The dissipating globe of darkness found Regis once again clinging to his log, which was now little more than a black cinder, and shaking his head. "We are beyond ourselves," he sighed. "We cannot make it through."
"Faith, Rumblebelly," Bruenor comforted, sloshing through the water to join the halfling. "Tales we be making, for telling to our children's children, and for others to tell when we're no more!"
"You mean today, then?" Regis snipped. "Or perhaps we'll live this day and be no more tomorrow."
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Bruenor laughed and grabbed hold of the log. "Not yet, me friend," he assured Regis with an adventurous smile. "Not till me business is done!"
Drizzt, moving to retrieve his arrows, noted how heavily Wulfgar leaned upon the worm's body. From a distance, he thought that the young barbarian was simply exhausted, but when he drew near, he began to suspect something more serious. Wulfgar clearly favored one leg in his pose, as though it, or perhaps his lower back, had been injured.
When Wulfgar saw the drow's concerned look, he straightened stoically. "Let us move on," he suggested, moving away toward Bruenor and Regis and doing his best to hide a limp.
Drizzt didn't question him about it. The young man was made of stuff as hard as the tundra in midwinter, and too altruistic and proud to admit an injury when nothing could be gained by the admission. His friends couldn't stop to wait for him to heal, and they certainly couldn't carry him, so he would grimace away the pain and plod on.
But Wulfgar truly was injured. When he splashed into the water after his fall from the tree, he had wickedly twisted his back. In the heat of the battle, his adrenaline pumping, he hadn't felt the wrenching pain. But now each step came hard.
Drizzt saw it as clearly as he saw the despair upon Regis's normally cheerful face, and as clearly as the exhaustion that kept the dwarf's axe swinging low, despite Bruenor's optimistic boasting. He looked all about at the moors, which seemed to stretch forever in every direction, and wondered for the first time if he and his companions had indeed gone beyond themselves.
Guenhwyvar hadn't been injured in the battle, just a bit shaken up, but Drizzt, recognizing the cat's limited range of movement in the bog, sent it back to its own plane. He would have liked to keep the wary panther at their point. But the water was too deep for the cat, and the only way Guenhwyvar could have kept moving would have been by springing from tree to tree. Drizzt knew it wouldn't work; he and his friends would have to go on alone.
Reaching deep within themselves to reinforce their resolve, the companions kept to their work, the drow inspecting the worm's head to salvage any of the score of arrows that he had fired, knowing all too well that he would probably need them again before they saw the end of the moors, while the other three retrieved the rest of the logs and provisions.
Soon after, the friends drifted through the bog with as little physical effort as they could manage, fighting every minute to keep their minds alert to the dangerous surroundings. With the heat of the day, though - the hottest one yet - and the gentle rocking of the logs on the quiet water, all but Drizzt dropped off, one by one, to sleep.
The drow kept the makeshift raft moving, and remained vigilant, they couldn't afford any delay, or any lapses. Luckily, the water opened up beyond the lagoon, and there were few obstructions for Drizzt to deal with. The bog became a great blur to him after a while, his tired eyes recording little detail, just general outlines and any sudden movements in the reeds.
He was a warrior, though, with lightning reflexes and uncanny discipline. The water trolls hit again, and the tiny flicker of consciousness that Drizzt Do'Urden had remaining summoned him back to reality in time to deny the monsters' advantage of surprise.
Wulfgar, and Bruenor, too, sprang from their slumber at the instant of his call, weapons in hand. Only two trolls rose to meet them this time and the three dispatched them in a few short seconds.
Regis slept through the whole affair.
The cool night came, mercifully dissipating the waves of heat. Bruenor made the decision to keep moving, two of them up and pushing at all times, and two of them at rest.
"Regis cannot push," Drizzt reasoned. "He is too short for the bog."
"Then let him sit and keep guard while I push," Wulfgar offered stoically. "I need no help."
"Then the two of ye take the first shift," said Bruenor. "Rumblebelly's slept the whole day away. He should be good for an hour or two!"
Drizzt climbed up on the logs for the first time that day and put his head down on his pack. He did not close his eyes, though. Bruenor's plan of working in turns sounded fair, but impractical. In the black night, only he could guide them and keep any kind of lookout for approaching danger. More than a few times while Wulfgar and Regis took their shift, the drow lifted his head and gave the halfling some insight about their surroundings and some advice about their best direction.
There would be no sleep for Drizzt again this night. He vowed to rest in the morning, but when dawn at last broke, he found the trees and reeds again hunched in around them. The anxiety of the moors itself closed upon them, as though it were a single, sentient being watching over them and plotting against their passage.
