The work along the western bank of the Surbrin moved at a frenetic pace, with orcs and giants constructing defensive fortifications at all of the possible fords near the southern edge of the mountains around the closed gate of Mithral Hall. King Obould deemed one crossing particularly dangerous, where the river was wide and shallow and an entire army could cross in short order. And so Obould set most of his orcs into action, bringing tons of stones down to the water and packing them tightly together, then filling in with tons of sand, forming a levy that tightened up the river and deepened and strengthened the flow.
Not to be outdone, and taking no chances, Gerti Orelsdottr ordered her giants to ensure that the dwarven gate would not soon be opened, at one point even bringing a landslide down from the mountains. She would not have Clan Battlehammer sneaking out at her backside!
The work went on day and night, with high walls quickly constructed at every crossing point. Giants piled boulders suitable for bombardment at every outpost, ready to meet any crossing with heavy resistance, and orcs similarly filled rooms with hastily made spears. If reinforcements meant to come across the Surbrin, Gerti and Obould meant to make them pay dearly for the ground.
The two leaders met every night, along with Arganth, who was fast becoming Obould's principal advisor. The discussions were usually civil, a discourse about how to best and quickly secure their gains, but it did not escape Gerti's notice that Obould was leading the way at every turn, that his plans made great sense, that his vision had suddenly clarified to a keen and attainable edge. Thus, when the giantess was leaving the nightly meetings, she was usually in a foul mood, and increasingly, she went into the meetings gnashing her teeth.
So it was that night a tenday after the fall of Mithral Hall's eastern gate.
"We must move back to the west," Gerti began, the litany she spoke to open every meeting of late. "Your son remains locked in a stalemate with the dwarves, and he has not the giant allies he needs to dislodge them."
"You are in a hurry to chase them into Mithral Hall?" Obould casually asked.
"One less problem for us when we do."
"Better to let attrition take a heavy toll on them while we have them out here in the open," the orc king reasoned. "Deplete the resources they would employ against Proffit and his smelly trolls."
The notion of the orc king referring to any other race as "smelly" struck Gerti as laughable, but she was in no mood for mirth.
"Do you believe that a few trolls will chase Clan Battlehammer from its ancestral home?" she scoffed.
"Of course Proffit will not succeed," Obould admitted. "But we do not need him to succeed. He will soften them and tighten the noose around them. The tighter we squeeze them in their tunnels, the better the resolution."
"That we wipe them from the North?" Gerti asked, a bit confused, for it did not seem to her that Obould was moving along that line, though it had always before been his stated intent.
"That would be wonderful," the orc king remarked. "If we can. If not, perhaps with their outer doors sealed and pressed in the tunnels, Clan Battlehammer will seek to negotiate a settlement."
"A treaty between conquering orcs and dwarves?" Gerti asked incredulously.
"What is their option?" asked Obould. "Will they carry on their trade through tunnels to Silverymoon and Felbarr?"
"And when we at last locate and drop those tunnels?" Obould asked, seeming perfectly confident in that. "Will the dwarves follow the way of that wretched Do'Urden creature and begin doing trade with the drow of the Underdark?"
"Or perhaps they will do nothing of the sort," Gerti argued. "Surely Mithral Hall is self-contained and self-sustaining. Clan Battlehammer may be content to remain in their hole for a century, if necessary." She leaned forward over her crossed legs. "Your kind has never been known for its long-term resolve, Obould.
Orc conquests are usually short-lived affairs, and more often than not, lost by the warring of other orcs."
That particular reference was purposely worded and aimed to sting Obould, for not long in the past the orc king had made a great conquest indeed, sweeping the dwarves from Citadel Felbarr and renaming it the Citadel of Many-Arrows. But then had come the inevitable squabbling, orc against orc, and the dwarves under King Emerus Warcrown had wasted little time in chasing Obould's distracted and chaotic invaders back out. Gerti had launched her not-too-subtle reminder of that disaster just to drop her counterpart's mounting ego a few pegs. The giantess was surprised, though, and more than a little disappointed, at how composed Obould remained.
"True enough," the orc king even admitted. "Perhaps we have learned from our mistakes."
Gerti honestly wanted to ask that strange creature who he truly was and what he had done with that sniveling fool, Obould.
"When the region is secured and our numbers great enough, we will build orc cities," Obould explained, and he seemed to be looking far away then, as if he was visualizing that of which he spoke. "We will find our own commerce and trade and seek out surrounding towns to join in."
"You will send an emissary to Lady Alustriel and Emerus Warcrown seeking trade agreements?" Gerti blurted.
