King Obould Many-Arrows at once recognized the danger of this latest report filtering in from the mountains to the east of his current position. Resisting his initial urge to crush the head of the wretched goblin messenger, the huge orc king stretched the fingers of one hand, then balled them into a tight fist and brought that fist up before his tusked mouth in his most typical posture, seeming a mix between contemplation and seething rage.
Which was pretty much the constant emotional struggle within the orc leader.
Despite the disastrous end to the siege at Shallows, when the filthy dwarves had snuck onto the field of battle within the hollowed out statue of Gruumsh One-Eye, the war was proceeding beautifully. The news of King Bruenor's demise had brought dozens of new tribes scurrying out of their holes to Obould's side and had even quieted the troublesome Gerti Orelsdottr and her superior-minded frost giants. Obould's son, Urlgen, had the dwarves on the run - to the edge of Mithral Hall already, judging from the last reports.
Then came reports that some enemy force was out there, behind Obould's lines. An encampment of orcs had been thrashed, with most slaughtered and the others scattered back to their mountain holes. Obould understood well the demeanor of his race, and he knew that morale was everything at that crucial moment - and usually throughout an entire campaign. The orcs were far more numerous than their enemies in the North and could match up fairly well one-against-one with humans and dwarves, and even elves. Where their incursions ultimately failed, Obould knew, lay in the often lacking coordination between orc forces and the basic mistrust that orcs held for rival tribes, and oftentimes held even within individual tribes. Victories and momentum could offset that disadvantage of demeanor, but reports like the one of the slaughtered group might send many, many others scurrying for the safety of the tunnels beneath the mountains.
The timing was not good. Obould had heard of another coming gathering of the shamans of several fairly large tribes, and he feared that they might try to abort his invasion before it had really begun. At the very least, a joined negative voice of two-dozen shamans would greatly deplete the orc king's reinforcements.
One thing at a time, Obould scolded himself, and he considered more carefully the goblin messenger's words. He had to find out what was going on, and quickly. Fortunately, there was one in his encampment at the time who might prove of great help.
Dismissing both the goblin and his attendants, Obould moved to the southern edge of the large camp, to a lone figure that he had kept waiting far too long.
"Greetings, Donnia Soldou," he said to the drow female.
She turned to regard him - she had sensed his approach long before he had spoken, he knew - peering at him under the low-pulled hood of her magical piwafwi, her red-tinged eyes smiling as widely and wickedly as her tight grin.
"You have claimed a great prize, I hear," she remarked, and she shifted a bit, allowing her white hair to slip down over one of her eyes.
Mysterious and alluring, always so.
"One of many to come," Obould insisted. "Urlgen is chasing the dwarves back into their hole, and who will defend the towns of the land?"
"One victory at a time?" Donnia asked. "I had thought you more ambitious."
"We cannot run wildly into Mithral Hall to be slaughtered," Obould countered. "Did not your own people try such a tactic?"
Donnia merely laughed aloud at the intended insult, for it had not been "her" people at all. The drow of Menzoberranzan had attacked Mithral Hall, to disastrous results, but that was hardly the care of Donnia Soldou, who was not of, and not fond of, the City of Spiders.
"You have heard of the slaughter at the camp of the Tribe of Many Teeth?" Obould asked.
"A formidable opponent - or several - found them, yes," Donnia replied. Ad'non has already started for the site."
"Lead me there," Obould instructed, his words obviously surprising Donnia. "I will witness this for myself."
"If you bring too many of your warriors, you will inadvertently spread the news of the slaughter," Donnia reasoned. "Is that your intent?"
"You and I will go," Obould explained. "No others."
"And if these enemies that massacred the Tribe of Many Teeth are about? You risk much."
"If these enemies are about and they attack Obould, then they risk much," Obould growled back at her, eliciting a smile, one that showed Donnia's pearly white teeth in such a stark contrast to the ebon hue of her skin.
"Very well then," she agreed. "Let us go and see what we might learn of our secretive foe."
* * *
The site of the slaughter was not so far away, and Donnia and Obould came upon the scene later that same day to find not only Ad'non Kareese, but Donnia's other two drow companions, Kaer'lic Suun Wett and Tos'un Armgo, already moving around the place.
"A couple of attackers, and no more," Ad'non explained to the newcomers. "We have heard of a pair of pegasus-riding elves in the region, and it is our guess that they perpetrated this slaughter."
As Ad'non spoke those words, his hands worked the silent hand code of the drow, something that Donnia, but not Obould, could understand.
_This was the work of a drow elf_, Ad'non quickly flashed.
Donnia needed to know nothing more, for she and her companions were aware that King Bruenor of Mithral Hall kept company with a most unusual dark elf, a rogue who had abandoned the ways of the Spider Queen and of his dark kin. Apparently, Drizzt Do'Urden had escaped Shallows, as they had suspected from the stories told by Gerti's frost giants, and apparently, he had not returned to Mithral Hall.
