The Cutlass grew busier as the night wore on. Merchant sailors crowded in from their ships and the locals were quick into position to feed upon them. Regis and Wulfgar remained at the side table, the barbarian wide-eyed with curiosity at the sights around him, and the halfling intent on cautious observation.
Regis recognized trouble in the form of a woman sauntering toward them. Not a young woman, and with the haggard appearance all too familiar on the dockside, but her gown, quite revealing in every place that a lady’s gown should not be, hid all her physical flaws behind a barrage of suggestions. The look on Wulfgar’s face, his chin nearly level with the table, Regis thought, confirmed the halfling’s fears.
“Well met, big man,” the woman purred, slipping comfortably into the chair next to the barbarian.
Wulfgar looked at Regis and nearly laughed out loud in disbelief and embarrassment.
“You are not from Luskan,” the woman went on. “Nor do you bear the appearance of any merchants now docked in port. Where are you from?”
“The north,” Wulfgar stammered. “The dale…Icewind.”
Regis hadn’t seen such boldness in a woman since his years in Calimport, and he felt that he should intervene. There was something wicked about such women, a perversion of pleasure that was too extraordinary. Forbidden fruit made easy. Regis suddenly found himself homesick for Calimport. Wulfgar would be no match for the wiles of this creature.
“We are poor travelers,” Regis explained, emphasizing the “poor” in an effort to protect his friend. “Not a coin left, but with many miles to go.”
Wulfgar looked curiously at his companion, not quite understanding the motive behind the lie.
The woman scrutinized Wulfgar once again and smacked her lips. “A pity,” she groaned, and then asked Regis, “Not a coin?”
Regis shrugged helplessly.
“A pity it is,” the woman repeated, and she rose to leave.
Wulfgar’s face blushed a deep red as he began to comprehend the true motives behind the meeting.
Something stirred in Regis, as well. A longing for the old days, running in Calimport’s bowery, tugged at his heart beyond his strength to resist. As the woman started past him, he grabbed her elbow. “Not a coin,” he explained to her inquiring face, “but this.” He pulled the ruby pendant out from under his coat and set it dangling at the end of its chain. The sparkles caught the woman’s greedy eye at once and the magical gemstone sucked her into its hypnotic entrancement. She sat down again, this time in the chair closest to Regis, her eyes never leaving the depths of the wondrous, spinning ruby.
Only confusion prevented Wulfgar from erupting in outrage at the betrayal, the blur of thoughts and emotions in his mind showing themselves as no more than a blank stare.
Regis caught the barbarian’s look, but shrugged it away with his typical penchant for dismissing negative emotions, such as guilt. Let the morrow’s dawn expose his ploy for what it was; the conclusion did not diminish his ability to enjoy this night. “Luskan’s night bears a chill wind,” he said to the woman.
She put a hand on his arm. “We’ll find you a warm bed, have no fear.”
The halfling’s smile nearly took in his ears.
Wulfgar had to catch himself from falling off of his chair.
* * *
Bruenor regained his composure quickly, not wanting to insult Whisper, or to let her know that his surprise in finding a woman gave her a bit of an advantage over him. She knew the truth, though, and her smile left Bruenor even more flustered. Selling information in a setting as dangerous as Luskan’s dockside meant a constant dealing with murderers and thieves, and even within the structure of an intricate support network it was a job that demanded a hardened hide. Few who sought Whisper’s services could hide their obvious surprise at finding a young and alluring woman practising such a trade.
Bruenor’s respect for the informant did not diminish, though, despite his surprise, for the reputation Whisper had earned had come to him across hundreds of miles. She was still alive, and that fact alone told the dwarf that she was formidable.
Drizzt was considerably less taken aback by the discovery. In the dark cities of the drow elves, females normally held higher stations than males, and were often more deadly. Drizzt understood the advantage Whisper carried over male clients who tended to underestimate her in the male-dominated societies of the dangerous northland.
Anxious to get this business finished and get back on the road, the dwarf came straight to the purpose of the meeting. “I be needing a map,” he said, “and been told that yerself was the one to get it.”
“I possess many maps,” the woman replied coolly.
“One of the north,” Bruenor explained. “From the sea to the desert, and rightly naming the places in the ways o’ what races live there!”