"Alustriel first," Obould calmly replied. "Ever has Silverymoon been known for tolerance. I expect that King Warcrown will need more persuading."
He looked directly at Gerti and grinned wickedly, his tusks curling over his upper lip.
"But we will have barter," Obould asked, "will we not?"
"What goods might you produce that they cannot get elsewhere?"
"We will hold the key to Clan Battlehammer's freedom," Obould explained. "Perhaps we allow for the reopening of the eastern door of Mithral Hall. Perhaps we even construct a great bridge at that point over the Surbrin. We allow Mithral Hall to trade openly and aboveground once again, and all for a tithe, of course."
"You have gone mad," Gerti snapped at him. "Dwarves fall before orc blades! King Bruenor himself was killed by your son's charges. Do you believe they will so quickly forget?"
"Who can know?" the orc king said with a shrug, and he seemed to hardly care. "They are just the options, all the more possible because of our successes. If all this land becomes an orc stronghold, will the peoples of the region band together and fight us? How many thousands will they sacrifice? How long will they hold their resolve when their kin die by the score? By the hundred, or thousand? And all of that with the option of peace honestly offered to them."
"Honestly," Obould replied. "We cannot take Silverymoon, or Sundabar, if all my kin and all your kin and all the trolls of the Trollmoors banded together. You know this as I know this."
The admission nearly had Gerti choking with disbelief, for she had known that truth from the beginning, of course, but had never believed that Obould would ever truly understand his real limitations.
"Wh-what about Citadel Felbarr?" she did manage to stammer, hoping once more to throw the orc king off his guard.
"We will see how far our victories take us," Obould replied. "Perhaps Mitnral Hall will be conquered - that is no less a prize than Felbarr. Perhaps even the Moonwood will fall to us in the months it will take to secure any peace. We will be in need of lumber, of course, and not so that we might dance about the living trees as do the foolish elves."
He looked to the side again, as if staring far away, and gave a little guttural chuckle.
"We get too far ahead of ourselves," the orc king remarked. "Let us secure what we now have. Close the Surbrin to those who would support Mithral Hall. Let Proffit work his disaster in the southern tunnels, and let Urlgen then drive the dwarves fully into their hole and close the western door. Then we might decide our next march."
Gerti settled back against the wall of the stone room and stared at her counterpart and at the smug shaman sitting next to him. She resisted the urge to reach out and crush the life out of Arganth, though she dearly wanted to do just that, if only because he was such an ugly little wretch.
And she wondered, honestly, if she should spring forward and crush the life out of Obould first. The creature who was sitting before her was constantly amazing her, was constantly putting her off her balance. He was not the sniveling orc who had once brought her dwarf heads as a present. He was not the overreaching and doomed-to-disaster warrior leader whom she had played as an ally out of amusement. Obould was biding his time over in the west against the dwarves, sacrificing short-term gain and swift victory for a long-term benefit. What orc ever thought like that?
It seemed to Gerti as if Obould honestly had it all planned out, and even more amazing, it seemed as if he had a real chance of succeeding. What she had to wonder, however, was what plans the orc king might have in store for her.
* * *
"They smell like rothe dung in fetid water," Tos'un complained.
Despite her generally foul mood, Kaer'lic Suun Wett didn't argue the point - her nose wouldn't let her.
"And Proffit is the smelliest of the bunch," Tos'un rambled on.
Kaer'lic shot him a look reminding him that they were two drow amidst an army of trolls and that it might not do well to so openly insult the leader of the brutes.
"Perhaps that is how he got so elevated," Tos'un added, amusing himself, Kaer'lic figured, for she found nothing at all amusing about their current state of affairs. Particularly concerning her own state of indecision.
Tos'un continued to grumble and began to stalk around. He stopped suddenly and took a closer look at the small cave Kaer'lic had taken for her temporary shelter. Glyphs and runes had been etched here and there, and the priestess's ceremonial robes were set out.
When Tos'un turned to more closely scrutinize her, she did not hide the fact that she had been beginning to change into those garments when he had burst in.
"This is not a ceremonial day, is it?" the male asked.
"No," the priestess answered simply.
"Then you are communing ... perhaps to locate our lost companions?"
"To gain spells that will help us with the trolls?"
"Am I to guess every possible purpose, then? Or is it that you would not tell me in any case?"
Tos'un paused and studied her, obviously not quite sure of where that last answer fit in exactly.
"Your pardon, high priestess," he said with clear sarcasm, and he dipped a bow that was full of his frustration. "I forget my place as a mere male."