"Elves," King Obould echoed distastefully, and the word became a long drawn-out growl, with the powerful orc bringing his clenched fist up before him once again.
"They should not be so difficult to find if they are flying around on winged horses," Donnia Soldou assured Obould.
The orc king continued to utter a low and seething growl, his red-veined eyes glancing about the horizon as if he expected the pegasi riders to come swooping down upon them.
"Pass this off to the other leaders as an isolated attack," Ad'non suggested to the orc. "Donnia and I will ensure that Gerti does not become overly concerned-"
"Turn fear into encouragement," Donnia added. "Offer a great bounty for the head of those who did this. That alone will place all the other tribes at the ready as they make their way to your main forces."
"Most of all, the fact that this was a small group attacking by ambush, as it certainly seems to be, lessens the danger to others," Ad'non went on. "These orcs were not vigilant, and so they were killed. That has always been the way, has it not?"
Obould's growl gradually decreased, and he offered an assenting nod to his drow advisors. He moved off then to inspect the campsite and the dead orcs, and the drow pair joined their two companions and did likewise.
_No surface elf_, Ad'non's fingers flashed to his three drow companions, though Kaer'lic Suun Wett wasn't paying attention and actually drifted away from the group, moving outside the camp. _The wounds are sweeping and slashing in nature, not the stabs of an elf. Nor were any killed by arrows, and those surface elves who went against the giants north of Shallows fought them with bows from on high._
Tos'un Armgo moved around the bodies, bending low and examining them the most carefully of all.
"Drizzt Do'Urden," he whispered to the other three, and as Obould moved back toward him, he silently flashed, _Drizzt favors the scimitar_.
Kaer'lic returned soon after Obould, the plump priestess's fingers signing, _Cat prints outside the perimeter_.
_Drizzt Do'Urden_, Tos'un signaled again.
* * *
From a ridge to the northeast, Urlgen Threefist watched the great dark mass of orcs sweeping up the ascent. He had the dwarves pinned against the cliff and wanted nothing more than to push them into oblivion. Urlgen respected the toughness and work ethic of dwarves enough to understand that their defenses would strengthen by the hour if he let them sit up there. However, his own force Was hardly prepared for such an attack; no reinforcements of giants had even caught up to the orc hordes yet, and many of those in the ranks were very new to the crusade and probably still confused about their order of battle and the hierarchy of leadership.
Urlgen's forces would strengthen in number, in weapons, and in tactics soon enough, but so too would the dwarves' defenses.
Weighing both and still stinging from the unexpected breakout at Shallows, the orc leader had sent the waves ahead. At the very least, he figured, the attacks would keep the dwarves from digging in even deeper.
Still, the orc leader grimaced when the leading edge of his rolling masses neared the lip of the ascent, for the dwarves leaped out in fury and fell over them from on high. Thrown rocks and rolling boulders led the way, along with those same devastating, streaking silvery arrows that had so stung Urlgen's forces at Shallows. Urlgen knew that orcs were dying by the dozen. As panic overcame many of those who survived the initial barrage, their disorientation and terror made the dwarves' countercharge all the more effective, allowing the vicious bearded folk to slice into the humanoid lines.
Those orcs turning in retreat only hindered the reinforcing back ranks from getting into the fray, and the confusion opened even more opportunities for the aggressive dwarves.
And still those arrows reached out, and in conjunction with that archer, a towering figure on the eastern end of the dwarf position swept orcs away with impunity.
"What we gonna do?" a skinny orc asked Urlgen, the creature running up and hopping all around frantically. "What we gonna do?"
Another of the gang leaders came rushing over.
"What we gonna do?" he parroted.
And a third charged over, shouting, "What we gonna do?"
Urlgen continued to watch the wild battle up the rocky slope. Dwarves were falling, but most who did were landing on the bodies of many orcs. Melee was fully joined, and Urlgen's orcs seemed no closer to forming into any acceptable formations, while the dwarves had grouped neatly into two defensive squares flanking a spearheading wedge. As that wedge charged forward, its wide base smoothly linked with the corners of each square, and those squares pivoted perfectly. One line of each square broke free to link up fully with the wedge, thus turning it into a defensive square, while the flanking dwarves reconfigured their ranks into more offensive formations.
To Urlgen, their movements were a thing a beauty, exhibiting the very same discipline that he and his father had tried hard to instill in their orc hordes. Given the one-sided slaughter, though, his soldiers obviously had a long way to go.
So mesmerized was Urlgen with the paradelike maneuvers of the seasoned dwarves that for many moments he hardly noticed the three orc commanders dancing around him and shouting, "What we gonna do?"
