The dozen dirty and road-weary dwarves rumbled along at a great pace, leaping cracks in the weather-beaten stone and dodging the many juts of rock and ancient boulders. They worked together, despite their obvious fears, and if one stumbled, two others were right there to prop him up and usher him on his way.
Behind them came the orc horde, more than two hundred of the hooting and howling, slobbering creatures. They rattled their weapons and shook their raised fists. Every now and then, one threw a spear at the fleeing dwarves, which inevitably missed its mark. The orcs weren't gaining ground, but neither were they losing any, and their hunger for catching the dwarves was no less than the terrified dwarves' apparent desperation to get away. Unlike with the dwarves, though, if one of the orcs stumbled, its companions were not there to help it along its way. Indeed, if a stumbling orc impeded the progress of a companion, it risked getting bowled over, kicked, or even stabbed. Thus, the orc line had stretched somewhat, but those in the lead remained barely a dozen running strides behind the last of the fleeing dwarves.
The dwarves moved along an ascending stretch of fairly open ground, bordered on their right, the west, by a great mountain spur, but with more open ground to their left. They continued to scream and run on, seeming beyond terror, but if the orcs had been more attuned to their progress and less focused on the catch and kill, they might have noticed that the dwarves seemed to be moving with singular purpose and direction even though so many choices were available to them.
As one, the dwarves came out from the shadows of the mountain spur and swerved between a pair of wide-spaced boulders. The pursuing orcs hardly registered the significance of those great rocks, for the two boulders were really the beginning of a channel along the stony ground, wide enough for three orcs to run abreast. To the vicious creatures, the channel meant only that the dwarves couldn't scatter. And so focused were the orcs that they didn't recognize the presence of side cubbies along both sides of that channel, cunningly hidden by stones, and with dwarf eyes peering out.
The lead orcs were long into the channel, with more than half the orc force past the entry stones, when the first dwarves burst forth from the side walls, picks, hammers, axes, and swords slashing away. Some, notably the Gutbuster Brigade led by Thibbledorf Pwent, the toughest and dirtiest dwarves in all of Clan Battlehammer, carried no weapons beyond their head spikes, ridged armor, and spiked gauntlets. They gleefully charged forth into the middle of the orc rush, leaping onto the closest enemies and thrashing wildly. Some of those same orcs had been caught by surprise by that very same group only a tenday earlier, outside the destroyed town of Shallows. Unlike then, though, the orcs did not turn wholesale and run, but took up the fight.
Even so, the dwarves were better armored and better equipped to battle in the tight area of the rocky channel. They had shaped the ground to their liking, with their strategies already laid out, and they quickly gained an upper hand. Those at the front end, who had come out closest to the entry to the channel, quickly set a defense. Their escape rocks had been cleverly cut to all but seal the channel behind them, buying them the time they needed to finish off those orcs in immediate contact and be ready for those slipping past the barricade.
The twelve fleeing decoys, of course, spun back at once into a singular force, stopping the rush of the lead orcs cold. And those dwarves in the middle of the melee worked in unison, each supporting the other, so that even those who fell to an orc blow were not slaughtered while they squirmed on the ground.
Conversely, those orcs who fell, fell alone and died alone.
* * *
"Yer boys did well, Torgar," said a tall, broad dwarf with wild orange hair and a beard that would have tickled his toes had he not tucked it into his belt.
One of his eyes was dull gray, scarred from Mithral Hall's defense against the drow invasion, while the other sparkled a sharp and rich blue. "Ye might've lost a few, though."
"Ain't no better way to die than to die fightin' for yer kin," replied Torgar Hammerstriker, the strong leader of the more than four hundred dwarves who had recently emigrated from Mirabar, incensed by Marchion Elastul's shoddy treatment of King Bruenor Battlehammer - ill treatment that had extended to all of the Mirabarran dwarves who dared to welcome their distant relative when he had passed through the city.
Torgar stroked his own long, black beard as he watched the distant fighting. That most curious creature, Pikel Bouldershoulder, had joined in the fray, using his strange druidic magic to work the stones at the entrance area of the channel, sealing off the rest of the pursuit.