"Oh, shut up," Kaer'lic replied, and she moved toward her vestments and began further disrobing. "I am as confused as you are," she admitted.
She gave a little laugh as she considered that - why shouldn't she tell Tos'un
the truth, after all, since he was the only drow companion she was going to know for some time?
"It does not surprise me that Ad'non and Donnia sneaked away," Tos'un said.
"Nor does it surprise me," Kaer'lic replied. "My confusion has nothing to do with them."
"Then what? Obould?"
"He would be part of it, yes," said the priestess. "As would be whatever intervention his brutish god offered."
"It was an impressive ceremony."
Kaer'lic turned on him suddenly, caring not at all that she was stripped to the waist.
"I fear that I have angered Lolth," she admitted.
It didn't seem to sink into Tos'un at first, and he started to respond. But then, with her continuing stare, the weight of her words nearly bowled the male over. He glanced around, as if expecting some creature of the Abyss to leap out of the shadows and devour him then and there.
"What does that mean?" he asked, his voice shaky.
"I do not know," Kaer'lic replied. "I do not even know if I am correct in my assessment."
"Do you think the intervention of Gruumsh One-Eye to be - "
"No, it was before that ceremony," Kaer'lic admitted.
"I fear it is because of your advice," Kaer'lic honestly replied.
"Mine?" the male protested. "What have I done that holds any sway to the Spider Queen? I have offered nothing - "
"You suggested that we would be better served in avoiding Drizzt Do'Urden, did you not?"
Tos'un rocked back on his heels, his eyes darting around, seeming like a trapped animal.
"I fear that I am trapped within a web of my own suspicions," said Kaer'lic. "Perhaps my unwillingness to engage the traitor, as you advised, has cost me Lolth's favor, but in truth, I fear that going against Drizzt Do'Urden and slaying him would anger the Spider Queen even more!"
Tos'un looked as if a slight breeze would have knocked him over.
"She denies you communion?"
"I am afraid to even try," the priestess admitted. "It is possible that my own fears work against me here."
"Your fears of Drizzt?" he asked, shaking his head, so obviously at a complete loss.
"Long ago, I came to some conclusions concerning the renegade of House Do'Urden," Kaer'lic explained. "Even before I knew of Matron Baenre's march against Mithral Hall. The name of Drizzt was not unknown to us even before you joined our little band. So many of our priestesses have come to errant presumptions concerning that one, I fear ... and I believe. They see him as an enemy of the Spider Queen."
"Of course," said Tos'un. "How could he be anything but?"
"He is a facilitator of chaos!" Kaer'lic interrupted. "In his own beautiful way, Drizzt Do'Urden has brought more chaos to your home city than perhaps any before him. Would that not be the will of Lolth?"
Tos'un's eyes widened so much that it seemed as if they might simply roll out of their sockets.
"You believe the road of Drizzt Do'Urden to be Lolth-inspired?" he asked.
"I do," said Kaer'lic, and she turned away. "Clever Kaer'lic! To see the irony of the rebel. To imagine the beauty of Lolth's design."
"It does make sense," the other drow admitted.
"And either way, whether my guess is correct or not, I am trapped by my own cleverness," said Kaer'lic.
Tos'un moved around to stare at her curiously.
"If I am wrong," the priestess explained, "then we should have engaged the renegade with all our powers, as I believe Ad'non and Donnia now seek to do. If I am right, then I have exposed a design that is far beyond ..."
Her voice trailed away.
"If you are right, the mere fact that you have solved the riddle of Drizzt brings weakness to Lady Lolth's designs," the male reasoned.
"And we cannot know."
Tos'un began shaking his head and trembling.
He said, "And you told me."
"But..." the male stammered. "But..."
"We do not know anything," Kaer'lic reminded him, holding up her hand before the quivering fool to calm him. "It is all speculation."
"Then let us break free of these wretched trolls and seek Drizzt out, that we might learn the truth," Tos'un offered.
"To reveal my discovery fully?"
Tos'un seemed to quickly come to see her point, his sudden, apparent eagerness fast wilting.
"Then what?" he asked.
"Then I will seek my answers as we travel with Proffit," Kaer'lic explained. "I must find my heart for the call to the handmaidens, though I fear the machinations of Lady Lolth and the fate that awaits those who seek to look through her plans."
"The Time of Troubles marked the greatest chaos in Menzoberranzan," he told her. "When House Oblodra, fortified by their psionic powers when the magic of all others seemed to fail about them, aspired to the mantle of First House and nearly won it. Of course, Lady Lolth then returned to the pleas of Matron Baenre . . . never have I seen such a catastrophe as that which befell the Oblodrans!"
