Disclaimer: The recognisable characters appearing in this story are © R.A. Salvatore and/or TSR: Forgotten Realms, all rights reserved. They are used without permission and for entertainment purposes only. No profit is being made by the author for writing this story. No infringement upon nor challenge to the rights of the copyright holders is intended; nor should any be inferred.
It's midnight and it's raining; and they're still celebrating. As my grandson sleeps quietly in his bed, I can see them from my window: Darthiir and Ilythiir laughing and singing together; surface elves and dark elves dancing and joking together.
It's one of those days I wish never happened. It's one of those days when I cease to be frail, old Vierna, and simply become 'her,' one of 'them.' It's one of those days when people point, stare and whisper behind their hands as I walk by. It's one of those days when they, the younger generations, wonder just what I did five hundred years ago, what atrocities I committed in the name of Lloth, the Spider Queen.
It's one of those days that reminds of my past, of our past, of what we did to ourselves, and of what we did to each other. It's one of those days that reminds of what a monster I used to be, and I don't want to be reminded at all ...I'd rather forget.
It's been exactly five hundred years since the death of Lloth, five hundred years since the dark elves returned to the surface, and five hundred years since we, as the younger generations are fond of saying, were 'set free.' I hate days like today, because I'm reminded of just what I did, and just how the other dark elves the same age as me are so very different from the younger drow. I hate the way that the younger drow look at me on days like today, and I hate the way they stare at me. They don't trust me, I can see it in their eyes.
I draw my curtains, pour myself a drink, and gingerly lower my withered body into a chair. I gaze quietly at my sleeping grandson, the only person I know that just sees me as Vierna, the quiet lady who lives down by the river. But, sooner or later, he'll discover the truth about me, about his own race's dark past. That's what children do: they ask questions. And when he finds out about what I did, about what we all used to do, he'll never look at me in the same way again. It's happened before, and it'll happen again. When my own daughter discovered what a monster I used to be, our relationship suffered badly, and the bond between us was almost severed in two. How could she look up to me, how could she respect me, how could she trust me, how could she admire me, knowing what I had done all those years ago?
I was a mass-murderer, a torturer, a killer, but, then again, we all were once. I was no different to anybody else. It's hard to explain to them why we did what we once did. I can't even begin to explain it to myself, let alone to anybody else. The younger generation will probably never understand, because they weren't there. How could they possibly understand that I enjoyed doing what I once did, that I savoured being feared and respected, that I found the never-ending slaughter exhilarating? How could I ever explain that to anybody?
But my grandson knows nothing about me or my past, and hopefully I'll be long gone before he ever finds out about what I did, before his innocence is shattered.
Yesterday, he said he loved me, and I nearly cried. He starts school in a year, and then he'll find out all about our past, my past. Will he still say he loves me when he knows what a monster I once was? I doubt it. It took fifty years for my daughter to come to terms with the sins and crimes of her own mother, and I don't have another fifty years left for my grandson to forgive me too. I don't want to die knowing that my own grandson hates me for what I once did, because there's been too much hatred in my life: far too much hate, and far too little love. I know it sounds morbid, and maybe even selfish, but, in a strange way, I hope I die before he finds out about his own race's heritage.
I hope I die while he still loves me, and I hope I die before he starts asking me questions about what part I played in our murderous past. And then he'll most likely ask me, 'why did you do it?' and I won't be able to answer him. How can I tell a child that I enjoyed all the killing, that I revelled in all the murder and mayhem? I can't, and so I'll have to lie to my own grandson. Even though Lloth has been dead for five centuries, I can't seem to escape from underneath of Her shadow, and I can't seem to escape from my own past; and I find myself lying to those most precious to me, hoping that they won't despise or ostracise me, hoping that they'll still accept me. I can lie to other people, but I can't lie to myself: I know what I did, I know why I did it, and I'm ashamed of myself.
My sleeping grandson looks just like my long-dead brother Drizzt did when I was his wean-mother seven hundred years ago: tiny, fragile, vulnerable and innocent.
An hour ago, my grandson had a nightmare: he was tossing and turning in bed; fretting; and kicking his legs. As he shook and called out in his sleep, I briefly wondered what his nightmare was about. Whatever his nightmare was about, whether he was being chased by a horde of goblins or being swallowed whole by a wyrm, it was merely the product of his own imagination, and it wasn't real. I woke him, cradled him in my arms, reassured him that there were no monsters, and that he was safe. He believed me. He had no reason not to believe me, no reason to doubt me, no reason to suspect that I was lying to him.
