Bankenfuere, that must become legend." He held high the huge flamberge, and the crowd roared with glee.The issue was ended, the alliance sealed, and more mead was passed about before Catti-brie even got down from the table, heading for Drizzt. She stopped as she walked beside the barbarian leader, and gave him a sly look."If ye ever openly lie," she whispered, taking care that no one could hear, "or if ye ever even hint that ye bedded me, then be knowin' that I'll come back and cut ye down in front o' all yer people."Berkthgar's expression grew somber at that, and even more somber as he turned to watch Catti-brie depart, to see her deadly drow friend standing easily, hands on scimitar hilts, his lavender eyes telling the barbarian in no uncertain terms his feelings for Catti-brie. Berkthgar didn't want to tangle with Catti-brie again, but he would rather battle her a hundred times than fight the drow ranger."You'll come back and cut him down?" Drizzt asked as they exited the town, revealing to Catti-brie that his keen ears had caught her parting words with the barbarian."Not a promise I'd ever want to try," Catti-brie replied, shaking her head. "Fighting that one when he's not so full o' mead would be about the same as walking into the cave of a restless bear."Drizzt stopped abruptly, and Catti-brie, after taking a couple more steps, turned about to regard him.He stood pointing at her, smiling widely. "I have done that!" he remarked, and so Drizzt had yet another tale to recount as the two (and then three, for Drizzt was quick to recall Guenhwyvar) made their way along the trails, back into the mountains.Later, as the stars twinkled brightly and the campfire burned low, Drizzt sat watching Catti-brie's prone form, her rhythmic breathing telling the drow that she was fast asleep."You know I love her," the drow said to Guenhwyvar.The panther blinked her shining green eyes, but otherwise did not move."Yet, how could I?" Drizzt asked. "And not for the memory of Wulfgar," he quickly added, and he nodded as he heard himself speak the words, knowing that Wulfgar, who loved Drizzt as Drizzt loved him, would not disapprove."How could I ever?" the drow reiterated, his voice barely a whisper.Guenhwyvar issued a long, low growl, but if it had any meaning, other than to convey that the panther was interested in what the drow was saying, it was lost on Drizzt."She will not live so long," Drizzt went on quietly. "I will still be a young drow when she is gone." Drizzt looked from Catti-brie to the panther, and a new insight occurred to him. "You must understand such things, my eternal friend," the drow said. "Where will I fall in the span of your life? How many others have you kept as you keep me, my Guenhwyvar, and how many more shall there be?"Drizzt rested his back against the mountain wall and looked to Catti-brie, then up to the stars. Sad were his thoughts, and yet, in many ways, they were comforting, like an eternal play, like emotions shared, like memories of Wulfgar. Drizzt sent those thoughts skyward, into the heavenly canopy, letting them break apart on the ceaseless and mournful wind.His dreams were full of images of friends, of Zaknafein, his father, of Belwar, the svirfneblin gnome, of Captain Deudermont, of the good ship Sea Sprite, of Regis and Bruenor, of Wulfgar, and most of all, of Catti-brie.It was as calm and pleasant a sleep as Drizzt Do'Urden had ever known.Guenhwyvar watched the drow for some time, then rested her great feline head on wide paws and closed her green eyes. Drizzt's comments had hit the mark, except, of course, his intimation that her memory of him would be inconsequential in the centuries ahead. Guenhwyvar had indeed come to the call of many masters, most goodly, some wicked, in the past millennium, and even beyond that. Some the panther remembered, some not, but Drizzt...Forever would Guenhwyvar remember the renegade dark elf, whose heart was so strong and so good and whose loyalty was no less than the panther's own.Part 2THE ONSET OF CHAOSForever after, the bards of the Realms called it the Time of Troubles, the time when the gods were kicked out of the heavens, their avatars walking among the mortals. The time when the Tablets of Fate were stolen, invoking the wrath of Ao, Overlord of the Gods, when magic went awry, and when, as a consequence, social and religious hierarchies, so often based on magical strength, fell into chaos.I have heard many tales from fanatical priests of their encounters with their particular avatars, frenzied stories from men and women who claim to have looked upon their deities. So many others came to convert to a religion during this troubled time, likewise claiming they had seen the light and the truth, however convoluted it might be.I do not disagree with the claims, and would not openly attack the premise of their encounters. I am glad for those who have found enrichment amidst the chaos; I am glad whenever another person finds the contentment of spiritual guidance.But what of faith?What of fidelity and loyalty? Complete trust? Faith is not granted by tangible proof. It comes from the heart and the soul. If a person needs proof of a god's existence, then the very notion of spirituality is diminished into sensuality and we have reduced what is holy into what is logical.I have touched the unicorn, so rare and so precious, the symbol of the goddess Mielikki, who holds my heart and soul. This was before the onset of the Time of Troubles, yet were I of a like mind to those who make the claims of viewing avatars, I could say the same. I could say that I have touched Mielikki, that she came to me in a magical glade in the mountains near Dead Orc Pass.The unicorn was not Mielikki, and yet it was, as is the sunrise and the seasons, as are the birds and the squirrels and the strength of a tree that has lived through the dawn and death of centuries. As are the leaves, blowing on autumn winds and the snow piling deep in cold mountain vales. As are the smell of a crisp night, the twinkle of the starry canopy, and the howl of a distant wolf.No, I'll not argue openly against one who has claimed to have seen an avatar, because that person will not understand that the mere presence of such a being undermines the very purpose of, and value of, faith. Because if the true gods were so tangible and so accessible, then we would no longer be independent creatures set on a journey to find the truth, but merely a herd of sheep needing the guidance of a shepherd and his dogs, unthinking and without the essence of faith.The guidance is there, I know. Not in such a tangible form, but in what we know to be good and just. It is our own reactions to the acts of others that show us the value of our own actions, and if we have fallen so far as to need an avatar, an undeniable manifestation of a god, to show us our way, then we are pitiful creatures indeed.The Time of Troubles? Yes. And even more so if we are to believe the suggestion of avatars, because truth is singular and cannot, by definition, support so many varied, even opposing manifestations.The unicorn was not Mielikki, and yet it was, for I have touched Mielikki. Not as an avatar, or as a unicorn, but as a way of viewing my place in the world. Mielikki is my heart. I follow her precepts because, were I to write precepts based on my own conscience, they would be the same. I follow Mielikki because she represents what I call truth.Such is the case for most of the followers of most of the various gods, and if we looked more closely at the pantheon of the Realms, we would realize that the precepts of the "goodly" gods are not so different; it is the worldly interpretations of those precepts that vary from faith to faith.As for the other gods, the gods of strife and chaos, such as Lloth, the Spider Queen, who possesses the hearts of those priestesses who rule Menzoberranzan...They are not worth mentioning. There is no truth, only worldly gain, and any religion based on such principles is, in fact, no more than a practice of self-indulgence and in no way a measure of spirituality. In worldly terms, the priestesses of the Spider Queen are quite formidable; in spiritual terms, they are empty. Thus, their lives are without love and without joy.So tell me not of avatars. Show me not your proof that yours is the true god. I grant you your beliefs without question and without judgment, but if you grant me what is in my heart, then such tangible evidence is irrelevant.