The wide water actually proved of benefit to the companions. The ride on its glassy surface was easier than hiking, and despite the crouching perils, they encountered nothing hostile after their second rout of the water trolls. When their path finally returned to blackened land after days and nights of gliding, they suspected that they might have covered most of the distance to the other side of the Evermoors. Sending Regis up the tallest tree they could find, for the halfling was the only one light enough to get to the highest branches (especially since the journey had all but dissipated the roundness of his belly), their hopes were confirmed. Far on the eastern horizon, but no more than a day or two away, Regis saw trees - not the small copses of birch or the moss-covered swamp trees of the moors, but a thick forest of oak and elm.
They moved forward with a renewed spring in their step, despite their exhaustion. They walked upon solid ground again, and knew that they would have to camp one more time with the hordes of wandering trolls lurking near, but they now also carried the knowledge that the ordeal of the Evermoors was almost at an end. They had no intention of letting its foul inhabitants defeat them on this last leg of the journey.
"We should end our trek this day," Drizzt suggested, though the sun was more than an hour from the western horizon. The drow had already sensed the gathering presence, as the trolls awakened from their daytime rest and caught the strange scents of the visitors to the moors. "We must pick our campsite carefully. The moors have not yet freed us of their grasp."
"We'll lose an hour and more," Bruenor stated, more to open up the negative side of the plan than to argue. The dwarf remembered the horrible battle at the mound all too well, and had no desire to repeat that colossal effort.
"We shall gain the time back tomorrow," reasoned Drizzt. "Our need at present is to stay alive."
Wulfgar wholly agreed. "The smell of the foul beasts grows stronger each step," he said, "from every side. We cannot run away from them. So let us fight."
"But on our own terms," Drizzt added.
"Over there," Regis suggested, pointing to a heavily overgrown ridge off to their left.
"Too open," said Bruenor. "Trolls'd climb it as easily as we, and too many at a time for us to stop them!"
"Not while it's burning," Regis countered with a sneaky smile, and his companions came to agree with the simple logic.
They spent the rest of the daylight preparing their defenses. Wulfgar and Bruenor carried in as much dead wood as they could find, placing it in strategic lines to lengthen the diameter of the targeted area, while Regis cleared a firebreak at the top of the ridge and Drizzt kept a cautious lookout. Their defense plan was simple: let the trolls come at them, then set the entire ridge outside their camp ablaze.
Drizzt alone recognized the weakness of the plan, though he had nothing better to offer. He had fought trolls before they had ever come to these moors, and he understood the stubbornness of the wretched beasts. When the flames of their ambush finally died away - long before the dawning of the new day - he and his friends would be wide open to the remaining trolls. They could only hope that the carnage of the fires would dissuade any further enemies.
Wulfgar and Bruenor would have liked to do more, the memories of the mound too vivid for them to be satisfied with any defenses constructed against the moors. But when dusk came, it brought hungry eyes upon them. They joined Regis and Drizzt at the camp on top of the ridge and crouched low in anxious wait.
An hour passed, seeming like ten to the friends, and the night deepened.
"Where are they?" Bruenor demanded, his axe slapping nervously against his hand, belying uncharacteristic impatience from the veteran fighter.
"Why don't they come on?" Regis agreed, his anxiety bordering on panic.
"Be patient and be glad," Drizzt offered. "The more of the night we put behind us before we do battle, the better our chance to see the dawn. They may not have yet found us."
"More like they be gathering to rush us all at once, Bruenor said grimly.
"That is good," said Wulfgar, comfortably crouched and peering into the gloom. "Let the fire taste as much of the foul blood as it may!"
Drizzt took note of the settling effect the big man's strength and resolve had upon Regis and Bruenor. The dwarf's axe stopped its nervous bounce and came to rest calmly at Bruenor's side, poised for the task ahead. Even Regis, the most reluctant warrior, took up his small mace with a snarl, his knuckles whitening under his grip.
Another long hour passed.
The delay did not at all ease the companions' guard. They knew that danger was very near now - they could smell the stench gathering in the mist and darkness beyond their view.
"Strike up the torches," Drizzt told Regis.
"We'll bring the beasts upon us from miles around!" Bruenor argued.
"They have found us already," answered Drizzt, pointing down the ridge, though the trolls he saw shuffling in the darkness were beyond the limited night vision of his friends. "The sight of the torches may keep them back and grant us more time."
