Regis ruffled the pile of papers - scouting reports - then pushed them all aside. Up on the cliff, Banak was holding strong. But how? Or the better question, why? The force of orcs and giants - to say nothing of the trolls! - that had closed the eastern gate of Mithral Hall had by all accounts been huge. Fortifications were being constructed all around the fords of the Surbrin and yet the bulk of the monstrous forces had departed, with the trolls marching south and the main force of orcs turning back to the north. If that main force linked up with the orcs opposing Banak, then the valiant dwarf and his charges would be pushed over the cliff to Keeper's Dale and all the way back into Mithral Hall. There could be no doubt.
The question nagged at Regis's thoughts: Why hadn't the orcs already done that?
The halfling looked up to Catti-brie, who sat across the way. He started to say something, but her expression caught him and held him in place. She seemed relaxed, physically at least, leaning back in the soft chair, her legs crossed at the knee, her head turned to the side and looking off into nowhere, one hand up, one finger absently playing about her chin and lips. Exhaustion was written across her face, a mask of weariness but also of resolve.
Regis looked closer, noticed the bruises on her hand, the small cuts on her extended finger, rubbed raw from the draw of her powerful bow. He noted the dried blood in her auburn hair, the streaks and clumps. And most of all, he noted the look in her blue eyes, the quiet determination, but undercut by something darker, some sense that, for all their efforts, they could not prevail.
"They are fortifying the western bank of the Surbrin," the halfling informed her, and Catti-brie slowly turned her head to regard him. "Every ford and shallow."
"To keep the elves in the Moonwood and Alustriel in Silverymoon," Catti-brie replied. "To keep Felbarr from joining."
"Felbarr's soldiers will come through the tunnels," Regis corrected.
"Aye, but then if they're to go up and fight, they'll be filtering in beside Clan Battlehammer's own. We'll put no vice on the orcs if we're all coming out the same hole."
"It will fall to the humans, then," said Regis. 'To Alustriel and Silverymoon, and to the folk of Sundabar, if they can be raised. We need them."
He heard the pain in his own voice, the realization that crossing the Surbrin would likely take a terrible toll on those hoped-for allies.
"The orcs're counting on the pain of the Surbrin defenses to keep them at bay," Catti-brie said, as if she had read the halfling's mind.
"Some advisors have hinted that I should reopen an eastern exit and strike at the Surbrin fortifications from behind. We could sneak a few hundred dwarves out, and that few hundred could cause more damage than an army of ten thousand across the river."
Catti-brie's expression immediately turned doubtful.
"We would need to coordinate it precisely with the arrival of any allies, of course," the halfling clarified. "Else the beasts would chase us back in and just rebuild their defenses."
Catti-brie began to shake her head.
"You do not agree?"
"You've more than a thousand up with Banak and thousands more digging in on the west end of Keeper's Dale," she explained. "We're hearing the sounds of trolls in the southern tunnels, and you've got dwarves running south to find if any're surviving Nesme."
"We cannot spare five hundred at this time," Regis replied.
"Even if we could .. ." Catti-brie said, her voice halting, and still shaking her head.
"What do you know?"
"It seems amiss . . ." the woman started and stopped with a sigh. "They could put us in our hole, but they're not."
Regis heard the words clearly and let them echo in his thoughts. It was such a simple truth, but one whose significance seemed to have escaped them all. Indeed, it seemed obvious that the orcs could have chased Banak from the cliff and all of them back into Mithral Hall. The enemy numbers were too great, too overwhelming. And yet, not only were the dwarves still dug in strongly up on that cliff, but they had set another defense in the west and were now considering a third surface foray, back to the east.
"We're being baited," Regis heard himself saying, and he could hardly believe the words as they left his mouth. He came forward in his chair, eyes wide with the terrible recognition. "They're forcing us to fight on terms more favorable to them."
"The hundreds of orc and goblin dead on the slopes in the north wouldn't be agreeing with you," Catti-brie replied. "Banak's slaughtering them."
Then Regis was the one shaking his head.
"They're accepting the losses for the sake of the bigger gain," he explained. "We kill a thousand, two thousand, ten thousand, but they can replace them. Our replacements come harder, and keeping us fighting aboveground continues the clarion call to the neighboring communities to come forth and join in the battle."
It made sense to Regis. The orcs were driving the issue to the bitter end. That great force that had marched back to the north after sealing Mithral Hall's eastern gate would indeed turn their sights upon Banak and drive the dwarves into their hole. But by that time, Silverymoon and perhaps Sundabar would have played their hands, would have come forth or not. And all on terms favorable to the orcs and giants. Regis fell back in his seat, running his chubby fingers through his curly brown hair.
"The orcs want us to stay out there," he said.
"So you're thinking we should come in?"
Regis pondered Cattie-brie's words for a moment, then stared at the woman in confusion.