That was obviously going to be a very temporary respite, though, for the orcs were not overly stupid, and many of the potential reinforcements had already begun their backtracking to routes that would bring them up alongside the melee.
"Mithral Hall will not forget your help here this day," the old, tall dwarf assured Torgar.
Torgar Hammerstriker accepted the compliment with a quiet nod, not even turning to face the speaker, for he didn't want the war leader of Clan Battle-hammer - Banak Brawnanvil by name - to see how touched he was. Torgar understood that the moment would follow him for the rest of his days, even if he lived another few hundred years. His trepidation at walking away from his ancestral home of Mirabar had only increased when hundreds of his kin, led by his dear old friend Shingles McRuff, had forced Marchion Elastul to release him and had then followed him out of Mirabar, with not one looking back. Torgar had known in his heart that he was doing the right thing for himself, but for all?
He knew then, though, and a great contentment washed over him. He and his kin had come upon the remnants of King Bruenor's overwhelmed force, fleeing the killing ground of Shallows. Torgar and his friends had held the rear guard all the way back to the defensible point on the northern slopes of the mountains just north of Keeper's Dale and the entrance to Mithral Hall. During their flight back to Bruenor's lines, the dwarves had found several skirmishes with pursuing orcs, and even one that included a few of the orcs unusual frost giant allies. Staying the course and battling without complaint, they had, of course, received many thanks from their fellow dwarves of Mithral Hall and from Bruenor's two adopted human children, Wulfgar and Catti-brie, and his halfling friend, Regis.
Bruenor himself had been, and still was, far too injured to say anything at all.
But those moments had only been a prelude, Torgar understood. With General Dagnabbit dead and Bruenor incapacitated and near death, the dwarves of Mithral Hall had called upon one of their oldest and most seasoned veterans to take the lead.
Banak Brawnanvil had answered that call. And how telling that Banak had asked Torgar for some runners to spring his trap upon some of the closest of the approaching orc hordes. Torgar knew there and then that he had done right in leading the Mirabarran dwarves to Mithral Hall. He knew there and then that he and his Delzoun dwarf kin had truly become part of Clan Battlehammer.
"Signal them running," Banak turned and said to the cleric Rockbottom, the dwarf credited with keeping Bruenor alive in the subchambers of the destroyed wizard's tower in Shallows through those long hours before help had arrived.
Rockbottom waggled his gnarled fingers and uttered a prayer to Moradin. He brought forth a shower of multicolored lights, little wisps of fire that didn't burn anything but that surely got the attention of those dwarves stationed near to the channel.
Almost immediately, Torgar's boys, Pwent's Gutbusters, the other fighters, and the brothers Bouldershoulder came scrambling over the sides of the channel, along prescribed routes, leaving not a dwarf behind, not even the few who had been sorely, perhaps even mortally, wounded.
And another of Pikel's modifications - a huge boulder almost perfectly rounded by the druid's stoneshaping magic - rumbled out of concealment from behind a tumble of stones near the mountain spur. A trio of strong dwarves maneuvered it with long, heavy poles, bending their shoulders to get it past bits of rough ground, and even up one small ascent. Other dwarves ran out of hiding near the top of the channel, helping their kin to guide the boulder so that it dropped into the back end of the channel, where a steeper incline had been constructed to usher it on its way.
The rumbling, rolling boulder shook the ground for great distances, and the remaining orcs in the channel issued a communal scream and fell all over each other in retreat. Some were knocked to the ground, then flattened as the boulder tumbled past. Others were thrown down by their terrified kin in the hopes that their bodies would slow the rolling stone.
In the end, when the boulder at last smashed against the channel-ending barricades, it had killed just a few of the orcs. Up higher on the slope, Banak, Torgar, and the others nodded contentedly, for they understood that the effect had been much greater than the actual damage inflicted upon their enemies.
"The first part of warfare is to defeat yer enemies' hearts," Banak quietly remarked, and to that end, their little ruse had worked quite well.
Banak offered both Torgar and Rockbottom a wink of his torn eye, then he reached out and patted the immigrant from Mirabar on the shoulder.