Kaer'lic nodded, for the male had told her and her fellows that story before, in great and gory detail.
"It is a confusing time," she said again. "If my fears of Lolth's purpose concerning Drizzt Do'Urden weren't enough, we witness a rare display of true orc shaman might."
"You fear Obould," Tos'un stated more than he asked.
"We would be wise to stay wary of that one," Kaer'lic replied, not denying a thing. "And not because he is suddenly so much physically stronger and so much quicker. No, we must watch Obould carefully because, so suddenly, he is right!"
"Perhaps we were wrong in our estimation of the gifts Gruumsh has placed on that one. Perhaps the shamans imbued him with more than muscle and agility," Tos'un reasoned. "Is it possible that the ceremony gave to him the gift of insight as well?"
"At the least, he learned well his priorities," said Kaer'lic. "Forgoing his anger and hunger for a level of reason beyond anything I ever expected of the pig-faced creature. Consider this mission we find ourselves along - consider how easily and completely Obould is using Proffit and his trolls. If Obould can secure the area and keep the flow of orcs and goblins coming strong from the mountains, all the while holding firm his alliance with Proffit, then there is every reason to believe that he might just succeed in creating an orc nation in the North. Is it possible that Obould will bring his people to parity with Silverymoon and Sundabar, that he will force treaties, perhaps even trade agreements?"
"They are orcs!" Tos'un protested.
"Too smart for orcs, suddenly," lamented Kaer'lic. "We would do well to carefully watch these developments and to take no course contrary to Obould for the time being."
Once again, both Kaer'lic and Tos'un found themselves back on their heels at the observation; the two had been over it all before, but every time, they came to the same inescapable conclusion, and both were amazed.
"I wish that Ad'non and Donnia had not gone running off," Tos'un lamented. "It would be best if we were all together now."
"If it comes to that," the warrior from House Harrison Del'Armgo admitted. "For where and how shall we fit into Obould's kingdom?"
"From afar, in any case," Kaer'lic answered. "But fear not, for we shall find our fun. Even if Obould's vision comes to pass and he secures the realm he will claim as his own, how long will the orc kingdom hold? How long did it hold when Obould had Citadel Felbarr in his grasp? They will fall apart soon enough, do not doubt, and we will find enjoyment throughout the process, so long as we are cunning and careful."
Her own lack of confidence as she spoke that thought struck the blustering priestess profoundly. Was she uncomfortable because of her fears concerning the ultimate power behind the renegade Do'Urden? Or had the orc ceremony so unsettled her? Kaer'lic had to wonder if her lack of confidence was well founded, and directly proportional to her growing confidence in Obould's capabilities.
"And our enjoyment now?" Tos'un asked sarcastically.
"Yes, the trolls smell terribly," Kaer'lic replied. "But let us lead them as we were asked, through the tunnels toward Mithral Hall. You and I stay out of the way and out of the fighting - let the trolls and the dwarves slaughter each other with abandon. What do we care which side emerges victorious?"
Tos'un considered the words for a few moments, then nodded his agreement. He looked around at the hastily decorated chamber.
"Do you think you will find your confidence in Lolth's graces once more?" he asked.
"Who can know Lolth's will?" Kaer'lic said, with more than a little defeat obvious in her tone. "The enigma of the renegade Do'Urden troubles me greatly. In this time of chaos, I am the main representative of Lady Lolth and in the face of great presence of Gruumsh One-Eye. If through my cleverness or folly, I have compromised my own position in this, I have removed Lady Lolth from a deserved position in this delicious conquest."
"Or is there a personal remedy?" Tos'un remarked with a sly grin.
"I am not yet ready to embrace that notion and go chasing after Drizzt Do'Urden," Kaer'lic replied. "If Lolth is angry with me for my suspicions of her intentions concerning the rogue, then I will need guidance, and I will need to be well equipped with her blessing."
Tos'un nodded and glanced around once more.
"I wish you well in your search," he said. He turned to leave, adding, "for both our sakes."
Kaer'lic appreciated that last remark and felt better about her decision to reveal her weakness to the warrior. Normally, a dark elf would never offer advantage to another dark elf, fearing a dagger in the back. Might Tos'un figure to gain favor with Lolth by killing Kaer'lic? The priestess pushed that unsettling notion aside, reminding herself that their little band wasn't typical for the drow. The four of them were more reliant on each other than normal, for defense, for profit, and yes, even for companionship. How horrible the journey would be for her if Tos'un was not beside her. And he felt the same way, she knew, and that had guided her instincts that it would be acceptable to reveal the truth to him.
