Regis squeezed Bruenor's hand and stared down at his friend, wondering if it would be last time he would see the dwarf king alive. Bruenor's breaths seemed more shallow to him, and the dwarf's color was even more grayish, as if he was made of stone. Stumpet and Cordio had told Regis that it likely wouldn't be much longer, and he could see that plainly.
"I owe you this," the halfling whispered, barely able to get his voice out through the lump in his throat. "We all do, and know as you rest that Mithral Hall will stand strong in your absence. I will not let this place fall."
The halfling gave another gentle squeeze, then laid the dwarf's hand down across his chest. For a moment, he saw no movement in Bruenor's chest, and he wondered if the dwarf had heard him and had at last let go.
But then Bruenor took a breath.
Regis patted the dwarf's hands and briskly walked out of the room, overcome and trying hard to bring himself emotionally back to center. He moved quickly along the tunnels, knowing that he was late for a meeting with Galen Firth of Nesme. He still didn't know how he would handle the fierce warrior. What aid might he offer with Mithral Hall under such duress? The eastern door was sealed - the dwarves had even dropped the tunnels behind it to make sure that any enemies trying to come in that way would have to claw through more than twenty feet of stone.
Reports from the north were no more promising, for Banak Brawnanvil had sent word that he was not certain how long he could hold his position. The giants were setting catapults on the western ridge, and soon enough, Banak feared, his forces would be under terrible duress.
He had asked for Regis to swing the force that had settled in the western end of Keeper's Dale around to the north to overrun the ridge from the west, but the request had come with a caveat: if it was feasible. Even Banak, settled in an increasingly desperate situation, recognized the danger of following such a course. Not only would that be exposing one of his two remaining surface armies to a potentially devastating situation, but in moving them out of their defensive position in Keeper's Dale, Regis would be risking leaving a wide-open path to Mithral Hall's western gate.
And Nesme was sorely pressed - likely even overrun - so the halfling had to keep the western approach protected from potential enemies moving up from the south.
Too many problems flitted through the halfling steward's mind. Too many issues confronted him. He hardly knew where he was half the time, and in truth, all he wanted was to go eat a big meal or two and settle down in a warm bed, with nothing troubling him more than the all-important decision of what he would choose to eat for breakfast.
With all of that weighing down his little shoulders, Regis started away. But he stopped and glanced back at the candlelit room where King Bruenor lay, and he remembered his words to his dying friend.
Regis straightened his shoulders immediately, bolstered by his sense of duty. His promise had not been idly given, and he did indeed owe Bruenor at least that much, and surely even more.
First things first, Regis decided, and he moved off more quickly and determinedly for his meeting with Galen Firth. He found the man in the appointed audience room, a smaller and more personable sitting area than the grand chamber. It was appointed with comfortable chairs - three padded ones with arm rests and wide-flaring backs - set on a thick-woven rug patterned in the foaming mug emblem of Clan Battlehammer. Completing the square of the sitting area was a stone hearth, wherein burned a small and cozy fire.
Despite the obvious comforts, Galen Firth was pacing, his hands behind his back, his fingers running all around, his eyes cast down at the floor. Regis had to wonder if this man was ever anything but agitated.
"Well met again, Galen Firth of Nesme," the halfling steward greeted as he entered the room. "Forgive my tardiness, I beg, for there are many pressing problems all needing my attention."
"Your tardiness this day is more forgivable than the tardiness of Mithral Hall's answer to Nesme's desperate call," the disagreeable man replied rather harshly.
Regis gave a sigh, walked past Galen and plopped himself down in one of the chairs. When the warrior made no move to join him in the sitting area, the halfling pointedly gestured to the seat directly across from him, to the right of the fire as his was to the left.
Never blinking and never taking his eyes from the halfling, the Rider of Nesme moved to the chair.
"What would you have me do?" Regis asked as Galen at last sat down.
"Launch an army of dwarves to the aid of Nesme, that we can drive the trolls back into their brackish waters and restore my town."