"I hear yer friend Shingles's done a bit of aboveground fighting," Banak offered. "Along with yerself."
"Mirabar is a city both above and below the stone," Torgar answered.
"Well, me and me kin ain't so familiar with doing battle up above," Banak answered. "I'll be looking to ye two, and to Ivan Bouldershoulder there, for yer advice."
Torgar happily nodded his agreement.
* * *
The dwarves had just begun to reconstitute their defensive lines along the high ground just south of the channel when Wulfgar and Catti-brie came running in to join Banak and the other leaders.
"We've been out to the east," Catti-brie breathlessly explained. A half foot taller than the tallest dwarves, though not nearly as solidly built, the young human did not seem out of place among them. Her face was wide but still delicate; her auburn hair was thick and rich and hanging below her shoulders. Her blue eyes were large even by human standards, certainly much more so than the eyes of a typical dwarf, which seemed always squinting and always peeking out from under a furrowed and heavily haired brow. Despite her feminine beauty, there was a toughness about the woman, who was raised by Bruenor Battlehammer, a pragmatism and solidity that allowed her to hold her own even among the finest of the dwarf warriors.
"Then ye missed a good bit o' the fun," said an enthusiastic Rockbottom, and his declaration was met with cheers and lifted mugs dripping of foamy ale.
"Oo oi!" agreed Pikel Bouldershoulder, his white teeth shining out between his green beard and mustache.
"We caught 'em in the channel, just as we planned," Banak Brawnanvil explained, his tone much more sober and grim than the others. "We got a few kills and sent more'n a few runnin'.. ."
His voice trailed off in the face of Catti-brie's emphatic waves.
"You used yer decoys to catch their decoys," the woman explained, and she swept her arm out to the east. "A great force marches against us, moving south to flank us."
"A great force is just north of us," Banak argued. "We seen it. How many stinking orcs are there?"
"More than you have dwarves to battle them, many times over," explained the giant Wulfgar, his expression stern, his crystal blue eyes narrowed. More than a foot taller than his human companion, Wulfgar, son of Beornegar, towered over the dwarves. He was slender at the waist, wiry, and agile, but his torso thickened to more than a dwarf's proportions at his broad chest. His arms were the girth of a strong dwarf's leg, his jaw firm and square. Those features of course brought respect from the tough, bearded folk, but in truth, it was the light in Wulfgar's eyes, a warrior's clarity, that elicited the most respect, and so when he continued, they all listened carefully. "If you battle them on two flanks, as you surely will should you stay here, they will overrun you."
"Bah!" snorted Rockbottom. "One dwarf's worth five o' the stinkers!"
Wulfgar turned to regard the confident cleric, and didn't blink.
"That many?" Banak asked.
"And more," said Catti-brie.
"Get 'em up and get 'em moving," Banak instructed Torgar. "Straight run to the south, to the highest ground we can find."
"That'll put us on the edge of the cliff overlooking Keeper's Dale," Rock-bottom argued.
"Defensible ground," Banak agreed, shrugging off the dwarf's concerns.
"But with nowhere to run," Rockbottom reasoned. "We'll be putting a good and steep killing ground afore our feet, to be sure."
"And the flanking force will not be able to continue far enough south to strike at us," Banak added.
"But if we're to lose the ground, then we've got nowhere to run," Rock-bottom reiterated. "Ye're puttin' our backs to the wall."
"Not to the wall, but to the cliff," Torgar Hammerstriker interjected. "Me and me boys'11 get right on that, setting enough drop ropes to bring the whole of us to the dale floor in short order."
"It's three hunnerd feet to the dale," Rockbottom argued.
Torgar shrugged as if that hardly mattered.
"Whatever you're to do, it would be best if you were doing it fast," Catti-brie put in.
"And what're ye thinking we should be doing?" Banak replied. "Ye seen the orc forces - are ye not thinking we can make a stand against them?"
"I fear that we might be wise to go to the edge of Keeper's Dale and beyond," said Wulfgar, and Catti-brie nodded, in apparent agreement with him. "And all the way to Mithral Hall."