He is innocent, and he trusts me.
And now, as I sit here staring at the boy, I'm reminded of the nightmares that Drizzt used to have back in Menzoberranzan when he was a child. His nightmares were different than my grandson's because Drizzt's nightmares were real. I used to adore watching Drizzt have nightmares all those years ago, and I used to enjoy seeing him turning and screaming in his sleep. I sometimes even hoped that I was the source, the inspiration if you will, of his nightmares, that I was the one chasing him down some dark, imaginary corridor, and that I was the one whipping him in his dreams. I never once woke Drizzt from his nightmares, and told him it was all a dream, that there were no monsters, that everything was okay.
I knew the monsters were real. Drizzt knew the monsters were real. I was his own sister, and I acted like a monster toward him. But we were all monsters apart from our own children, whom we quickly turned into monsters. And if they didn't turn into monsters, if they didn't quickly learn what it took to survive and prosper in Menzoberranzan, then they soon perished. My trusting, innocent grandson would have surely perished in Menzoberranzan. Jal khaless zhah waela. All trust is foolish.
In a few decades, all of us, the last of the drow to dwell in the Underdark, the monsters, will be dead. We will all pass into folklore, and become nothing more than a bloody, dark period of our history. And when we are all gone, maybe our children will be free of our burden of guilt and our shame. When we are all gone, the world will keep on turning and nobody will miss any of us much. Our children are building a better world, a better society; a place in which I truly don't deserve to live in.
I think I'll die quite soon, but it's strange that my life will end amid the greens and blues of the surface. I'd always imagined that I'd die with a dagger in my back in some dark tunnel. But I hope that I die while my grandson still loves me, before he finds out what a monster I once was. Nobody has ever said that they loved me before, and being loved is a feeling I want to take to the grave with me.
Filth, they had said.
Filth, they had said as they beat me. Filth, they had said as I bled. Filth, they had said as I screamed. Filth.
The moon elves had repeatedly called me filth, and they had spat at me, punched me, kicked me, stamped on me. I'd never met them before; I'd never even seen them before. I'd never met them, yet their faces wore looks of unbridled hatred. I'd never seen them before, yet they considered me to be filth. Me, filth?
I'm just sixteen years old, and I'd never caused harm to anyone. Yet, to them, I was filth. I'm just sixteen years old, and there's no reason to hate me. Yet, to them, I was filth. It wasn't my fault, I had told myself. I'd never done anything wrong, I had told myself. I knew it wasn't my fault: it was their fault, not mine. I'd done nothing; I didn't deserve it.
I screamed as they beat me; they laughed as I screamed as they beat me. They laughed and called me filth and I bled. I screamed and I knew it wasn't my fault. How could they do this to me, how could they pass judgment, how could they find me guilty, how could they call me filth, when I'd done nothing wrong, when I'd never even met them before? It wasn't my fault, I'd told myself.
After they had finished beating me, laughing at me and calling me filth, I lay very still and I cried. I cried because I was in pain. I cried because I had just realised whose fault it was. It was the fault of things that had happened more than five hundred years ago. It was the fault of my ancestors. It was Vierna's fault. And, somehow, it had become my fault too.
I had known parts of our past. I had heard the tales, the rumours, the half-truths and the half-lies. I knew our past was grim, but, to me, it had meant very little until yesterday, until I was called filth, until I felt guilty, until I felt ashamed, until I felt like filth.
I'd never really asked enough questions about our past, about exactly what'd happened and why. I'd always thought our past was best forgotten, best buried, best left in the Underdark. I'd always thought our past was best forgotten until I had felt guilty for something I hadn't done. Just what had they, we, done all those years ago for the resentment of us, of me, to linger on?
I'd always known that Vierna would've been involved in what'd happened more than five hundred years ago, but I'd never asked anyone exactly what she'd done. Shouldn't I have known? Shouldn't I have asked somebody? Shouldn't I have asked her? I'd always thought that the past was best forgotten. Buried. We'd moved on, hadn't we?
But now I wanted to know exactly what Vierna had done. I wanted to know the truth. I wanted to know why I was filth, and why I was beginning to feel guilty for something I hadn't done.
