So what were they to do? Depend on the magnanimity of the high captains of Luskan? The emissaries of Bregan D’aerthe? The Lords of Waterdeep?
Was it a crime for a hungry man to steal food, a freezing man to steal clothing, in a world where a destitute man had no recourse to law?
Drizzt was glad that he hadn’t exacted punishment on Stuyles and his band, and every former farm they passed reinforced his decision. But that truth did little to dent the pain such a bleak reality presented to the idealistic, optimistic dark elf.
At long last, the walls of Luskan came into view. Drizzt pulled Andahar up and slipped off the side of the unicorn. As soon as Dahlia did likewise, he dismissed the steed, who thundered away, each stride diminishing him by half until he was no more.
“Why did you stop me?” Drizzt asked.
Dahlia looked at him, perplexed, and he tapped his pouch.
“You thought to save the farmer woman with a few gold coins,” Dahlia said.
“Help her, not save her.”
“Damn her, you mean.”
“What do you mean?”
“What might any merchants have thought when a peasant farmer woman or one of her filthy children showed up at market bearing gold?” Dahlia asked.
“I could have given them silver, or copper even,” the drow argued.
“Even so, were she to possess coins, then all the thieves of the land would decide she was worth robbing. This land is filled with thieves, and worse. Are you so blinded by your eternal faith in goodness that you cannot even see that simple truth?”
“You’re my instructor, then?”
“When you need it,” Dahlia quipped.
“And my guardian, my guide to salvation?”
“Hardly that! In truth, given the nature of my lessons, I might be quite the opposite. A demon come to show you the path to … entertainment.”
Drizzt shook his head and started walking down the road to Luskan, showing little amusement at Dahlia’s barbs.
“If you had wanted to help her, you might have hunted a rabbit or a deer for her table,” the elf woman said. “Or simply gathered some firewood.”
“And you knew that and said nothing back at the farm, when we might have done some good.”
“You confuse me with someone who cares.”
Drizzt spun back on her, and seemed on the edge of an explosion.
“Drizzt Do’Urden, saving the world one peasant at a time.” Dahlia spat on the road at Drizzt’s feet, then stood back easily, staff in hand as if inviting him to attack her.
But Drizzt was too buried in the confusion of the day and the shadows of the world. With a helpless snort, he started off again toward the City of Sails. Dahlia caught up to him in but a few strides.
“We’ll find a way, our way,” she said.
“To entertain ourselves at least. And consider, when Sylora Salm’s skull cracks beneath the weight of my staff, the world will be a brighter and better place.” She started to grin, but Drizzt shook his head.
“The light will come earlier,” he promised. “For Sylora will already be dead by my blades by the time you strike.”
Now the drow did manage a smile.
“I do so love a challenge, and beware, for I never lose,” said Dahlia.
“Even if you have to kill me first to ensure your personal victory, I expect.”
“Keep thinking that way,” Dahlia played along. “I welcome doubt.”
Chapter 3: Cherry Pie
VALINDRA STOOD ACROSS A CLEARING FROM A SMALL HOUSE ON the southern reaches of Neverwinter. The glow from a hearth within whispered warmth against the chill of night, but seemed a solitary thing indeed this far from the returning population of the old city.
“In there?” Jestry asked skeptically. “The one you seek? Alone?”
A deathly cold breeze blew by them, and Valindra’s smile widened as she nodded. “Why would she not be?”
“She?” Jestry hugged his strong arms tight to ward off the chill. The path to the cottage could hardly be called a road, and there were no other houses within at least several hundred yards of the place. Neverwinter Wood was in the midst of a war, of course, and the roads were full of bandits—many of the folk who’d come to rebuild Neverwinter were less than respectable. Why would anyone live out there alone? How could anyone survive out there alone?
“Sylora Salm values you,” Valindra remarked, catching the Ashmadai warrior off guard. “I know not why. You seem … dull.”
Jestry scowled at her, but quickly reminded himself that he was dealing with a lich, and one considered quite insane.
“So do—Greeth! Greeth!—come in with me to meet my new friend,” Valindra said.
Jestry blinked and fell back. Her wild incantation in the middle of the sentence threw him off guard, but he thought he detected a bit of a curl to Valindra’s lips. Had she shrieked intentionally to disturb him? That was the thing about Valindra: how could he know?
“I’ll send others and coordinate the sentries,” Jestry replied.
“You will come in with me,” Valindra corrected. “Alive or dead.”
Jestry felt that cold breeze again and he sensed a hunger there.
“I know of one who would covet your lifeless body,” Valindra teased, and Jestry’s eyes widened. It took all of his willpower to stop him from letting out a scream.
“Easy,” Valindra said, but she wasn’t talking to Jestry. She didn’t seem to be talking to anyone! “Even if I kill him, you cannot have him. Not yet.”