"That many orcs?" asked another visitor to Mithral Hall who had been caught up in the battle, the yellow-bearded Ivan Bouldershoulder, Pikel's tougher and more conventional brother. The dwarf pushed his way through his fellows to move close to the leaders.
"That many orcs," Catti-brie assured him. "But we cannot be going all the way into Mithral Hall. Not yet. Bruenor's the king of more than Mithral Hall now. He went to Shallows because his duty took him there, and so ours tells us that we cannot be running all the way into our hole."
"Too many'll die if we do," Banak agreed. "To the highest ground, then, and let the dogs come on. We'll send them running, don't ye doubt!"
"Oo oi!" Pikel cheered.
All the other dwarves looked at the curious little Pikel, a green-haired and green-bearded creature who pulled his beard back over his ears and braided it into his hair, which ran more than halfway down his back. He was rounder than his tough brother, seeming more gentle, and while Ivan, like most dwarves, wore a patchwork of tough and bulky leather and metal armor, Pikel wore a simple robe, light green in color. And where the other dwarves wore heavy boots, protection from a forge's sparks and embers, and good for stomping orcs, Pikel wore open-toed sandals. Still, there was something about the easygoing Pikel, who had certainly shown his usefulness. The idol that had gotten the rescuers close to Shallows had been his idea and fashioned by his own hand, and in the ensuing battles, he had always been there, with magic devilish to his enemies and comforting to his allies. One by one, the other dwarves offered him a smile appreciative of his enthusiasm.
For with the arrival of Wulfgar and Catti-brie and the grim news from the east, their own enthusiasm had inevitably begun to wane.
The dwarves broke camp in short order, and not a moment too soon, for barely had they moved up and over the next of the many ridgelines when the orc force to the north started its charge and the flanking force from the east began to sweep in.
Nearly a thousand dwarves rambled across the stones, legs churning tirelessly to propel them up the sloping ground of the mountainside. They crossed the three thousand foot elevation, then four thousand, and still they ran on and held their formation tight and strong. Now taller mountains rose on the east, eliminating any possible flanking maneuver by the orcs, though the force behind them continued its pursuit. The dwarves moved more than a mile up and were gasping for breath with every stride, but still those strides did not slow.
Finally Banak's leading charges came in sight of the last expanse, and to the lip of the cliff overlooking Keeper's Dale, the abrupt ending of the slope where it seemed as if the stone had just been torn asunder. Spreading out below them, fully the three hundred feet down that Rockbottom had described, lay Keeper's Dale, the wide valley that marked the western approach to Mithral Hall. A mist hung in the air that morning, creeping around the many stone pillars that rose from the nearly barren ground.
With discipline so typical of the sturdy dwarves, the warriors went to work sorting out their lines and constructing defensive positions, some building walls with loose stone, others finding larger boulders that could be rolled back upon their enemies, and still others marking all the best vantage points and defensive positions and determining ways they might link those positions to maximum effect. Torgar, meanwhile, brought forth his best engineers - and there were many fine ones among the dwarves of Mirabar - and he presented them with the problem at hand: the quick transport of the entire dwarf force to the floor of Keeper's Dale, should a retreat be necessary.
More than a hundred of Mirabar's finest began exploring the length of the cliff face, checking the strength of the stone and seeking the easiest routes, including ledges where the descending dwarves might pause and switch to lower ropes. Within short order, the first ropes were set, and Torgar's engineers slid down to find a proper resting ground where they might set the next relays. It would take four separate lengths at the lower points and at least five at the higher, and that daunting prospect would have turned away many in despair.
But not dwarves. Not the stubborn folk who might spend years digging a tunnel only to find no precious orc at its end. Not the hearty and brave folk who put hammer to spike in unexplored regions of the deepest holes, not even knowing if any ensuing sparks might set off an explosion of dangerous gasses. Not the communal folk who would knock each other over in trying to get to kin in need. To the dwarves who formed King Bruenor's northern line of defense, those of Mithral Hall and Mirabar alike, their common pre-surname of Delzoun was more than a familial bond, it was a call to honor and duty.
