Black-haired barbarians, screaming in the frenzy of battle, burst into the copse. Drizzt realized at once that these burly warriors were the forms he had seen moving behind the orcan ranks on the field, but he wasn’t yet certain of their allegiance.
Whatever their ties, their arrival struck terror into the remaining orcs. The two fighting Drizzt lost all heart for the battle, a sudden shift in their posture revealing their desire to break off the confrontation and flee. Drizzt obliged, assured that they wouldn’t get far anyway, and sensing that he, too, would be wise to slip from sight.
The orcs fled, but their pursuers soon caught them in another battle just beyond the trees. Less obvious in his flight, Drizzt slipped unnoticed back up the tree where he had left his bow.
Wulfgar could not so easily sublimate his battle lust. With two of his friends down, his thirst for orcan blood was insatiable, and the new group of men that had joined the fight cried out to Tempus, his own god of battle, with a fervor that the young warrior could not ignore. Distracted by the sudden developments, the ring of orcs around Wulfgar let up for just a moment, and he struck hard.
One orc looked away, and Aegis-fang tore its face off before its eyes returned to the fight at hand. Wulfgar bore through the gap in the ring, jostling a second orc as he passed. As it stumbled in its attempt to turn and realign its defense, the mighty barbarian chopped it down. The two remaining turned and fled, but Wulfgar was right behind. He launched his hammer, blasting one from life, and sprang upon the other, bearing it to the ground beneath him and then crushing the life from it with his bare hands.
When he was finished, when he had heard the final crack of neckbone, Wulfgar remembered his predicament and his friends. He sprang up and backed away, his back against the trees.
The black-haired barbarians kept their distance, respectful of his prowess, and Wulfgar could not be sure of their intentions. He scanned around for his friends. Regis and Bruenor lay side by side near where the horses had been tethered; he could not tell if they were alive or dead. There was no sign of Drizzt, but a fight continued beyond the other edge of the trees.
The warriors fanned out in a wide semi-circle around him, cutting off any routes of escape. But they stopped their positioning suddenly, for Aegis-fang had magically returned to Wulfgar’s grasp.
He could not win against so many, but the thought did not dismay him. He would die fighting, as a true warrior, and his death would be remembered. If the black-haired barbarians came at him, many, he knew, would not return to their families. He dug his heels in and clasped the warhammer tightly. “Let us be done with it,” he growled into the night.
“Hold!” came a soft, but imperative whisper from above. Wulfgar recognized Drizzt’s voice at once and relaxed his grip. “Keep to your honor, but know that more lives are at stake than your own!”
Wulfgar understood then that Regis and Bruenor were probably still alive. He dropped Aegis-fang to the ground and called out to the warriors, “Well met.”
They did not reply, but one of them, nearly as tall and heavily muscled as Wulfgar, broke rank and closed in to stand before him. The stranger wore a single braid in his long hair, running down the side of his face and over his shoulder. His cheeks were painted white in the image of wings. The hardness of his frame and disciplined set of his face reflected a life in the harsh wilderness, and were it not for the raven color of his hair, Wulfgar would have thought him to be of one of the tribes of Icewind Dale.
The dark-haired man similarly recognized Wulfgar, but better versed in the overall structures of the societies in the northland, was not so perplexed by their similarities. “You are of the dale,” he said in a broken form of the common tongue. “Beyond the mountains, where the cold wind blows.”
Wulfgar nodded. “I am Wulfgar, son of Beornegar, of the Tribe of the Elk. We share gods, for I, too, call to Tempus for strength and courage.”
The dark-haired man looked around at the fallen orcs.
“The god answers your call, warrior of the dale.”
Wulfgar’s jaw lifted in pride. “We share hatred for the orcs, as well,” he continued, “but I know nothing of you or your people.”
“You shall learn,” the dark-haired man replied. He held out his hand and indicated the warhammer. Wulfgar straightened firmly, having no intentions of surrendering, no matter the odds. The dark-haired man looked to the side, drawing Wulfgar’s eyes with his own. Two warriors had picked up Bruenor and Regis and slung them over their backs, while others had recaptured the horses and were leading them in.
“The weapon,” the dark-haired man demanded. “You are in our land without our say, Wulfgar, son of Beornegar. The price of that crime is death. Shall you watch our judgement over your small friends?”