"We cannot ignore the damage Banak is inflicting," he said. "And there are reports of refugees making their way to the west, north of the battle." He paused and riffled through a pile of parchments, looking for the report that indicated such an emigration. "If we break off the fighting, any left in the area will be without hope, for the orcs could turn their full attention against them."
"That would include Drizzt," Catti-brie remarked, and the thought had Regis stammering as he tried to continue.
"Don't fret," Catti-brie offered. "The choice won't be your own for long. Banak's thinking he's got less than a tenday before the giants bring their catapults to bear - and we won't be stopping them this time. Once those great engines of war begin throwing, he'll have to retreat or be wiped out."
"And if they get the high ground above Keeper's Dale, we'll have no choice but to come inside. All of us," Regis said.
"And if they're thinking of coming in behind us, we'll cut them down," Catti-brie grimly offered.
It seemed a hollow potential to Regis, though, understanding that all of it - the fighting and the timing - was being controlled by their enemies.
Catti-brie pulled herself out of her chair.
"I'm to be heading back to Banak," she stated.
She pulled up Taulmaril from the side of her chair and slung the bow over her shoulder in a determined and even angry motion. But Regis could see the weariness creeping behind that determination.
Before the woman even turned to leave, there came a knock on the door, and in walked the two emissaries from Mirabar, the gnome's arms filled with dozens of rolled parchments.
"We can do it," Nanfoodle declared before anyone even had the chance for proper greetings. "We can do it!"
"Do it?" Catti-brie asked, turning to Regis.
Regis held up his hand to stop the questions from the woman.
"As you suspected?" the halfling asked the gnome.
"Of course," said Nanfoodle. "And fortune is with us, for the deposit is under the northern edges of Keeper's Dale and close enough to open tunnels so that we will not need to dig through much stone at all."
"What's the little one talking about?" Catti-brie quietly demanded.
Nanfoodle bobbed over, a more somber Shoudra in tow.
"With the help of Pikel Bouldershoulder, we can string the metal tubes in short order," Nanfoodle explained. "Within a single day, if you offer enough dwarves to aid us."
"Tubes?" Catti-brie asked, and she looked from Nanfoodle to Shoudra, who merely shrugged, then back to Regis.
"What do you know of it?" Regis asked the sceptrana.
"I know that Nanfoodle is excited by the prospects," Shoudra replied, stating the obvious, for the little gnome was bobbing about, hopping from foot to foot.
"We can do it, Steward Regis," Nanfoodle insisted. "Only give the word and I will commence the organization of the workers. Twenty should accomplish the task, along with Pikel, Ivan, and myself. More than that would likely get in each others' way! Ha ha!"
"Regis?" Catti-brie demanded more insistently.
The halfling put his palms over his eyes and blew a deep sigh. He was surprised by the gnome's success in finding the gasses, and not necessarily pleasantly surprised. For despite Nanfoodle's obvious exuberance, that new development only upped the stakes for troubled Regis. True, he had diverted his forges to satisfy the gnome's requirements for "tubes," but that action had involved little real risk, after all. To move forward with the gnome's planning, the halfling steward would have to order dwarves into dangerous battle, with the risks much greater to all of them, particularly to Banak and his forces on the northern cliff.
And what would happen if Nanfoodle proved correct and brought his plan to fruition?
A shudder coursed through Regis's spine, and he turned to Catti-brie. "Can we take the tunnels underneath the ridge again?"
"Below the giants?"
"That ridge, yes."
The woman looked again at the gnome, curiously, then sat back and considered the problem. She had no idea of how determinedly the orcs were holding those tunnels, with the giants in place above. Likely the resistance would be greatly diminished, since the strategic importance of the labyrinth seemed negligible.
"I would expect that we could," she answered.
Nanfoodle gave a little squeal and punched his fist into the air.
"Won't be an easy fight, though," the woman added, just to dampen the little one's spirits a bit.
Regis looked from Nanfoodle to Shoudra and back again, then back at Shoudra, his eyes asking her quite clearly to help him, to tell him if he could really trust the gnome's wild planning. The woman, apparently catching the cue, gave the slightest of nods.
"How long before those giant catapults come to bear?" the halfling asked Catti-brie again.
"Within the tenday," she replied. "Might be as few as three days."
"Then go to Banak and prepare a force. Get me the tunnels back the morning after next," the steward instructed. "Nanfoodle will send up specifics this very afternoon."
"Ivan Bouldershoulder will meet you up there with instructions," the gnome put in.
"You think ye might be telling me what this is all about?" Catti-brie asked.
Regis looked to the other two again, then he snorted and shrugged. "I'm afraid to do that," he admitted. "You would not believe me, and if you did, you might just cut me down where I sit."
All eyes went to Nanfoodle then, the obvious architect of all of it all. "We can do it," the little gnome assured them.