Whisper nodded. “The price shall be high, good dwarf,” she said, her eyes glinting at the mere notion of gold.
Bruenor tossed her a small pouch of gems. “This should pay for yer trouble,” he growled, never pleased to be relieved of money.
Whisper emptied the contents into her hand and scrutinized the rough stones. She nodded as she slipped them back into the pouch, aware of their considerable value.
“Hold!” Bruenor squawked as she began to tie the pouch to her belt. “Ye’ll be taking none o’ me stones till I be seeing the map!”
“Of course,” the woman replied with a disarming smile. “Wait here. I shall return in a short while with the map you desire.” She tossed the pouch back to Bruenor and spun about suddenly, her cloak snapping up and carrying a gust of the fog with it. In the flurry, there came a sudden flash, and the woman was gone.
Bruenor jumped back and grabbed at his axe handle. “What sorcerous treachery is this?” he cried.
Drizzt, unimpressed, put a hand on the dwarf’s shoulder. “Calm, mighty dwarf,” he said. “A minor trick and no more, masking her escape in the fog and the flash.” He pointed toward a small pile of boards. “Into that sewer drain.”
Bruenor followed the line of the drow’s arm and relaxed. The lip of an open hole was barely visible, its grate leaning against the warehouse wall a few feet farther down the alley.
“Ye know these kind better than meself, elf,” the dwarf stated, flustered at his lack of experience in handling the rogues of a city street. “Does she mean to bargain fair, or do we sit here, set up for her thievin’ dogs to plunder?”
“No to both,” answered Drizzt. “Whisper would not be alive if she collared clients for thieves. But I would hardly expect any arrangement she might strike with us to be a fair bargain.”
Bruenor took note that Drizzt had slipped one of his scimitars free of its sheath as he spoke. “Not a trap, eh?” the dwarf asked again, indicating the readied weapon.
“By her people, no,” Drizzt replied. “But the shadows conceal many other eyes.”
* * *
More eyes than just Wulfgar’s had fallen upon the halfling and the woman.
The hardy rogues of Luskan’s dockside often took great sport in tormenting creatures of less physical stature, and halflings were among their favorite targets. This particular evening, a huge, overstuffed man with furry eyebrows and beard bristles that caught the foam from his ever-full mug dominated the conversation at the bar, boasting of impossible feats of strength and threatening everybody around him with a beating if the flow of ale slowed in the least.
All of the men gathered around him at the bar, men who knew him, or of him, nodded their heads in enthusiastic agreement with his every word, propping him up on a pedestal of compliments to dispel their own fears of him. But the fat man’s ego needed further sport, a new victim to cow, and as his gaze floated around the perimeter of the tavern, it naturally fell upon Regis and his large, but obviously young friend. The spectacle of a halfling wooing the highest priced lady at the Cutlass presented an opportunity too tempting for the fat man to ignore.
“Here now, pretty lady,” he slobbered, ale spouting with every word. “Think the likes of a half-a-man’ll make the night for ye?” The crowd around the bar, anxious to keep in the fat man’s high regard, exploded into overzealous laughter.
The woman had dealt with this man before and she had seen others fall painfully before him. She tossed him a concerned look, but remained firmly tied to the pull of the ruby pendant. Regis, though, immediately looked away from the fat man, turning his attention to where he suspected the trouble most likely would begin – to the other side of the table and Wulfgar.
He found his worries justified. The proud barbarian’s knuckles whitened from the grasp he had on the table, and the seething look in his eye told Regis that he was on the verge of exploding.
“Let the taunts pass!” Regis insisted. “This is not worth a moment of your time!”
Wulfgar didn’t relax a bit, his glare never releasing his adversary. He could brush away the fat man’s insults, even those cutting at Regis and the woman. But Wulfgar understood the motivation behind those insults. Through exploitation of his less-able friends, Wulfgar was being challenged by the bully. How many others had fallen victim to this hulking slob? he wondered. Perhaps it was time for the fat man to learn some humility.
Recognizing some potential for excitement, the grotesque bully came a few steps closer.
“There, move a bit, half-a-man,” he demanded, waving Regis aside.