Finally their questions registered once more, as did the realization that the dwarves were turning the battle into a clear rout.
"Retreat!" Urlgen ordered. "Brings them back! Brings them all back until Gerti's giants get here."
Over the next few minutes, watching the relay of the order and the response to it, it occurred to Urlgen that his soldiers were much better at retreating than they were at charging.
They left many behind in their run back down the stones - stones that were slippery with blood. Scores lay dead or dying, screaming and groaning, until the closest dwarves walked over and shut them up forever with a heavy blow to the head.
But there were dead dwarves among those reddened stones, and orcs, by nature, hardly cared for their own losses. Urlgen nodded his acceptance. His forces would grow and grow, and he meant to keep throwing them at the dwarves until exhaustion killed them if the orcs could not. The orc leader knew what lay over the ridge behind the dwarves.
He knew he had them cornered. Either many more dwarves were going to have to pour out of Mithral Hall and take a roundabout route east or west to try to rescue that group, or the dwarves there were going to have to abandon their defensive position and break out on their own. Either way, Urlgen's lead strike force would have more than fulfilled Obould's vision for them.
Either way, Urlgen's stature among the swelling band of orcs would greatly increase.
* * *
"We know it was Drizzt Do'Urden, yet we tell Obould that surface elves were the cause," Tos'un Armgo said to his three drow companions as they retired to a comfortable cave to digest the latest developments.
"Thus leading Obould to even greater hatred for the surface elves," Donnia replied, her lips curling up in a delicious smile, one side of it almost reaching the cascading layers of white hair that crossed diagonally down her sculpted black face.
"He needs little urging in that direction," Kaer'lic remarked.
"More important, we delay Obould from believing that there are drow elves working against him," said Ad'non Kareese.
"He knows of Drizzt already, to some degree," Kaer'lic reasoned.
"Yes, but perhaps we can alleviate the problem of the rogue before it swells to proportions that enrage Obould against us," said Ad'non. "He does seem to think in terms of race, and not individuals."
"As does Gerti," said Kaer'lic. "As do we all."
"Except for Drizzt and his friends, it would seem," Tos'un said, the simple and obvious statement making them all gape.
The four drow rested back for just a moment, each looking to the others, but if there was any significant philosophical epiphany coming to the group, it was quickly buried under the weight of pragmatism and the needs of the present.
"You believe that we should do something to eliminate the threat of Drizzt Do'Urden?" Kaer'lic asked Ad'non. "You consider him to be our problem?"
"I consider that he could grow to become our problem," Ad'non corrected. "The advantages of eliminating him might prove great."
"So thought Menzoberranzan," Tos'un Armgo reminded. "I doubt the city has recovered fully from that folly."
"Menzoberranzan fought more than Drizzt Do'Urden," Donnia put in. "Would not Lady Lolth desire the demise of the rogue?"
As she asked the question, Donnia turned to Kaer'lic, the priestess of the group, and both Ad'non and Tos'un followed her lead. Kaer'lic was shaking her head to greet those inquisitive stares.
"Drizzt Do'Urden is not our problem," said Kaer'lic, "and we would do well to stay as far from his scimitars as possible. Sound reasoning is always Lady Lolth's greatest demand of us, and I would no more wish to leap into battle against Drizzt Do'Urden than I would to lead Obould's charge into Mithral Hall. That is not why we instigated all of this. You remember our desires and our plan, do you not? My enjoyment, such as it is, will not end at the tip of one of Drizzt Do'Urden's scimitars."
"And if he seeks us out?" asked Donnia.
"He will not, if he knows nothing about us," Kaer'lic replied. "That is the better course. My favorite war is one I watch from afar."
Donnia's sour expression as she turned to Ad'non was not hard to discern. Nor was Ad'non's responding disappointment.
But Kaer'lic had an ally, and a most emphatic one.
"I agree," Tos'un offered. "Since his days in Menzoberranzan, Drizzt Do'Urden has been nothing but a difficult and often fatal problem to those who have tried to go against him. In my wanderings of the upper Underdark after the disaster with Mithral Hall, I heard various and scattered tales about the repercussions within Menzoberranzan. Apparently, soon after my city's attack on Mithral Hall, Drizzt returned to Menzoberranzan, was captured by House Baenre, and was placed in their dungeons."
Astonished expressions followed that tidbit, for the mighty and ruthless House Baenre was well known to drow across the Underdark.
"And yet, he has returned to his friends, leaving catastrophe in his wake," Tos'un went on. "He is almost a cruel joke of Lady Lolth, I fear, an instrument of chaos cloaked in traitorous garb. More than one in Menzoberranzan has remarked on his belief that Drizzt Do'Urden is secretly guided by the Lady of Chaos for her pleasure."
"If we served any other goddess, your words would be blasphemous," Kaer'lic replied, and she gave a chuckle at the supreme irony of it all.