The younger Wulfgar would have struck then, damning them all in a blaze of glorious fury. But Wulfgar had learned much from his new friends, Drizzt in particular. He knew that Aegis-fang would return to his call, and he knew, too, that Drizzt would not abandon them. This was not the time to fight.
He even let them bind his hands, an act of dishonor that no warrior of the Tribe of the Elk would ever allow. But Wulfgar had faith in Drizzt. His hands would be freed again. Then he would have the last word.
By the time they reached the barbarian camp, both Regis and Bruenor had regained consciousness and were bound and walking beside their barbarian friend. Dried blood crusted Bruenor’s hair and he had lost his helm, but his dwarven toughness had carried him through another encounter that should have finished him.
They crested a rise and came upon the perimeter of a ring of tents and blazing campfires. Whooping their war cries to Tempus, the returning war party roused the camp, tossing severed orc heads into the ring to announce their glorious arrival. The fervor inside the camp soon matched the level of the entering war party, and the three prisoners were pushed in first, to be greeted by a score of howling barbarians.
“What do they eat?” Bruenor asked, more in sarcasm than concern.
“Whatever it is, feed them quickly,” Regis replied, drawing a clap on the back of his head and a warning to be silent from the guard behind him.
The prisoners and horses were herded into the center of the camp and the tribe encircled them in a victory dance, kicking orc heads around in the dust and singing out, in a language unknown to the companions, their praise to Tempus and to Uthgar, their ancestral hero, for the success this night.
It went on for nearly an hour, and then, all at once, it ended and every face in the ring turned to the closed flap of a large and decorated tent.
The silence held for a long moment before the flap swung open. Out jumped an ancient man, as slender as a tent pole, but showing more energy than his obvious years would indicate. His face painted in the same markings as the warriors, though more elaborately, he wore a patch with a huge green gemstone sewn upon it over one eye. His robe was the purest white, its sleeves showing as feathered wings whenever he flapped his arms out to the side. He danced and twirled through the ranks of the warriors, and each held his breath, recoiling until he had passed.
“Chief?” Bruenor whispered.
“Shaman,” corrected Wulfgar, more knowledgeable in the ways of tribal life. The respect the warriors showed this man came from a fear beyond what a mortal enemy, even a chieftain, could impart.
The shaman spun and leaped, landing right before the three prisoners. He looked at Bruenor and Regis for just a moment, then turned his full attention upon Wulfgar.
“I am Valric High Eye,” he screeched suddenly. “Priest of the followers of the Sky Ponies! The children of Uthgar!”
“Uthgar!” echoed the warriors, clapping their hatchets against their wooden shields.
Wulfgar waited for the commotion to die away, then presented himself. “I am Wulfgar, son of Beornegar, of the Tribe of the Elk.”
“And I’m Bruenor – ” began the dwarf.
“Silence!” Valric shouted at him, trembling with rage. “I care nothing for you!”
Bruenor closed his mouth and entertained dreams concerning his axe and Valric’s head.
“We meant no harm, nor trespass,” Wulfgar began, but Valric put his hand up, cutting him short.
“Your purpose does not interest me,” he explained calmly, but his excitement resurged at once. “Tempus has delivered you unto us, that is all! A worthy warrior?” He looked around at his own men and their response showed eagerness for the coming challenge.
“How many did you claim?” he asked Wulfgar.
“Seven fell before me,” the young barbarian replied proudly.
Valric nodded in approval. “Tall and strong,” he commented. “Let us discover if Tempus is with you. Let us judge if you are worthy to run with the Sky Ponies!”
Shouts started at once and two warriors rushed over to unbind Wulfgar. A third, the leader of the war party who had spoken to Wulfgar at the copse of trees, tossed down his hatchet and shield and stormed into the ring.
Drizzt waited in his tree until the last of the war party had given up the search for the rider of the fourth horse and departed. Then the drow moved quickly, gathering together some of the dropped items: the dwarf’s axe and Regis’s mace. He had to pause and steady himself when he found Bruenor’s helm, though, blood-stained and newly dented, and with one of its horns broken away. Had his friend survived?
He shoved the broken helm into his sack and slipped out after the troupe, keeping a cautious distance.