The problem with looking for the truth is that you find it. And once you've found it, you'd rather believe the rumours, the half-truths and the half-lies. You find the truth and then you wish you hadn't.
I don't know Vierna and there's no point pretending that I do, or ever did. The truth was easy to find. Almost too easy. A question here, a question there. An answer here, an answer there. A truth here, a lie there. She is, as I am, a Do'Urden; she had, as I would have, belonged to a famous House. Finding the truth was easy; believing the truth was another matter. She had been a Matron Mother. She had killed her own mother, her sisters, her brothers. She had even killed some of her own children. She had killed hundreds.
She did those things. I've done nothing, yet I feel guilty, I feel shame, and I feel like filth. I think I hate her. I've done nothing, yet I feel like filth. It's her fault, yet I feel guilty.
I think I hate her but I'm not so sure I really do. Yesterday, I loved her. Yesterday, she was just my grandmother, she wore a grey smock and she baked me oat cakes. Today, I'm filth. I'm filth because of what she once did.
I think I want to hate her but I'm not so sure I really do. It'd be easy to hate her if she hadn't been a dark elf, if she didn't look like me. It'd be easy to hate her if she looked like a monster, if she had horns, if she had a forked tongue. She'd be easy to hate if I couldn't relate to her, if I hadn't have loved her. I want to hate her, but I can't.
Yesterday, I loved her. Today, I'm not even sure I know her.
But I want to know her. I want to know the whole truth. And I want to know why she did it, why they all did it, why I probably would've done it if I'd been there. I want to hear her say it. I want to know why I am filth. And I want to hear her say it.
But part of me doesn't want to know the truth. Part of me would rather believe the rumours and the half truths. It takes two people to tell the truth: she must tell the truth; I must listen to her tell the truth. But part of me doesn't want to listen to the whole truth, part of me doesn't want to believe the whole truth. Part of me doesn't want to know why I feel guilty for something I haven't done.
But part of me does. And that part of me also knows that when you find the truth, you'd probably wish you hadn't.
Through a window, I watched him walk down the path to my door. He hesitated for a moment as he reached for the doorknob, almost turning back. It was stormy outside: the paving stones of my path were slicked with rain, and the wind rattled the slate roof of my cottage. He seemed to stand their for an age, his hand on the doorknob. Eventually, he opened the door slowly and stepped into my home.
He said nothing and sat down at the table. I stared at him for a while, the rainwater running from his hair to his shoulders, to his arms as they shivered, to the surface of the table. I knew why he was here but I didn't have any idea of what to say to him. I sat down opposite him but he immediately tensed, stood up and walked over to the window, looking outside.
I stared at him for a while. He had been fighting somebody recently : his shirt was torn, his left cheek was badly bruised and his lip was split.
"So, you know?" I said.
He didn't say anything; he turned slowly, folded his arms and leant against the wall. He was breathing deeply and for a moment I thought he was going to cry. I continued to stare at him, watching his lavender-coloured eyes scan the room. He seemed to look everywhere but at me. I wondered whether he hated me or not.
"Why?" he finally asked, his eyes now fixed on the planked floor two yards in front of him.
"I had no choice," I said truthfully.
He shifted his gaze over to me and I turned away and looked out of the window. It was still raining. I wished he wasn't here. I wished he'd never found out about my past - our past - while I was still alive. I wanted to just get up and walk out of my own cottage and not answer his questions.
"Everybody always has a choice," he said flatly, dismissively.
"Everybody but us," I replied, my mouth feeling suddenly dry. "Back then."
"That's no answer. Why do you think you didn't have a choice?" he said, his voice impatient.
I turned to face him before averting my gaze and looking out of the window once more. I got up, walked to my drinks cabinet, grabbed a bottle and poured blue-plum brandy into two glasses. I sat back down at the table, placing one glass in front of me the other on the opposite side of the table.
"Sit down," I said as I picked up my glass.
"I'd rather stand," he replied, shaking his head slightly.
"Sit down," I reiterated.
He shrugged his shoulders and sat down. "Choice? Tell me why you think you didn't have a choice. I want to know why you thought you didn't have a choice."
"Choice," I said slowly, running my tongue across my dry lips. "I used to think I had a choice once. But then I realised I didn't have a choice and that none of us had a choice."
He said nothing and clenched his fists, his knuckles paling.