"And when this army marches south and a greater army of orcs and giants offers pursuit, then what would you have any of us do?" Regis reasoned, and Galen's eyes narrowed. "For that is what will happen, you do understand. The orcs press us on the north and have sealed the door to Mithral Hall on the east - you have heard of this latest battle, yes? I have one force up on the cliff north of Keeper's Dale waging battle daily against the orcs, but if the reports of the size of the attacking force in the east were anywhere near to accurate, my warriors will soon be even harder pressed and likely forced to forfeit the ground.
"You do not fully comprehend what is transpiring all around us, do you?" the halfling asked.
Galen Firth sat there staring, grim faced.
"It is no accident that Nesme was attacked just now," Regis explained. "These enemy forces, north and south, have coordinated their movements."
"That cannot be!"
"Did you hear no details of the fall of Mithral Hall's eastern gate?"
"Few, nor do I care to - "
"The forces out there were besieged by giants and orcs from the north and by a host of trolls from the south," Regis interrupted, and Galen's bluster fell away as clearly as his suddenly drooping jaw.
"It would seem that our common enemies are sweeping all the land from the Surbrin to Nesme, from the Trollmoors to the Spine of the World," Regis went on. "That leaves only a handful of settlements, Mithral Hall, and Nesme to stop them, unless we can elicit help from the neighboring lands."
"Then you admit that we must join our forces," Galen reasoned. "Then you see the wisdom of sending a force fast for Nesme."
"I do," said Regis, "and I do not. We must stand together, and so we shall, but I believe your desire to hold our ground at Nesme is ill considered. Mithral Hall will hold, but outside of our gates, all is lost - or soon shall be."
"What foolishness is this?" Galen Firth demanded, leaping from his chair, his eyes ablaze with anger.
"We fight for every inch of ground," Regis countered, and his voice didn't waver in the least, nor did he tense up or shy away from the imposing man. "And when we cannot hold, we retreat into the defensible tunnels of Mithral Hall. From here, we keep the lines of tunnels open to Citadel Felbarr; they will be our eyes, ears, and mouth to the outside world. From here, we continue to implore Silverymoon and Sundabar to mobilize their forces. I already have emissaries hurrying along their way through tunnels to find Lady Alustriel of Silverymoon and the leaders of Sundabar. From here, we hold the one remaining fortress against the onslaught of monstrous enemies."
"While my people die?" Galen Firth spat.
"No," said Regis. "Not if we can help them. From the moment you arrived, I had dwarf scouts striking out to the southwest, underground, seeking a course to Nesme. Their progress has been strong, and I expect that they will find an exit to the surface near enough to your town to join up with your people."
"Then send an army, and let us drive the trolls back!"
"I will send what I can spare, but I expect that will be far fewer than needed for the task you espouse," said Regis.
"Then what?" the warrior's voice suddenly mellowed, and he even slumped back in the chair.
He turned his head and rested his chin in his hand, staring into the flames.
"Let us find your people and help them as we may," Regis explained. "We will fight beside them, if that remains a viable option. And if not, or when it becomes not, we will retreat, with your people in tow, back into the Underdark and back to Mithral Hall. Though my dwarves will not be able to defeat our enemies aboveground, I have little doubt that they can hold their own tunnels against pursuing monsters."
Galen Firth said nothing, just kept staring into the fire.
"I wish I could offer more," Regis went on. "I wish I could empty Mithral Hall and charge south to overrun the trolls. But I cannot, and you must understand."
Galen sat there quietly for a long while, then turned to Regis, his features softened.
"You truly believe that the orcs and giants work in concert with the Trollmoors trolls?"
"The fall of the eastern gate would indicate as much," the halfling replied.
"And it tells, too, that my people are in dire trouble," Galen said. "If the trolls had enough strength to send a force as far east and north as your gates on the Surbrin... ."
"Then tarry no more," Regis said. He reached into his vest and produced a rolled parchment, tossing it across to the man. "Take that to the Undercity and Taskman Bellows. The expedition is outfitting even now and will be ready to march this very day."