* * *
Tred McKnuckles came upon Torgar Hammerstriker and Ivan Bouldershoulder shortly after hearing that Banak had put out a call for volunteers to go and retake the tunnels beneath the western ridge. The pair were distracted as Tred approached, and so they did not seem to notice him. Their attention was fixed upon a small box held by Torgar, one side of it as shiny as any mirror, the other three, and top and bottom, smooth wood.
"Well met," the dwarf of Citadel Felbarr greeted the pair.
"And to yerself," said Ivan.
Torgar nodded and smiled, then went back to inspecting the box.
"Is yerself to lead the fight for the tunnels?" Tred asked Torgar. "Might that I could be joinin' ye?"
"Aye, and aye," Torgar replied. "We'll be going in the morning to drive them smelly orcs out. Me and me boys'll welcome yer company."
"Any word on why?" Tred asked. "I'm not thinkin' we can get to them stinking giants from the holes beneath 'em."
Torgar and Ivan exchanged a grin, and Torgar held up the box.
"Here's why," he explained.
Tred reached for it, but Torgar pulled it back.
"Handle it carefully," the dwarf warned.
"Full o' the oil from me darts," Ivan explained, and he slipped his hand under his bandoleer of explosive crossbow darts and held it forward. "And a concoction the little gnome made - bottle of firewater that blows up when it touches the air."
Tred scrunched up his face and retracted his hand.
"We're going in with bombs, then?" Tred asked.
"Nah, we'll use our axes and hammers to be rid of the durned orcs," said Torgar. "The bombs're for later."
Tred looked curiously from dwarf to dwarf, but both of them merely shrugged and returned his expression.
"It's all beyond us," Torgar admitted. "But Banak's wanting them tunnels taken, and so we're for taking them. We'll see what magic the gnome's got later on."
"Could be worse," Ivan put in. "Least we're getting to smash some orcs." "Always a good thing," Torgar agreed, and Tred nodded.
* * *
"Eleven-hunnerd more feet!" Wocco Brawnanvil cried when Nanfoodle laid out the diagrams before him.
"Eleven hundred and thirty," Nanfoodle corrected.
"Ye'll tie up all the forges for another tenday, ye stupid gnome!"
"Another tenday?" asked the gnome. "Oh no, I need this tomorrow - all of it. My assistants will be pulling it right out of the cooling troughs, piece by piece."
Wocco sputtered for several moments, his flapping lips forming curse after curse, but his incredulity beating every word back before it could get out.
"Seven foot lengths," he finally managed to say. "It's a hunnerd and fifty pieces!"
"A hundred and sixty-two," Nanfoodle corrected. "With half of one left over."
"We can't be doing that!"
"You have to," the gnome countered. "If this was a merchant's order needing to be filled, you would pump those furnaces hot and get the job done."
"Merchants're paying," Wocco dryly answered.
"And so am I," Nanfoodle insisted.
"And what's yer pay, little one?"
"A score of giants," Nanfoodle answered with a great flourish, for he saw that he had many of the other blacksmiths watching him. "A score, I say, and victory for Banak Brawnanvil and Mithral Hall. I offer you nothing less than that, good Master Brawnanvil."
"We build weapons for that," came the smithy's protest.
"This is a weapon," Nanfoodle assured him. "As great a weapon as you've ever built. A hundred and sixty-two. You can do this."
Wocco glanced over at the other blacksmiths.
"It's a lot o' metal," one of the smiths remarked.
"It'll take more than half our stores," said another.
"Much more," a third put in.
"You can do this," Nanfoodle said again to Wocco. "You must do this. Time is running out for Banak and his forces. Would you fail them and have them pushed over the cliff?"
That hit a nerve, the gnome saw immediately, for Wocco puffed out his chest and tightened his jaw, his wide mouth puckering up into an angry pout.
For a moment, Nanfoodle thought the dwarf would surely punch him, but the gnome did not back away an inch, and even added, "This is Banak's only chance to hold out against the hordes. Without your superior efforts here, he will be forced into a disastrous retreat."
Wocco held the pose but did not come forward to throttle the gnome, and gradually, the dwarf's anger seemed to melt into resolve. He looked to the other blacksmiths.
"Well, ye heared him. We got work to do." Wocco turned back to Nanfoodle and said, "Ye'll get yer hunnerd and sixty-two and a few extra for good measure, in case yer own measure weren't so good."
As the chief blacksmith stormed back to his forge, Nanfoodle settled back against the table. He moved to begin collecting his many diagrams but stopped and brought his hand to cover his eyes, overwhelmed suddenly. He could hardly believe that he was really doing it, that the dwarves were trusting him enough to take such a risk.
He hoped that trust wasn't misplaced, for he understood that he was reaching to the ends of common sense, and though he had so vigorously defended his plans to Regis, Shoudra, Wocco Brawnanvil, and all the others, he had to privately admit that his words were stronger than his thoughts.
Nanfoodle sincerely hoped he didn't destroy all of Mithral Hall.