"I used to think I was different, that I could make a difference. But I was young and foolish. I was trained by my father, your great grandfather, Zaknafein, when I was young. He didn't attempt to crush my spirit. He didn't flog me or beat me as much as other Weapons Masters would have. He didn't do to me the things that other Weapons Masters would have done. Yes, he was harsh but he treated me with something approaching compassion. I wish that he hadn't. Things would have been far easier for me if he'd broken my spirit when I was young."
"Weapons Master?" he asked as he looked at his glass and ran his left index finger slowly around the rim. "I thought you were a Priestess."
"I was. Before I attended the Arach Tinilith - the training academy for priestesses - I spent five years being taught how to fight by my father," I said, recalling, with the benefit of hindsight, how these five years were perhaps the best - or less worse - years that I had lived in Menzoberranzan. "A Weapons Master was supposed to shatter his pupils' spirits and make them more malleable, more willing to unquestioningly obey orders. Zaknafein should have broken me but he didn't."
He picked up the glass and sipped from it; he coughed, grimaced and then took another sip. He made fleeting eye contact with me before looking down at his hands.
"Zaknafein should have broken me but he didn't. I was his daughter and I think he was, in his own way, trying to protect me from the horrors that awaited me but he only made things worse for me. When I first enrolled at the Arach Tinilith, I wasn't prepared for what I was about to endure. When I enrolled, I was not much older than you are now, and was probably very much like you are now. I thought I was invincible, that I could survive anything, that I was important, that I could make a difference, that I could graduate and avoid becoming a mindless thug like my half-sister, Briza. But as soon as I passed through the gates, I realised I was in the hands of malicious, stupid, and wicked incompetents. And what was worse was that I allowed myself to accept the orders of these incompetents even though I didn't want to. And I did so because to hold up my hand and say, 'no,' would have been tantamount to putting up my hand and asking to be killed. When you're faced with the stark choice of conforming or dying, you conform. If someone was holding a dagger to your throat, you'd do whatever they asked of you, yes?"
He said nothing, and shuffled awkwardly in his chair.
"Zaknafein should have broken me," I continued. "The part of me that he tried so hard to protect was gradually blunted and eroded until I became something else; something just like everybody else in the Arach Tinilith; something stupidly wicked and malicious. Zaknafein should have broken me. It was awful to slowly become something that I resented becoming. But, in the end, I didn't resent what I became. In the end, I accepted what I had become. It was a case of conforming or dying. I conformed. I became indoctrinated. And, ultimately, I did so willingly."
"...Conformed?" he said as he took another mouthful of brandy. "How did you change? Why did you change? Why did you all do those things to each other? I still don't understand."
"Questions, questions, questions," I said as I walked over to the drinks cabinet and picked up the bottle of brandy and refilled his glass. "It was strange changing. It was like something had taken root inside of me and was slowly, but surely, growing. I would stare into a polished shield and look into my own eyes and wonder how much of the part of me that Zaknafein tried to protect, the part of me that was so precious to him, had withered and drained away. In the end, it was almost as if there was nothing of that part of me left, and that there was a void, a hollowness, in me that nothing would fill. I think it was only then that my life in the Arach Tinilith became more bearable: when part of me died and I accepted what I was to become, a Priestess of Lloth. It only became bearable when I was no longer who I once was."
I shivered as I said the word, 'Lloth,' and I realised I hadn't said that word aloud in nearly five hundred years.
He sat upright as I said, 'Lloth,' and his brow furrowed, his eyes narrowed. "Lloth ...I have read about Lloth. I simply can't understand why you - we - used to worship Lloth. It seemed like madness."
"Madness would be one word for it. It's difficult to say why we worshiped Her the way we did," I said as I slowly swilled the brandy in its glass. "It was like the kiss of a lover in some ways. The kiss starts on the right cheek with a warm, soft and seductive whisper in the right ear telling you of the glory, joy, wealth and power that awaits you; the whisper urging and compelling you onward. And then She glides briskly backwards so that you can see Her face and somehow you know that something's not quite right, and you begin to feel small, frightened, and terrified. And then She moves in for the left cheek and you want to turn your face away but you can't. You just stand there frozen while the same lilting whisper plays in your left ear and Her fingers stroke your cheek lightly. But this time, the voice just tells of the horrors and the consequences of failure and your blood runs cold and you realise that you must never fail; eternal torment awaits those who fail."