Because if it was personal, if Lolth was angry at her for purposefully turning away from Drizzt Do'Urden, then she would need Tos'un's assistance - and Ad'non's and Donnia's as well, if the renegade's reputation was to be believed.
Yes, Kaer'lic was thinking very much along the same lines as Tos'un. She wished those other two had not run off.
* * *
"What is it?" Gerti asked as she entered the wide cave beside the river that Obould had taken as his temporary quarters. The orc king sat on a stone to one side, his head resting in one hand and a look of concern on his brutish face - more concern than Gerti had seen since that troublesome ceremony.
"News from the north," Obould replied. "The Red Slash emerged from the Spine of the World to join in our cause."
His word choice alone reminded Gerti that he was not the same orc king who had often before come sniveling into her cave.
Obould looked up at her and said, "They were turned back."
"Turned back?" Gerti asked, and her voice turned snide. "Have your people already reverted to their self-destructive ways? Are they preparing the way for a counterattack before victory has even been achieved?"
"They were turned back by elves," Obould sourly replied, and he glared at the giantess, as open a threat as Gerti had ever seen from any orc.
"The elves have crossed the Surbrin?" the giantess asked, but not with too much concern.
"They were turned back by a pair of elves . . . and a drow," Obould clarified. "Does that ring familiar?"
"These Red Slash orcs - a small tribe?"
"Does it matter?" Obould replied. "They will run back into the tunnels now, and alert any others who were considering coming out to join with us."
"But Arganth spreads the word of the glory of Obould," said Gerti, "and Obould is Gruumsh, yes?"
As Obould narrowed his eyes, Gerti knew that he had caught on to the underpinnings of sarcasm in her voice, and she was glad of that. She might not overtly go against him just then, but she was more than willing to let him know that she remained less than impressed.
"Do not underestimate the advantages that Arganth and his shamans have brought to us," Obould warned.
"To us, or to Obould?"
"To both," the orc said definitively. "Their call sounds deep in the tunnels. I have brought forth perhaps fifteen thousand orcs, and thousands of goblins as well, but there are ten times those numbers still available to us if we can coax them forth. We cannot have these puny enemies turning the retreat of a few into a tactical advantage for our enemies."
Gerti wanted to argue of course - mostly because she just wanted to argue with everything Obould said - but she found that she really could not find flaws in the logical reasoning. "What will you do?" she heard herself asking.
"The preparations here are well underway, so we will take the bulk of our force and march off at once, back to the west and the north," Obould announced. "We will send some to reinforce Urlgen so that he can continue the fight on the north ridge for as long as the dwarves are foolish enough to stay and battle. Whatever his losses, we can afford them much more easily than the dwarves can afford theirs.
"I had planned to swing immediately around to the west," Obould went on, "and close the vice on the place the dwarves call Keeper's Dale, driving them into Mithral Hall. But first I will go north with Arganth and some others to see to this problem."
Gerti eyed him suspiciously, trying not at all to hide her trepidation.
"I expect that you will afford me a few of your kin for my journey," Obould answered that look. "You can come along or not, at your pleasure. Either way, I will have a pair of elf heads and a drow's to hang on the sides of my carriage."
"You do not have a carriage," the giantess remarked.
"Then I will build one," Obould replied without missing a beat.
Gerti didn't answer but merely turned and exited, and that act alone signified to her the change that had come over her relationship with Obould. Always before, it had been the orc king coming to Shining White, her icy mountain home, to speak with her, but lately, she more often than not seemed the visitor in Obould's growing kingdom.
With that unsettling thought reverberating within her as she walked out into the daylight, the giantess also heard the orc king's dismissive, "you can come along or not, at your pleasure," echoing in her mind.
Gerti pointedly reminded herself that she could not afford to let Obould move her too far to the margins. Her thoughts began to crystallize around the realization that if the orc king's confidence continued to grow into such impertinence, she might have to kill him. The timing would be everything, the giantess realized. She had to let Obould play his hand out, let him chase the dwarves into the tunnels and begin the full-fledged flushing of Clan Battlehammer, and let him stand as the center point of war with the larger communities in the North, if it came to that.
If there was to be a fall, Gerti wanted Obould to take it. If there was to be only glory and gain, then she would have to give Obould his fall and step into the vacated position.
The giantess would enjoy crushing the life out of the impertinent and ugly orc.
She had to keep telling herself that.