One of the descending engineers got caught on a jag of stone, and in trying to extricate himself, slipped from the rope and tumbled from the cliff, plummeting more than two hundred feet to his death. All the others paused and offered a quick prayer to Moradin, then went back to their necessary work.
* * *
Tred McKnuckles tucked his yellow beard into his belt, hoisted his overstuffed pack onto his shoulders, and turned to the tunnel leading west out of Mithral Hall.
"Well, ye coming?" he asked his companion, a fellow refugee from Citadel Felbarr.
Nikwillig assumed a pensive pose and stared off absently into the dark tunnel.
"No, don't think that I be," came the surprising answer.
"Ye going daft on me?" Tred asked. "Ye're knowin' as well as meself's knowin' that Obould Many-Arrows's got his grubby fingers in this, somewhere and somehow. That dog's still barking and still bitin'! And ye're knowing as well as meself's knowing that if Obould's involved, he's got his eyes looking back to Felbarr! That's the real prize he's wanting, don't ye doubt!"
"I ain't for doubting none o' that," Nikwillig answered. "King Emerus's got to hear the tales."
"Then ye're going."
"I ain't going. Not now. These Battlehammers saved yer hairy bum, and me own as well. Here's the place where there's orcs to crush, and so I'm stayin' to crush some orcs. Right beside them Battlehammers."
Tred considered Nikwillig's posture as much as his words. Nikwillig had always been a bit of a thinker, as far as dwarves went, and had often been a bit unconventional in his thinking. But this reasoning against returning to Citadel Felbarr, with so much at stake, struck Tred as beyond even Nikwillig's occasional eccentricity.
"Think for yerself, Tred," Nikwillig remarked, as if he had read his companion's puzzled mind. "Any runners to Felbarr'll do, and ye know it."
"And ye think any runners'll be bringing King Emerus out o' Citadel Felbarr to our aid if we're needin' it? And ye're thinking that any runners'll convince King Emerus to send word to Citadel Adbar and rally the Iron Guard of King Harbromm?"
Nikwillig shrugged and said, "Orcs're charging out o' the north and the Battlehammers are fighting them hard - and two o' Felbarr's own, Tred and Nikwillig, are standing strong beside Bruenor's boys. If anything's to get King Emerus up and hopping, it's knowin' that yerself and meself've decided this fight's worth fighting. Might be that we're making a bigger and louder call to King Emerus Warcrown by staying put and putting our shoulders in Bruenor's line."
Tred stared long and hard at the other dwarf, his thoughts trying to catch up with Nikwillig's surprising words. He really didn't want to leave Mithral Hall- Bruenor had charged headlong into danger to help Tred and Nikwillig avenge those human settlers who'd died trying to help the two wayward dwarves and to avenge Tred and Nikwillig's dead kin from Felbarr, including Tred's own little brother.
The yellow-bearded dwarf gave a sigh as he looked back over his shoulder, at the dark upper-Underdark tunnel that wound off to the west.
"Might that we should go find the runt, Regis, then," he offered. "Might that he'll find one to get to King Emerus with all the news."
"And we're back out with Bruenor's human kids and Torgar's boys," said Nikwillig, not backing down from his eager stance one bit.
Tred's expression shifted from curious to admiring as he looked over Nikwillig. Never before had he known that particular dwarf to be so eager for battle.
To tough Tred's thinking, the timing for Nikwillig's apparent change of heart couldn't have been better. The yellow-bearded dwarf's resigned look became a wide smile, and he dropped the heavy pack off his shoulder.
* * *
"I would ask of your thoughts, but I see no need," Wulfgar remarked, walking up to join Catti-brie.
She stood to the side of the scrambling dwarves, looking down the slope - not at the massing orcs, Wulfgar had noted, but to the wild lands beyond them. Catti-brie brushed back her thick mane of hair and turned to regard the man, her blue eyes, much darker and richer in hue than Wulfgar's crystalline orbs, studying him intently.
"I, too, wonder where he is," the barbarian explained. "He is not dead - of that I am certain."