Again Galen Firth paused, staring at the parchment, then back at Regis as he slowly climbed out of the chair once more. He said nothing more, but his nod held enough appreciation for Regis to see that the man understood the reasoning, even if he did not necessarily agree.
He gave a slight bow and left the room and the halfling steward breathed a sigh of relief, thinking he had one less issue pressing.
Regis slid back in his chair and turned to the fire, but before he could even begin to relax, a knock on the door turned him back.
"Enter, please," he said, expecting it to be a returned Galen Firth.
The door pushed open and in walked a soot-covered dwarf, Miccarl Ironforge by name, one of Mithral Hall's best blacksmiths. So dirty was this one that the color of his wide, short beard (rumored to be red) was impossible to tell. He wore a thick leather apron and a black shirt with only one sleeve, covering his left arm completely and sewn as one with a heavy heat-resistant glove. His bare right arm, streaked with soot, was nearly twice the girth of his left, muscled from years and years of lifting heavy hammers.
"The gnome again?" Regis asked.
Miccarl had sought him out twice before in the last tenday, offering reports that their little visitor from Mirabar had been acting overly curious in snooping around the Undercity.
"The little one's been in the maps again," Miccarl explained.
"Western tunnels - mostly unused."
"Where is he now?"
"Last I saw was him moving down those same tunnels," Miccarl explained. "I'm thinking that he's thinking he's found something there."
"And what might be there?"
"Nothing that I'm knowing, nor that anyone else's knowing. Them tunnels been mostly sealed for a few hunnerd years, unless them duergar that took the hall with the dragon opened them - and none who've been down that way since our return ever found anything."
"Then what? A way out - a way to bring an army from Mirabar in?" Regis asked. "Orc that could be stolen for Mirabar's forges?"
"Nothing there - not even good orc," Miccarl answered. "Never was nothing there but shale and coal for the forges. If the little one's come all the way to find a source for that, then he's a bigger fool than ye know, for there's not much worth in the stuff and Mirabar's already got more than she'd ever need."
"Tunnels to Mirabar?"
Miccarl snorted and said, "We got enough already known. We could get far west of here in a day's time and be aboveground beyond the reach of our enemies and well on our way to Mirabar. The little one's got to know that."
"Then what?" Regis asked again, but quietly, and more to himself than to the dwarf.
What might Nanfoodle be doing? As he pondered the possibilities, the half-ling's hand instinctively went up to the chain around his neck.
"Find Nanfoodle and bid him join me," Regis instructed the dwarf.
"Aye," Miccarl readily agreed. "Ye wanting me to drag him or knock him black and carry him?"
"I'm wanting you to coerce him," Regis replied. "Tell him that I have some news for Mirabar and need his advice forthwith."
"Not as much fun," Miccarl muttered, and he left.
A procession of informants followed the departure of the blacksmith, with news from the east and news from the west, with reports about the fighting outside and from the progress in securing and scouting the tunnels. Regis took it all in, paying strict attention, weighing all the possibilities, and mostly, formulating a line of questions for his dwarf advisors. He recognized that he was more the synthesizer of information than the decision maker, though he found that his advice was carrying more and more weight as the dwarves came to trust his judgment.
That pleased him and frightened him all at the same time.
His dinner was delivered to him in the same room, coming in alongside yet another messenger, one reporting that the expedition of fifty dwarves had set off for the south with Galen Firth.
Regis invited the dwarf to join him, or started to, but then Miccarl Ironforge appeared at the door.
"More work," Regis explained to the first messenger.
The halfling gave an apologetic shrug and motioned to the plates of food set on the small table between the chairs.
"Yup," replied the dwarf, and he stepped over, piled a few pounds of meat on a plate and filled the largest flagon to its tip with mead.
He gave a nod to Regis, which sent some mead spilling over the front of the flagon, then took his leave.
In walked Miccarl and Nanfoodle.
"Got work to do," the sooty blacksmith explained, and after moving over to similarly outfit himself with meat and mead for the trek back to the Under-city, he too took his leave.