"You cannot believe ..." Donnia started to argue.
"I do not have to believe," Tos'un interrupted. "Drizzt Do'Urden is either much more formidable than we understand, or he is very lucky, or he is god-blessed. In any of those cases, I have no desire to hunt him down."
"Agreed," said Kaer'lic.
Donnia and Ad'non looked to each other once more, but merely shrugged.
* * *
"It's a fine game, this," Banak Brawnanvil said to Rockbottom, who stood beside him as he directed the formations of his forces. "Except that so many wind up dead."
"More orcs than dwarves," Rockbottom pointed out.
"Not enough of one and too many o' the other. Look at them. Fighting with fury, taking their hits without complaint, willing to die if that's the choice o' the gods this day."
"They're warriors," Rockbottom reminded. "Dwarf warriors. That's meaning something."
"Course it is," Banak agreed. "Something."
"Yer plan's got them orcs on the run," Rockbottom observed.
"Not any plan of me own," the dwarf leader argued. "Was that Bouldershoulder brother's idea - the sane one, I mean - along with the help of Torgar of Mirabar. We found ourselfs some fine friends, I'm thinking."
Rockbottom nodded and continued to watch the beautifully choreographed display of teamwork, the three interlocking formations rolling down the slope and sweeping orcs before them.
"A child of some race or another will come here in a few hundred years,"
Banak remarked a short time later. He wasn't even watching the fighting anymore, but was more focused on the bodies splayed across the stones. "He'll see the whitened bones of them fighting for this piece of high ground. They'll be mistaken for rocks, mostly, but soon enough, one might be recognized for what it is, and of course that will show this to be the site of a great battle. Will those people far in the future understand what we did here? Or why we did it? Will they know our cause, or the difference of our cause to that o' the invading orcs?"
Rockbottom stared long and hard at Banak Brawnanvil. The tall and strong dwarf had been an imposing figure among the dwarves of Clan Battlehammer for centuries, though he usually kept himself to the side of the glory, and rarely offered his strategies for battle unless pressed by Bruenor or Dagna, or one of the other formal commanders. The other side of Banak, though, was what really separated him from others of the clan. He had a different way of looking at the world, and always seemed to be viewing current events in the context with which they might be seen by some future historian.
A shriek to the right had them both looking that way, to see the superb coordination and harmony of Wulfgar and Catti-brie as they held fast the flank. Orcs came up at them haphazardly, and many fell to the woman's deadly bow and her unending supply of arrows. Those that managed to escape sudden death at the end of a missile likely soon wished they had been hit, for they wound up before the great barbarian Wulfgar and his devastating hammer, the magnificent Aegis-fang, crafted by Bruenor Battlehammer himself. Even as Banak and Rockbottom focused on the pair, Wulfgar smashed one orc so hard atop its head that its skull simply exploded, showering the barbarian and those other orcs scrambling in with blood and brains.
An arrow whistled past Wulfgar to take down a second orc, and a great sweep of Aegis-fang had the remaining two stumbling, one falling to the ground, the other dancing out wide.
Catti-brie got the second one; a chop of Aegis-fang finished the one on the ground.
"Them two are making tales that'll live through the centuries," Rockbottom remarked.
"To some point," said Banak, "then they will fade."
Rockbottom looked at him curiously, surprised by his glum attitude.
"On his way home," Banak explained, "King Bruenor marched through Fell Pass."
Rockbottom nodded his understanding, for he had been on that caravan.
"Find any bones there?" Banak asked.
"More than ye can count," the cleric replied.
"Ye think that any of them fighting that long-ago battle in Fell Pass stood above the others, in bravery and might?"
Rockbottom considered the question for just a moment, before offering a shrug and an agreeing nod.
"Ye know their names?" Banak asked. "Ye know who they were and what they were about? Ye know how many orcs and other monsters they killed in that battle? Ye know how many held the head of a friend as he died?"
The point hit Rockbottom hard. He looked back to the main battle, where the dwarves were routing the orcs and sending them running.
"No pursuit down the slope!" Banak ordered.
"We've got them scared witless," Rockbottom quietly advised.
"They're witless anyway," said the dwarf warlord. "They only came on to draw us from our preparations. That preparation's not to wait while we chase a ragtag band around the mountains. We bring our boys all back and get back to work. This was a skirmish. The big fight's yet to come."
Banak looked back over his shoulder to the cliff area, and hoped that the engineers had not slowed in their work with the rope ladders to the floor of Keeper's Dale.
"Just a skirmish," he reiterated even as the fighting diminished and many of the dwarves began to turn their precise formations back toward his position.
He saw the dead and wounded lying around the blood-soaked stones.
He thought of the bones that would soon enough litter that ground, as thick and as quiet as rocks.