As he spoke, however, the first troll ambled up the ridge. Bruenor and Wulfgar waited in their crouch until the monster was nearly upon them, then sprang out with sudden fury, axe and warhammer leading the way in a brutal flurry of well-placed blows. The monster went down at once.
Regis had one of the torches lit. He threw it to Wulfgar and the barbarian set the writhing body of the fallen troll ablaze. Two other trolls that had come to the bottom of the ridge rushed back into the mist at the sight of the hated flames.
"Ah, ye pulled the trick too soon!" Bruenor groaned. "We're naught to catch a one with the torches in plain sight!"
"If the torches keep them back, then the fires have served us well," Drizzt insisted, though he knew better than to hope for such an occurrence.
Suddenly, as if the very moors had spit their venom at them, a huge host of trolls lined the entire base of the ridge. They came on tentatively, not thrilled by the presence of fire. But they came on relentlessly, stalking up the hill with drooling desire.
"Patience," Drizzt told his companions, sensing their eagerness. "Keep them behind the firebreak, but let as many as will get within the rings of kindling."
Wulfgar rushed out to the edge of the ring, waving his torch menacingly.
Bruenor stood back up, his last two flasks of oil in his hands, oil-soaked rags hanging from their spouts, and a wild smile across his face. "Season's a bit green for burning," he said to Drizzt with a wink. "Might need a little help in getting the thing going!"
Trolls swarmed on the ridge all around them, the slavering horde coming on determinedly, their ranks swelling with each step.
Drizzt moved first. Torch in hand, he ran to the kindling and set it burning. Wulfgar and Regis joined in right behind, putting as many fires as they could between them and the advancing trolls. Bruenor threw his torch over the first ranks of the monsters, hoping to get them in the middle of two blazes, then heaved his oil flasks into the most heavily concentrated groups.
Flames leaped up into the night sky, lightening the immediate area, but deepening the blackness beyond their influence. Crowded in so tightly, the trolls could not easily turn and flee, and the fire, as if it understood this, descended upon them methodically.
When one began to burn, its frenzied dance spread the light even farther down the ridge line.
All across the vast moors, creatures stopped their nightly actions and took notice of the growing pillar of flame and the wind-carried shrieks of dying trolls.
Huddled close at the top of the ridge, the companions found themselves nearly overcome by the great heat. But the fire peaked quickly with its feast of volatile troll flesh, and started to diminish, leaving a revulsive stench in the air and yet another blackened scar of carnage on the Evermoors.
The companions readied more torches for their flight from the ridge. Many trolls stood to do battle, even after the fire, and the friends could not hope to hold their ground with the fuel of their fires consumed. At Drizzt's insistence, they awaited the first clear escape route down the eastern side of the ridge, and when it opened, they charged into the night, bursting through the initial groups of unsuspecting trolls with a sudden assault that scattered the monsters and left several burning.
Into the night they ran, blindly rushing through mud and bramble, hoping that luck alone would keep them from being sucked in by some bottomless bog. So complete was their surprise at the ridge that for many minutes they heard no signs of pursuit.
But it didn't take the moors long to respond. Groans and shrieks soon echoed all about them.
Drizzt took the lead. Relying on his instincts as much as his vision, he swerved his friends left and right, through the areas of least apparent resistance, while keeping their course generally east. Hoping to play upon the monsters' single fear, they torched anything that would burn as they passed.
They encountered nothing directly as the night wore on, but the groans and sucking footsteps just yards behind them did not relent. They soon began to suspect a collective intelligence working against them, for though they were obviously outdistancing the trolls that were behind them and to their sides, more were always waiting to take up the chase. Something evil permeated the land, as though the Evermoors themselves were the true enemies. Trolls were all about, and that was the immediate danger, but even if all the trolls and other denizens of the moors were slain or driven away, the friends suspected that this would remain a foul place.
Dawn broke, but it brought no relief. "We've angered the moors themselves!" Bruenor cried when he realized that the chase would not end as easily this time. "We be finding no rest until her foul borders are behind us!"
Onward they charged, seeing the lanky forms lurching out at them as they weaved their way, and those running parallel to them or right behind, grimly visible and just waiting for someone to trip up. Heavy fogs closed in on them, preventing them from holding their bearings, further evidence for their fears that the moors themselves had risen against them.
Past all thinking, past all hope, they kept on, pushing themselves beyond their physical and emotional limits for lack of any alternatives.