"Sit and eat and drink," Regis offered to the gnome.
"They left little," Nanfoodle remarked with a grin, but even as he spoke the words, a pair of dwarves entered with refills of both food and drink.
Both the halfling and the gnome, not to be outdone by any dwarf, began their long, hearty meal.
"I am told you have news of Mirabar, or for Mirabar," Nanfoodle said between gulps of the golden liquid. "Master Ironforge was not explicit."
"I have a request for Mirabar," Regis explained between bites. "You understand the weight of our present dilemma, I hope."
"Many monsters, yes," Nanfoodle replied, and he took another bite of lamb and another gulp of mead.
"More than you know," Regis replied. "Pressing all the region. No doubt word has already reached your marchion from besieged, and perhaps already overrun, Nesme. I know not how long we might hold any presence on the surface, and so Mirabar must mobilize her forces."
"For the good of Mithral Hall?" asked the gnome.
So surprised was he that a bit of mead fell out of his mouth as he blurted the words. He quickly dabbed it up with his napkin and took another big swallow.
"For the good of Mirabar," Regis corrected. "Are we to assume that these monsters will end their march here?"
It seemed to him that the gnome was growing a bit more concerned, and in his nervousness, Nanfoodle seemed to be taking more and more drink and less and less food. That was good, Regis thought, and so he kept the conversation going for some time, detailing the fall of the eastern gate and the fears that the trolls of the south had joined with the orcs and giants from the north, or perhaps that the groups had been working in concert all along. He spared no detail at all, drawing out the conversation for as long as possible, and letting Nanfoodle drink more and more mead.
At one point, when the servers arrived with even more food and drink, Regis called one over and whispered into his ear, "Cut the next bit of drink with Gut-buster." The halfling glanced at the gnome, trying to get a measure of his present sensibilities. "Twenty-to-one mead," he explained to the server, not wanting to knock the poor gnome unconscious.
An hour later, Regis was still talking, and Nanfoodle was still drinking.
"But you and your sceptrana claim that you came here to check on Torgar and to strengthen the bond between our towns," Regis said suddenly, and with increased volume. He had been steering the conversation that way for a bit, moving away from the particulars of the monsters and the fighting and toward the issue of relations between Mirabar and Mithral Hall. "That is true, is it not?"
Nanfoodle's eyes opened wide - or at least, as wide as the somewhat inebriated gnome could open them.
"W-well... yes," Nanfoodle sputtered. "That is why we came here, after all."
"Indeed," said Regis.
He shifted forward in his chair, leaning near to Nanfoodle. He fished his necklace out of the front of his vest and fiddled with the ruby pendant, sending it into a little spin.
"Well, we all want that, of course," the halfling said, and he noted that Nanfoodle had glanced at the ruby and up, and again at the ruby. "Better relations, I mean."
"Yes, yes, of course," said the gnome, his eyes more and more focused on the tantalizing spin of the enchanted ruby pendant.
Regis would never have tried it on the gnome normally. Nanfoodle was a brilliant alchemist, so Torgar and Shingles McRuff had told him, and also was known to dabble in illusionary magic. Add to that obvious intelligence the natural resistance of a gnome to such enchantments as the ruby might cast, and the pendant would never have been effective.
But Nanfoodle was drunk.
He didn't even turn his eyes from the pendant anymore, obviously mesmerized by its continuing sparkling and spinning.
"And do you seek those relations in the westernmost tunnels of Mithral Hall?" Regis asked casually.
"Eh?" Nanfoodle remarked.
"You were there, were you not?" Regis pressed, but quietly so, not wanting his suspicions to break the charm. "In the western tunnels, I mean. You have been going there quite a bit, from what I hear. The dwarves find that curious, even amusing, for there is nothing down there ... or is there?"
"Sealed tunnels, pitch-washed," Nanfoodle answered absently.
"Then what importance might they offer to your mission in coming all this way?" the halfling asked. "Since you came to check on Torgar, did you not? And to better the relationship between Mirabar and Mithral Hall?
Nanfoodle gave a snort and a shake of his head.
