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To my long lived people, I am still considered a child. Yet through even the short years that I have spent both amongst my wicked brethren and more recently amongst the surface folk, I have witnessed many examples of this word.
I have seen it in the eyes of Bruenor, when our gazes met as he rode the dread shadow Dragon Shimmergloom to its fiery death in the untracked depths of Garumms Gorge.
I have felt it in the death of noble Wulfgar, who gave his life so that Cattie-Brie, and the rest of us would survive.
I have seen it in the triumph of my father, Zaknafein's spirit, as he briefly cast off the shackles of the zin-carla ritual, and accepted his final fate willingly, and with an open heart.
That the final fate of Bruenor and Wulfgar was not their death, as had seemed inevitable and final at the time, does not in any way diminish their sacrifice. They had no way of knowing that they would survive, nor for even one second did the potential for such an outcome to their actions cross their minds. All that mattered was the fate of their friends, their loved ones. And in those fleeting seconds they made the decisions that would mean their deaths, and our continued survival.
I have lost track of the number of times I have thanked my goddess for the return of Bruenor and Wulfgar to us, though not Zaknafein. No, his final rest is truly final, and I can only pray that his soul now rests in the peace it was so often denied in life.
Among my wicked brethren, as dark in their hearts as in their - in our - outward appearance, the word has a different meaning. Never would one of them willingly give up their life to save another. Never would friendship (a rarity indeed amongst the Drow!) ever command such a toll. No, for them the word means something altogether different, as the faithful of Lloth raise their voices high in the worship of their unforgiving deity, and a black, spider-hilted dagger plunges again into the heart of one of their own kind. Among the many reasons for my eventual desertion of the land of my birth, this ritualised murder, this sacrifice, in the name of Lloth (who as far as I could discern cared nothing either way) was too much to accept.
Yet today I was reminded of a smaller sacrifice, and one of my first lessons in the ways of Mielikki, my goddess, though at the time I did not recognise it as such.
* * * * *
Drizzt Do'Urden wiped his stinging eyes, wincing at the headache that the sunrise had, as usual given him.
“I wonder if ever I will be able to greet you without pain my friend,” he chuckled, with a nod to the early morning sun.
He had been on the surface now for maybe six weeks. Each and every morning he sat on this ledge and regarded the sun – such a terrifying sight for a dark elf! – climbing inexorably into the sky. Its ascent was an analogy in his mind of his own struggle to be free of the darkness underground, and all that it represented.
He knew that he needed to replenish his food supplies; his stocks had grown dangerously low. Today was for hunting. His hand went into his pouch and for a moment he considered summoning Guenhwyvar, his magical companion. Oh how she enjoyed the hunt, running joyfully alongside Drizzt through the sparse woodlands!
But Guenhwyvar needed her rest, Drizzt knew. Last night they had been forced to defend their cave from a wandering band of ogres. There had been five of them, slightly strong odds even for the fantastically skilled warrior. He decided not to risk fighting them alone, and besides, Guen had needed the exercise! Bur for now, Drizzt would hunt alone.
As Drizzt stalked silently along the edge of the river, his keen senses alerted him to the fact that something was wrong. There had been a struggle here nearby and recently. Sure enough, there were some specks of fairly fresh blood, less than an hour old. Again Drizzt considered summoning the panther, but decided to investigate first. Most of the dangers of the surface where as yet a mystery to the Drow, but he was confident that he would be able to at least observe results of the battle before deciding on a course of action. If evil creatures had once again roamed within reach of his new home, he would have to act.
But then the possibility occurred that there may be someone in danger, not necessarily an evil being. Maybe a human, or dwarf who, like he, was also hunting in the woods and had run into trouble.
The trail of blood was getting fresher, and there, half in and half out of the river was the victim – a large grey wolf, it's shaggy pelt typical of the kind found in these cold mountains. Drizzt could tell before he even reached it that the animal was dead, it's head and shoulders were underwater and it wasn't moving. Drizzt pulled it from the river. Were it's wounds inflicted by a hunter's arrow, or by the crude sword or dagger of one of the humanoid races?
Neither scenario held true it would appear. The wolf's throat had been ripped out, presumably in a fight with some other animal. The dark elf marvelled at how the wolf, so badly wounded, had even managed to get to the river.
Drizzt backtracked along the doomed wolf's path, the blood trail and pawprints, easily recognizable now, making the tracking very easy. The path led back into the woods. Drizzt moved silently amongst the undergrowth, not one slight rustle or cracked twig marking his passing. His hunter's instincts started taking over. He knew that Orc's and a larger breed of wolf often worked together. Perhaps one of its larger kin had slain it as retribution for some imagined trespass? He lowered his hand to his scimitar hilt, ready for action at the slightest warning.
As he rounded the trunk of a large tree, Drizzt's wariness disappeared. Here was the wolf's slayer – a dead fox, probably half the wolf's size. Perhaps the wolf had decided on a quick meal, but if that was the case then why hadn't the fox, smaller and faster than the wolf, simply fled?
A quiet whimper gave the answer Drizzt needed. Huddled under the base of the tree that the fox had been defending were two fox cubs. One was clearly dead, it's wounds were to severe and obvious. The other though seemed in better shape, and that was the one mewling. On closer inspection however, Drizzt realised that it too was badly injured. One leg had been torn off, and it appeared as if it's jaw was broken. The mother had returned too late to save her two infants, and had died trying.
Drizzt looked about. He had not seen any other fox burrows in these woods, and even if he had, he didn't know how they lived. Would another parent care for one so badly wounded as this? Indeed, would it care even for a healthy orphan? Drizzt didn't know, and calculated that the young fox's chances for survival were very small even if another parent could be found and accepted it.
Drizzt came to a decision. He couldn't let this one continue to suffer, neither could he abandon it to be an easy meal for the next scavenger to chance across the scene, drawn by the smell of blood. He put his hand on the fox, attempting somehow to calm it as he painlessly dispatched it with one quick strike from his dagger. He felt something, almost as if someone were talking to him, but glancing quickly around, saw no-one else there. This was the way of nature, Drizzt realised, but also accepted that he could do nothing but ease the passing of this wounded animal. He buried the two cubs and their mother in the burrow beneath the tree, wedging a rock in the entrance as best he could to keep the carrion hunters away.
There was still the matter of his own survival though, Drizzt remembered. With one last look back at the small grave, Drizzt trotted off through the trees, returning to the hunt.
From a nearby branch and unnoticed by even the alert Drow, an owl watched. Then with a tiny hoot to itself, it launched from the branch and flew away.
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