Barely conscious of his actions, Regis stumbled and went down. His torch rolled away, though he didn't notice - he couldn't even figure how to get back up, or that he was down at all! Hungry mouths descended toward him, a feast assured.
The ravenous monster was foiled, though, as Wulfgar came by and scooped the halfling into his great arms. The huge barbarian slammed into the troll, knocking it aside, but held his own footing and continued past.
Drizzt abandoned all tactics of finesse now, understanding the situation that was fast developing behind him. More than once he had to slow for Bruenor's stumbling and he doubted Wulfgar's ability to continue while carrying the halfling. The exhausted barbarian obviously couldn't hope to raise Aegis-fang to defend himself. Their only chance was straight flight to the border. A wide bog would defeat them, a box gully would entrap them, and even if no natural barriers blocked their way, they had little hope of keeping free of the trolls for much longer. Drizzt feared the difficult decision he saw forthcoming: flee to his own safety, for he alone seemed to have the possibility of escape, or stand beside his doomed friends in a battle they could not win.
They continued on, and made solid progress for another hour, but time itself began to affect them. Drizzt heard Bruenor mumbling behind him, lost in some delusion of his childhood days in Mithril Hall. Wulfgar, with the unconscious halfling, ambled along behind, reciting a prayer to one of his gods, using the rhythm of his chants to keep his feet steadily pumping.
Then Bruenor fell, smacked down by a troll that had veered in on them uncontested.
The fateful decision came easily to Drizzt. He swung back around, scimitars ready. He couldn't possibly carry the stout dwarf, nor could he defeat the horde of trolls that even now closed in. "And so our tale ends, Bruenor Battlehammer!" he cried out. "In battle, as it should!"
Wulfgar, dazed and gasping, did not consciously choose his next move. It was simply a reaction to the scene before him, a maneuver perpetrated by the stubborn instincts of a man who refused to surrender. He stumbled over to the fallen dwarf, who by this time had struggled back to his hands and knees, and scooped him up with his free arm. Two trolls had them trapped.
Drizzt Do'Urden was close by, and the young barbarian's heroic act inspired the drow. Seething flames danced again within his lavender eyes, and his blades whirred into their own dance of death.
The two trolls reached out to claw their helpless prey, but after a single lightning pass by Drizzt, the monsters had no arms left with which to grab.
"Run on!" Drizzt called, guarding the party's rear and spurring Wulfgar on with a constant stream of rousing words. All weariness flew from the drow in this final burst of battle lust. He leaped all about and shouted challenge to the trolls. Any that came too near found the sting of his blades.
Grunting with every painful step, his eyes burning from his sweat, Wulfgar charged blindly ahead. He didn't think about how long he could keep up the pace with his load. He didn't think about the certain, horrible death that shadowed him on every side, and had probably cut off his route as well. He didn't think about the wrenching pain in his injured back, or about the new sting that he keenly felt on the back of his knee. He concentrated only on putting one heavy boot in front of the other.
They crunched through some brambles, swung down one rise and around another. Their hearts both leaped and fell, for before them loomed the clean forest that Regis had spied, the end of the Evermoors. But between them and the wood waited a solid line of trolls, standing three deep.
The Evermoors' grasp was not so easily broken.
"Keep on," Drizzt said into Wulfgar's ear in a quiet whisper, as though he feared that the moors might be listening. "I have one more trick left to play."
Wulfgar saw the line before him, but even in his present state, his trust in Drizzt overruled any objections of his common sense. Heaving Bruenor and Regis into a more comfortable hold, he put his head low and roared at the beasts, crying out in frenzied rage.
When he had almost reached them, with Drizzt a few steps behind, and the trolls drooling and huddled to stop his momentum, the drow played his final card.
Magical flames sprouted from the barbarian. They had no power to burn, either Wulfgar or the trolls, but to the monsters, the specter of the huge, flame-enshrouded wild man bearing down upon them shot terror into their normally fearless hearts.
Drizzt timed the spell perfectly, allowing the trolls only a split second to react to their imposing foe. Like water before the prow of a high-riding ship they parted, and Wulfgar, nearly overbalancing for his expectations of impact, lumbered through, Drizzt dancing at his heels.
By the time the trolls regrouped to pursue, their prey was already climbing the last rise out of the Evermoors and into the forest - a wood under the protective eye of Lady Alustriel and the gallant Knights of Silver.
Drizzt turned under the boughs of the first tree to watch for signs of pursuit. Heavy fog swirled back down at the moors, as though the foul land had slammed its door behind them. No trolls came through.
The drow sank back against the tree, too drained to smile.
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