"If only that were so," said the gnome.
Regis froze in place, resisting the urge to fall back in his chair. He gave the pendant another spin.
"Indeed, if only!" he enthusiastically agreed. "So tell me, good gnome, why have you really come?"
* * *
The hair on the back of Shoudra Stargleam's neck rose inexplicably when a dwarf informed her that her friend was sitting with Steward Regis, and had been for more than two hours. The sceptrana moved along the corridors, half-running and often slowing as she tried to sort things out. Why was she so bothered and nervous, after all, for wasn't Nanfoodle a reliable companion?
She came into an anteroom where a trio of dwarves stood calmly, each holding a nasty-looking polearm.
"Well met yerself," one of them said to Shoudra, and he motioned for the door to the audience room.
A second dwarf, standing beside the door, pushed it open, and Shoudra heard laughter from within and saw the glow of a comfortable fire. Still, she didn't calm down; something wasn't sitting well with her. She moved to the opening and peered in to see Nanfoodle laughing stupidly on one cushy chair, while a more sober Regis, his wounded arm back in its supporting sling, sat across from him.
"So nice of you to join us, Sceptrana Shoudra," the halfling said, and he motioned to the empty chair.
Shoudra took one step into the room, then jerked suddenly as the door slammed behind her.
"Nanfoodle and I were just discussing the disposition of the relationship between our respective communities," Regis explained, and again he indicated the empty chair to the unmoving sceptrana.
Shoudra hardly heard him, for her attention followed her scan around the room. The walls were all hung with tapestries, save the one that held the hearth, and the heavy hangings were not flat against the wall. Shoudra's gaze went lower, and she noted the toes of more than one pair of boots below the bottom fringe.
Slowly, the sceptrana turned her gaze to Regis.
"It is an interesting relationship, don't you agree," the halfling said, and there was no missing the sudden change in his tone.
"One we hope to strengthen," Shoudra replied, her gaze going to the obviously drunk Nanfoodle.
"Truly?" Regis asked.
Shoudra turned back to him.
"To strengthen our relationship by weakening Mithral Hall's orc?" the half-ling asked, and he pulled a large pouch out from behind him on the chair and tossed it on the floor at Shoudra's feet.
Shoudra slowly bent and retrieved the pouch but didn't even have to open it to know what was inside: Nanfoodle's weakening solution.
The sceptrana turned her stunned expression over the gnome, who burst out in great laughter and nearly fell off the chair.
"My new friend Nanfoodle told me everything," Regis stated.
He snapped his fingers in the air, and the tapestries were pulled aside, revealing a trio of grim-faced dwarves. The door behind Shoudra opened as well, and the sceptrana knew that polearms were aimed at her back.
"He has told me," Regis went on, "of how you came here on orders of the marchion to sabotage our orc. Of how Mirabar intended to wage a trade war upon Mithral Hall through such means, to ruin our reputation and steal our customers."
Shoudra began to shake her head.
"You must understand ..." she started.
"Understand?" Regis interrupted. "Weakened metal in our hands as we battle the orc hordes? Weakened metal on the barricades we construct to keep the monsters out of our halls? What is there to understand, Sceptrana?"
"We didn't know you were at war!" Shoudra blurted.
"Oh, then of course your spying and espionage are not so important!" came the halfling's sarcastic reply.
"No, you must understand the temperament of Marchion Elastul," Shoudra tried to explain. She moved beside Nanfoodle as he spoke and casually draped an arm across his shoulders. "This is his ... his way. Marchion Elastul fears Mithral Hall, and so he instructed Nanfoodle and I to come here and learn if Torgar was divulging the secrets of Mirabar. You must admit that Mithral Hall has gained a sudden advantage in the trade war, with four hundred of Mirabar's dwarves deserting our city to come to yours."
"Yes, a tremendous advantage with hordes of orcs knocking on our doors."
"We did not know." Shoudra took a deep breath and went on, "And I doubt that Nanfoodle or I would have had the heart to cause any mischief even if there was no war. Neither of us approve of the marchion's tactics here, nor of his disposition concerning King Bruenor and Mithral Hall. We two seek a better way."