“What do you mean?” Jestry demanded.
“Alive or dead?” Valindra teased.
Behind them, the other Ashmadai shifted uncomfortably, and Jestry glanced back for support. But Valindra held the scepter of Asmodeus. Sylora had named her the mission’s leader, and Jestry understood all too clearly that if he tried to disobey the lich, his “friends” would carry out her orders against him, even kill him if she asked.
“You alone,” Valindra said, nodding to herself.
Jestry called back to his fellow Ashmadai. “Guard the path, and all around.” They acted as if they looked upon a doomed man.
Without another word, Valindra glided toward the small cottage, the scepter extended in front of her. Jestry caught up with her just before the porch steps. The front door opened.
“May I help you, O wanderers in the dark of night?” she said as she appeared in the doorway, her form framed by the glow of the fire within. Her voice had a sweetness, an innocence that seemed so very out of place in that dangerous land.
“That is the only question I ever consider,” Valindra replied.
Jestry thought to glance at the lich, but found he couldn’t take his eyes off the woman standing in front of him. She wasn’t beautiful, really, though certainly not unattractive, with a slight frame, an open, round face, and curly hair that shone red even in the dim light. A strange sensation came over Jestry just standing there looking at her, just hearing the innocence and warmth in her voice, just in seeing the playful bounce of her thick hair. He thought of cherry pie.
Cherry pie on a comfortably cool autumn night, with the wind blowing off the lake and his mother and two sisters sitting beside him. He thought of the twin girls at either end of the line pulling on one end or the other of the quilt, which was just slightly too short for the job of covering them all.
He shook his head to compose himself, but the woman then said, “Do come in. I wasn’t expecting visitors at this late hour, but I’ve some fine stew still warm in the cauldron.”
Jestry found himself back again in that memory, staring across the lake in the hopes that he would be the first to spot the torchlight signaling his father’s return from the hunt.
Valindra was almost through the door before the warrior even realized she was moving. He nodded to the red-haired woman and entered the comfortable cottage. As he moved to the hearth, he kept glancing back at her.
Her face and smile were open and warm. There was nothing about her that Jestry would call sexy—certainly she possessed not a single feature that Sylora Salm didn’t possess in a more classically beautiful manner. But somehow, all together, it … worked.
“And what have I given the goodly gods to be graced with such visitors on a dark night?” She closed the door and motioned for Valindra and Jestry to sit in the chairs in front of the hearth while she went to retrieve a third chair for herself.
It all seemed so perfectly normal and natural: a man and a woman travel a road and find respite in a warm house along the way.
Valindra took her seat and held forth her scepter as the woman came over. The woman paused at the sight of that distinctive item.
The woman grinned.
And then it hit Jestry: Valindra was obviously an undead creature. Half her skin was rotted away! The white of bone peeked out from one wrist and even on one of her emaciated cheeks. There was no way this woman, this innocent and gentle creature, couldn’t see that. And yet, she showed no discomfort at all.
Jestry glanced around, searching for an escape.
“My name is Arunika,” the woman said.
“Valindra,” the lich replied.
“No one worth mentioning,” Valindra assured her.
Jestry glanced from the lich to Arunika and saw on her kind face that she didn’t share Valindra’s assessment. He suddenly found himself feeling much more comfortable.
“Why have you come?” Arunika asked.
“In friendship,” Valindra replied. “And you would rather have us as friends!” she shrieked suddenly, and began chirping “Arklem! Ark-lem!” every few beats.
Arunika seemed more amused than frightened. She sat back in her chair and looked at Jestry.
“The Spellplague,” he quietly mouthed.
“Valindra?” Arunika asked as the lich finally calmed.
“In friendship,” Valindra replied as if nothing had happened. “And in kinship.”
“I’m not your kin,” Arunika insisted.
Valindra flashed a wicked smile and held forth the scepter of Asmodeus.
Arunika nodded, her light eyes sparkling at the sight.
“It was given to Valindra by Sylora Salm of Thay,” Jestry dared interject, “who serves Szass Tam.”
“And so you are Ashmadai,” Arunika replied.
“As are you?” Jestry dared ask. Why, after all, were they here in the home of a simple woman, a comely and nondescript commoner by all appearances?
Arunika’s laughter mocked him, but she held out her hand as soon as he began to recoil from it.
“You could say that I am aligned with the Ashmadai, yes,” she admitted.
“And who else?” Valindra insisted sharply.
Now Arunika narrowed her bright eyes and scrutinized the lich. “You have come as emissaries of this Sylora Salm?”
“Yes,” Jestry answered even as Valindra launched into a birdlike squeal, “Greeth! Greeth!”
“I’m not alone, I assure you,” Arunika said then. “I have friends, very powerful friends, nearby.”