"A kiss? I'm not sure I follow your reasoning," he said as he pushed his glass forward into the middle of the table and stared at me doubtfully.
"When Lloth kisses you on the right cheek you are in her favour and when she kisses you on the left cheek you are not in her favour. My House - my family, if you will - had been kissed on the left cheek before, and it's a kiss that lingers, it's a kiss that you can't simply wipe away with your sleeve and it's a kiss that you can't seem to forget. And so you do anything you can to get back in Lloth's favour, to be kissed on the right cheek once more. But once you've been kissed on the left cheek, you're no longer interested in glory and wealth and power and all the promises She so persuasively murmured in your right ear. All that you are interested in is ensuring that you never again give Lloth a reason to want to kiss you on the left cheek. You become purely motivated by a fear of failure - for Lloth considers failure to be a byword for death - rather than wanting glory and power. When you're in Lloth's favour you seem to spend the entire time worrying about being out of favour. Winning, and then staying in, Lloth's favour, becomes an all-consuming obsession. You'd do anything to stay in Her favour. And believe me when I say 'anything'."
"It sounds spineless to me. It sounds as if you have no pride. It sounds as if you deserved everything you got if you'd never made any attempt to change anything."
"Spineless? Pride? Who are you to speak to me of these things? You know next to nothing of what it was like living my life," I said, trying to keep calm.
"Couldn't you have tried to escape? Did you not have the bravery to escape the horrors, rather than endure them like a coward?" he said with a sneer. "I would have tried to run, to escape."
"Only cowards run. My brother was a coward. He ran. He was a coward because he didn't think about the consequences his actions would've had on the other five hundred dark elves that lived within the walled compound of House Do'Urden. What gave him the right to condemn five hundred others to death? Nobody has the right to condemn the lives of five hundred others. Not even him. Drizzt knew that by fleeing he would cause our House to fall from Lloth's favour and he knew that he would be putting all of these lives in jeopardy. He knew this and yet he still fled. And this is why he was a coward. His father was far braver than him, as were plenty of others; it was far braver to endure the chipped, stained and ugly existence that most dark elves faced rather than fleeing and sentencing five hundred others to death. One life is unimportant in comparison to five hundred. And this was why Drizzt was a coward. I thought about running but I knew this would cause our House to fall even further out of favour than it already was. I did not run but I could have. I chose to stay; I accepted my fate. We all did."
"Drizzt... what happened to Drizzt?"
"I hunted him down and killed him," I said; the memory of me plunging my dagger into his bare chest filling me with regret. "I killed him and we regained Lloth's favour."
"You killed your own brother?" he asked incredulously.
"It is better to be the butcher than the lamb. If I hadn't have killed Drizzt then five hundred others would have died. A single person dies and five hundred people live or a single person lives and five hundred people die. Some people say that those five hundred lives were worthless in comparison to Drizzt's life, but who could say that there weren't others like Zaknafein and Drizzt living within the walls of House Do'Urden. Dark elves used to keep many, many secrets from each other. Drizzt could have stood next to another dark elf who felt exactly the same way as he did and he'd never have known it. Nobody keeps a secret better than a dark elf. Drizzt should have stayed. He should have found his niche and tried to fill it the best he could. Nobody had a choice. If you were there, you'd have become just as like me and everybody else was. You conformed or you died. There was no choice. Like I said, if somebody's holding a knife to your throat, you do as you're told."
"I'm glad I wasn't there," he said.
"I'm glad you weren't there, too," I replied honestly.
"I still don't understand why you did those things, why you killed your own brother, why you tortured and killed people, and why you all worshipped a god that didn't deserve to be worshipped."
"I'm glad you don't understand," I said as he sat silently in his chair. "You would only have fully understood if you were there."
I stared out of the window, not wanting him to go but not wanting him to ask anymore questions. It had stopped raining outside and the sun was beginning to filter through the clouds in rays. I looked at the clouds, my head filled with memories from long ago. Memories of events that have haunted me ever since I left Menzoberranzan. Memories of events that I was deeply ashamed of once I had left. Once I had left.
While I was still there, however, I was not ashamed or haunted by what I had done. While I was still there, I'd become so numbed, desensitised and indoctrinated that I was actually proud of what I achieved and even came to enjoy the slaughter and mayhem. But that was before I left.