Relief flooded through him when he came upon the camp and spotted his three friends, Bruenor standing calmly between Wulfgar and Regis. Satisfied, Drizzt put aside his emotions and all thoughts of the previous encounter, narrowing his vision to the situation before him, formulating a plan of attack that would free his friends.
* * *
The dark-haired man held his open hands out to Wulfgar, inviting his blond counterpart to clasp them. Wulfgar had never seen this particular challenge before, but it was not so different from the tests of strength that his own people practised.
“Your feet do not move!” instructed Valric. “This is the challenge of strength! Let Tempus show us your worth!”
Wulfgar’s firm visage didn’t reveal a hint of his confidence that he could defeat any man at such a test. He brought his hands up level with those of his opponent.
The man grabbed at them angrily, snarling at the large foreigner. Almost immediately, before Wulfgar had even straightened his grip or set his feet, the shaman screamed out to begin, and the dark-haired man drove his hands forward, bending Wulfgar’s back over his wrists. Shouting erupted from every corner of the encampment; the dark-haired man roared and pushed with all his strength, but as soon as the moment of surprise had passed, Wulfgar fought back.
The iron-corded muscles in Wulfgar’s neck and shoulders snapped taut and his huge arms reddened with the forced surge of blood into their veins. Tempus had blessed him truly; even his mighty opponent could only gape in amazement at the spectacle of his power. Wulfgar looked him straight in the eye and matched the snarl with a determined glare that foretold the inevitable victory. Then the son of Beornegar drove forward, stopping the dark-haired man’s initial momentum and forcing his own hands back into a more normal angle with his wrists. Once he had regained parity, Wulfgar realized that one sudden push would put his opponent into the same disadvantage that he had just escaped. From there, the dark-haired man would have little chance of holding on.
But Wulfgar wasn’t anxious to end this contest. He didn’t want to humiliate his opponent – that would breed only an enemy – and even more importantly, he knew that Drizzt was about. The longer he could keep the contest going, and the eyes of every member of the tribe fixed upon him, the longer Drizzt would have to put some plan into motion.
The two men held there for many seconds, and Wulfgar couldn’t help but smile when he noticed a dark shape slip in among the horses, behind the enthralled guards at the other end of the camp. Whether it was his imagination, he could not tell, but he thought that he saw two points of lavender flame staring out at him from the darkness. A few seconds more, he decided, though he knew that he was taking a chance by not finishing the challenge. The shaman could declare a draw if they held for too long.
But then it was over. The veins and sinews in Wulfgar’s arms bulged and his shoulders lifted even higher. “Tempus!” he growled, praising the god for yet another victory, and then with a sudden, ferocious explosion of power, he drove the dark-haired man to his knees. All around, the camp went silent, even the shaman being stricken speechless by the display.
Two guards moved tentatively to Wulfgar’s side.
The beaten warrior pulled himself to his feet and stood facing Wulfgar. No hints of anger marred his face, just honest admiration, for the Sky Ponies were an honorable people.
“We would welcome you,” Valric said. “You have defeated Torlin, son of Jerek Wolf-slayer, Chieftain of the Sky Ponies. Never before has Torlin been bested!”
“What of my friends?” Wulfgar asked.
“I care nothing for them!” Valric snapped back. “The dwarf will be set free on a trail leading from our land. We have no quarrel with him or his kind, nor do we desire any dealings with them!”
The shaman eyed Wulfgar slyly. “The other is a weakling,” he stated. “He shall serve as your passage to the tribe, your sacrifice to the winged horse.”
Wulfgar did not immediately respond. They had tested his strength, and now were testing his loyalties. The Sky Ponies had paid him their highest honor in offering him a place in their tribe, but only on condition that he show his allegiance beyond any doubt. Wulfgar thought of his own people, and the way they had lived for so many centuries on the tundra. Even in this day, many of the barbarians of Icewind Dale would have accepted the terms and killed Regis, considering the life of a halfling a small price for such an honor. This was the disillusionment of Wulfgar’s existence with his people, the facet of their moral code that had proved unacceptable to his personal standards.
“No,” he replied to Valric without blinking.
“He is a weakling!” Valric reasoned. “Only the strong deserve life!”
“His fate is not mine to decide,” Wulfgar replied. “Nor yours.”
Valric motioned to the two guards and they immediately rebound Wulfgar’s hands.
“A loss for our people,” Torlin said to Wulfgar. “You would have received a place of honor among us.”
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