"You would say that now, of course," Regis interrupted.
Shoudra closed her eyes and blew a long sigh, then began muttering under her breath.
"Take them and lock them away - and separately," Regis instructed.
The six dwarves advanced on the pair, but then they were gone, winking out of sight.
"The door!" Regis cried, and the dwarf closest the exit rushed back and slammed the portal shut.
Shoudra and a very surprised-looking Nanfoodle appeared suddenly on the far side of the room, and the dwarves hooted and charged.
They disappeared again, reappearing a few moments later in front of the hearth.
"She's casting again! Stop her!" Regis cried, noting Shoudra's renewed chant.
"Watch for fireballs!" cried the dwarf by the door.
He pulled it open, and Shoudra and Nanfoodle appeared right there, as fortune would have it. The dwarf fell away with a shriek.
Nanfoodle giggled stupidly, and Shoudra yanked him out of the room and into a run through the anteroom and out into the corridor, chased every step by the shouting dwarves.
"You silly gnome!" Shoudra scolded, and Nanfoodle giggled even more.
With the dwarves gaining and Nanfoodle lagging, Shoudra gave an exasperated growl and scooped Nanfoodle up.
They went through a door, which Shoudra shut and promptly barred, and out the other side of the room into another corridor. On they ran for the western gate, cries of alarm sounding all around them.
Soon the dwarves had them located once more, a dozen shouts echoing down every side passage they crossed. Finally, the pair turned into the long main corridor, which ended on a wide landing lined by statues of the kings of Mithral Hall. A descending staircase beyond that landing led to a smaller room and across that the last rays of daylight were streaming through the great hall's open western doors.
Doors that weren't to remain open for long, Shoudra realized, for dwarves down there were already pushing aside the doorstops, while others were forming a defensive line across the opening.
"Well, they got us," Nanfoodle said with a chuckle. "Time for torture!"
"Shut up, you fool," Shoudra scolded.
She looked all around, then at the last moment, tugged Nanfoodle into the shadows behind the nearest statue. And not a moment too soon, for a group of dwarves came charging through the moment they were out of sight, all of them shouting to, "Hold the door!" or, "Bar the way!"
Nanfoodle started to cry out in response, but Shoudra clamped a hand over his mouth and held him tight. She took a deep breath and gathered her courage, then she peeked out at the outside door and the area beyond. After finally calming the drunken gnome, the sceptrana began to cast another spell.
She whispered out a chant and the tips of her two index fingers began to glow bright blue. With them, the sceptrana then drew out the lines of a door in the air.
"There!" came a shout - Regis's shout, and Shoudra glanced back to see the halfling and a group of dwarves charging her way.
Without hesitation, the sceptrana hoisted Nanfoodle once more, and as the great western doors of Mithral Hall banged closed, she carried Nanfoodle through her portal.
The dimensional door closed right behind her, and Shoudra breathed a sudden sigh of relief to realize that she and her companion were outside the closed doors, standing alone in Keeper's Dale.
"You got so many tricks," Nanfoodle squeaked, and he laughed again.
Shoudra's eyes shot darts at the foolish alchemist.
"More than you know," she promised.
She hoisted him higher and moved off to the side of the gates, to a hollow area already dark with shadows.
There, the glum Shoudra sat, but not until she had forced Nanfoodle down to the ground. He tried to rise, but Shoudra dropped both of her legs over him, pinning the unsteady gnome.
He started to protest, but Shoudra flicked her finger against the underside of his long and pointy nose.
"Hey!" Nanfoodle cried.
"Shhh," Shoudra insisted, putting her finger over her pursed lips. In a voice low and threatening, she added, "You be quiet, or I'll make you quiet. I've a few magic tricks left."
Those words seemed to take a bit of the drunk off Nanfoodle. He swallowed loudly and said no more.
They sat there as afternoon turned to twilight and twilight to night.
And Shoudra had no idea what they were going to do.
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