"How can you be?"
"Because I know Drizzt," Wulfgar replied, and he managed a smile for the woman's sake.
"All of us would've perished had not Pwent come out," Catti-brie reminded him.
"We were trapped and surrounded," Wulfgar countered. "Drizzt is neither, nor can he easily be. He is alive yet, I know."
Catti-brie returned the big man's smile and took his hand in her own.
"I'm knowing it, too," she admitted. "Only if because I'm sure that me heart would've felt the break if he'd fallen."
"No less than my own," Wulfgar whispered.
"But he'll not return to us soon," Catti-brie went on. "And I'm not thinking that we're wanting him to. In here, he's another fighter in a line of fighters - the best o' the bunch, no doubt - but out there...."
"Out there, he will bring terrible grief to our enemies," Wulfgar agreed. "Though it pains me to think that he is alone."
"He's got the cat. He's not alone."
It was Catti-brie's turn to offer a reassuring smile to her companion. Wulfgar clenched her hand tighter and nodded his agreement.
"I'll be needin' the two o' ye to hold the right flank," came a gruff voice to the side, turning the pair to see Banak Brawnanvil, the cleric Rockbottom, and a pair of other dwarves marching their way. "Them orcs're coming," the dwarf warlord asserted. "They're thinking to hit us quick, afore we dig in, and we got to hold 'em."
Both humans nodded grimly.
Banak turned to one of the other dwarves and ordered, "Ye go and sit with Torgar's engineers. Tell 'em to block their ears from the battle sounds and keep to their work. And as soon as they get some ropes all the way to the dale floor, ye get yerself down 'em."
"B-but..." the dwarf sputtered in protest.
He shook his head and wagged his hands, as if Banak had just condemned him. Banak reached up and slapped his hand over the other dwarf's mouth, silencing him.
"Yer own mission's the toughest and most important of all," the warlord explained. "We'll be up here smacking orcs, and what dwarf's not loving that work? For yerself, ye got to get to Regis and tell the little one we're needing a thousand more - two thousand if he can spare 'em from the tunnels."
"Ye're thinking to bring a thousand more up the ropes to strengthen our position?" Catti-brie asked doubtfully, for it seemed that they really had nowhere to put the extra warriors.
Wulfgar cast her a sidelong glance, noting how her accent had moved back toward the Dwarvish with the addition of Banak's group.
"Nah, we're enough to hold here for now," Banak explained. He let go of the other dwarf, who was standing patiently, though he was beginning to turn a shade of blue from Banak's strong grasp. "We got to, and so we will. But this orc we're fighting's smart. Too smart."
"You're thinking that our enemy will send a force around that mountain spur to the west," Wulfgar reasoned, and Banak nodded.
"More o' them stinking orcs get into Keeper's Dale afore us, and we're done for," the dwarf leader replied. "They won't even be needing to come up for us, then. They can just hold us here until we fall down starving." Banak fixed the appointed messenger with a grim stare and added, "Ye go and ye tell Regis, or whoever's running things inside now, to send all he can spare and more into the dale, to set a force in the western end. Nothing's to come in that way, ye hear me?"
The messenger dwarf suddenly seemed much less reluctant to leave. He stood straight and puffed out his strong chest, nodding his assurances to them all.
Even as he sprinted away for the cliff face, a cry went up at the center of the dwarven line that the orc charge was on.
"Ye get back to Torgar's engineers," Banak instructed Rockbottom. "Ye keep 'em working through the fight, and ye don't let 'em stop unless them orcs kill us all and come to the cliff to get 'em!"
With a determined nod, Rockbottom ran off.
"And ye two hold this end o' the line, for all our lives," Banak asked.
Catti-brie slid her deadly bow, Taulmaril the Heartseeker, from off her shoulder. She pulled an arrow from her quiver and set it in place. Beside her, Wulfgar slapped the mighty warhammer Aegis-fang across his open palm.
As Banak and the remaining dwarf wandered off along the assembling line of defense, the two humans turned to each other, offered a nod of support, then turned all the way around - to see the dark swarm coming fast up the rocky mountain slope.