Regis took a quick inventory of the tavern’s patrons. Surely there were many, in here who might jump in for his cause against the fat man and his obnoxious cronies. There was even a member of the official city guard, a group held in high respect in every section of Luskan.
Regis interrupted his scan for a moment and looked at the soldier. How out of place the man seemed in a dog-infested spittoon like the Cutlass. More curious still, Regis knew the man as Jierdan, the soldier at the gate who had recognized Drizzt and had arranged for them to pass into the city just a couple of hours earlier.
The fat man came a step closer, and Regis didn’t have time to ponder the implications.
Hands on hips, the huge blob stared down at him. Regis felt his heart pumping, the blood coursing through his veins, as it always did in this type of on-the-edge confrontation that had marked his days in Calimport. And now, like then, he had every intention of finding a way to run away.
But his confidence dissipated when he remembered his companion.
Less experienced, and Regis would be quick to say, “less wise!” Wulfgar would not let the challenge go unanswered. One spring of his long legs easily carried him over the table and placed him squarely between the fat man and Regis. He returned the fat man’s ominous glare with equal intensity.
The fat man glanced to his friends at the bar, fully aware that his proud young opponent’s distorted sense of honor would prevent a first strike. “Well, look ye here,” he laughed, his lips turned back in drooling anticipation, “seems the young one has a thing to say.”
He started slowly to turn back on Wulfgar, then lunged suddenly for the barbarian’s throat, expecting that his change in tempo would catch Wulfgar by surprise.
But although he was inexperienced in the ways of taverns, Wulfgar understood battle. He had trained with Drizzt Do’Urden, an ever-alert warrior, and had toned his muscles to their sharpest fighting edge. Before the fat man’s hands ever came near his throat, Wulfgar had snapped one of his own huge paws over his opponent’s face and had driven the other into the fat man’s groin. His stunned opponent found himself rising into the air.
For a moment, onlookers were too amazed to react at all, except for Regis, who slapped a hand across his own disbelieving face and inconspicuously slid under the table.
The fat man outweighed three average men, but the barbarian brought him up easily over the top of his seven-foot frame, and even higher, to the full extension of his arms.
Howling in helpless rage, the fat man, ordered his supporters to attack. Wulfgar watched patiently for the first move against him.
The whole crowd seemed to jump at once. Keeping his calm, the trained warrior searched out the tightest concentration, three men, and launched the human missile, noting their horrified expressions just before the waves of blubber rolled over them, blasting them backward. Then their combined momentum smashed an entire section of the bar from its supports, knocking the unfortunate innkeeper away and sending him crashing into the racks holding his finest wines.
Wulfgar’s amusement was short-lived, for other ruffians were quickly upon him. He dug his heels in where he was, determined to keep his footing, and lashed out with his great fists, swatting his enemies aside, one by one, and sending them sprawling into the far corners of the room. Fighting erupted all around the tavern. Men who could not have been spurred to action if a murder had been committed at their feet sprang upon each other with unbridled rage at the horrifying sight of spilled booze and a broken bar.
Few of the fat man’s supporters were deterred by the general row, though. They rolled in on Wulfgar, wave after wave. He held his ground well, for none could delay him long enough for their reinforcements to get in. Still, the barbarian was being hit as often as he was connecting with his own blows. He took the punches stoically, blocking out the pain through sheer pride and his fighting tenacity that simply would not allow him to lose.
From his new seat under the table, Regis watched the action and sipped his drink. Even the barmaids were into it now, riding around on some unfortunate combatants’ backs, using their nails to etch intricate designs into the men’s faces. In fact, Regis soon discerned that the only other person in the tavern who wasn’t in the fight, other than those who were already unconscious, was Jierdan. The soldier sat quietly in his chair, unconcerned with the brawling beside him and interested only, it seemed, in watching and measuring Wulfgar’s prowess.
This, too, disturbed the halfling, but once again he found that he didn’t have time to contemplate the soldier’s unusual actions. Regis had known from the start that he would have to pull his giant friend out of this, and now his alert eyes had caught the expected flash of steel. A rogue in the line directly behind Wulfgar’s latest opponents had drawn a blade.
“Damn!” Regis muttered, setting down his drink and pulling his mace from a fold in his cloak. Such business always left a foul taste in his mouth.
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