The ride from Luskan was swift indeed. Entreri and his cohorts appeared to any curious onlookers as no more than a shimmering blur in the night wind. The magical mounts left no trail of their passing, and no living creature could have overtaken them. The golem, as always, lumbered tirelessly behind with great stiff-legged strides.
So smooth and easy were the seats atop Dendybar’s conjured steeds that the party was able to keep up its run past the dawn and throughout the entire next day with only short rests for food. Thus, when they set their camp after the sunset of the first full day on the road, they had already put the crags behind them.
Catti-brie fought an inner battle that first day. She had no doubt that Entreri and the new alliance would overtake Bruenor. As the situation stood now, Catti-brie would be only a detriment to her friends, a pawn for Entreri to play at his convenience.
She could do little to remedy the problem, unless she found some way to diminish, if not overcome, the grip of terror that the assassin held on her. That first day she spent in concentration, blocking out her surroundings as much as she could and searching her inner spirit for the strength and courage she would need.
Bruenor had given her many tools over the years to wage such a battle, skills of discipline and self-confidence that had seen her through many difficult situations. On the second day of the ride, then, more confident and comfortable with her situation, Catti-brie was able to focus on her captors. Most interesting were the glares that Jierdan and Entreri shot each other. The proud soldier had obviously not forgotten the humiliation he had suffered the night of their first meeting on the field outside of Luskan. Entreri, keenly aware of the grudge, even fueling it in his willingness to bring the issue to confrontation, kept an untrusting eye on the man.
This growing rivalry may prove to be her most promising – perhaps her only – hope of escaping, Catti-brie thought. She conceded that Bok was an indestructible, mindless destroying machine, beyond any manipulation she might try to lay upon it, and she learned quickly that Sydney offered nothing.
Catti-brie had tried to engage the young mage in conversation that second day, but Sydney’s focus was too narrow for any diversions. She would be neither side-tracked nor persuaded from her obsession in any way. She didn’t even acknowledge Catti-brie’s greeting when they sat down for their midday meal. And when Catti-brie pestered her further, Sydney instructed Entreri to “keep the whore away.”
Even in the failed attempt, though, the aloof mage had aided Catti-brie in a way that neither of them could foresee. Sydney’s open contempt and insults came as a slap in Catti-brie’s face and instilled in her another tool that would help to overcome the paralysis of her terror: anger.
They passed the halfway point of their journey on the second day, the landscape rolling surrealistically by them as they sped along, and camped in the small hills northeast of Nesme, with the city of Luskan now fully two hundred miles behind them.
Campfires twinkled in the distance, a patrol from Nesme, Sydney theorized.
“We should go there and learn what we may,” Entreri suggested, anxious for news of his target.
“You and I,” Sydney agreed. “We can get there and back before half the night is through.”
Entreri looked at Catti-brie. “What of her?” he asked the mage. “I would not leave her with Jierdan.”
“You think that the soldier would take advantage of the girl?” Sydney replied. “I assure you that he is honorable.”
“That is not my concern,” Entreri smirked. “I fear not for the daughter of Bruenor Battlehammer. She would dispose of your honorable soldier and be gone into the night before we ever returned.”
Catti-brie didn’t welcome the compliment. She understood that Entreri’s comment was more of an insult to Jierdan, who was off gathering firewood, than any recognition of her own prowess, but the assassin’s unexpected respect for her would make her task doubly difficult. She didn’t want Entreri thinking of her as dangerous, even resourceful, for that would keep him too alert for her to move.
Sydney looked to Bok. “I go,” she told the golem, purposely loud enough for Catti-brie to easily hear. “If the prisoner tries to flee, run her down and kill her!” She shot Entreri an evil grin. “Are you content?”
He returned her smile and swung his arm out in the direction of the distant camp.
Jierdan returned then, and Sydney told him of their plans. The soldier didn’t seem overjoyed to have Sydney and Entreri running off together, though he said nothing to dissuade the mage. Catti-brie watched him closely and knew the truth. Being left alone with her and the golem didn’t bother him, she surmised, but he feared any budding friendship between his two road-mates. Catti-brie understood and even expected this, for Jierdan was in the weakest position of the three – subservient to Sydney and afraid of Entreri. An alliance between those two, perhaps even a pact excluding Dendybar and the Hosttower altogether, would at the least put him out, and more probably spell his end.
“Suren the nature of their dark business works against them,” Catti-brie whispered as Sydney and Entreri left the camp, speaking the words aloud to reinforce her growing confidence.
“I could help ye with that,” she offered to Jierdan as he worked to complete the campsite.
The soldier glared at her. “Help?” he scoffed. “I should make you do all of it by yourself.”
“Yer anger is known to me,” Catti-brie countered sympathetically. “I meself have suffered at Entreri’s foul hands.”
Her pity enraged the proud soldier. He rushed at her threateningly, but she held her composure and did not flinch. “This work is below yer station.”
Jierdan stopped suddenly, his anger diffused by his intrigue at the compliment. An obvious ploy, but to Jierdan’s wounded ego, the young woman’s respect came as too welcome to be ignored.
“What could you know of my station?” he asked.
“I know ye are a soldier of Luskan,” Catti-brie replied. “Of a group that’s feared throughout all the northland. Ye should not do the grovel work while the mage and the shadow-chaser are off playing in the night.”
“You’re making trouble!” Jierdan growled, but he paused to consider the point. “You set the camp,” he ordered at length, regaining a measure of his own selfrespect by displaying his superiority over her. Catti-brie didn’t mind, though. She went about the work at once, playing her subservient role without complaint. A plan began to take definite shape in her mind now, and this phase demanded that she make an ally among her enemies, or at least put herself in a position to plant the seeds of jealousy in Jierdan’s mind.
She listened, satisfied, as the soldier moved away, muttering under his breath.
Before Entreri and Sydney even got close enough for a good view of the encampment, ritualistic chanting told them that this was no caravan from Nesme. They inched in more cautiously to confirm their suspicions.
Long-haired barbarians, dark and tall, and dressed in ceremonial feathered garb, danced a circle around a wooden griffon totem.
“Uthgardt,” Sydney explained. “The Griffon tribe. We are near to Shining White, their ancestral mound.” She edged away from the glow of the camp. “Come,” she whispered. “We will learn nothing of value here.”
Entreri followed her back toward their own campsite. “Should we ride now?” he asked when they were safely away. “Gain more distance from the barbarians?”
“Unnecessary,” Sydney replied. “The Uthgardt will dance the night through. All the tribe partakes of the ritual; I doubt that they even have sentries posted.”
“You know much about them,” the assassin remarked in an accusing tone, a hint to his sudden suspicions that there might be some ulterior plot controlling the events around them.
“I prepared myself for this journey,” Sydney countered. “The Uthgardt keep few secrets; their ways are generally known and documented. Travelers in the northland would do well to understand these people.”
“I am fortunate to have such a learned road companion,” Entreri said, bowing in sarcastic apology.
Sydney, her eyes straight ahead, did not respond.
But Entreri would not let the conversation die so easily. There was method in his leading line of suspicions. He had consciously chosen this time to play out his hand and reveal his distrust even before they had learned the nature of the encampment. For the first time the two were alone, without Catti-brie or Jierdan to complicate the confrontation, and Entreri meant to put an end to his concerns, or put an end to the mage.
“When am I to die?” he asked bluntly.
Sydney didn’t miss a step. “When the fates decree it, as with us all.”
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