Watching the countercharge - thousands of orcs streaming up in bloodthirsty rage - Banak Brawnanvil understood that it was over. It would be the last battle on that ground, win or lose, press through or retreat. In realizing the sheer size of that orc force, with so many charging up in reinforcement, the dwarf wasn't thrilled with the prospects.
The sound of fighting behind and below him soon had him rushing back to join some of the others at the cliff ledge.
And there, the old dwarf saw nothing but doom.
The dwarves on the western edge of Keeper's Dale had broken ranks already. And how could they not? For the force arrayed against them was huge, larger than anything Banak had ever seen in all his years.
"How many orcs?" he asked breathlessly, for surely the spectacle of that arrayed force had stolen Banak's strength. "Five thousand? Ten thousand?"
"They'll sweep the dale in short order," Torgar Hammerstriker warned.
And that would be it, Banak knew.
"Get 'em down," Banak ordered, and he had to forcefully spit the dreaded words through his gritted teeth. "All of them. We make for the dale and the halls'
An order to retreat was nothing that the dwarves of Clan Battlehammer, nor of Mirabar, were used to hearing, and for a moment, all the commanders near to Banak stared at him open-mouthed.
"The giants're dead!" one protested. "Gnome blew up the ridge, and ..."
But as the reality settled upon them, as they all came to see the truth of the orc press from the north and the rout behind them in the dale, that was the only dissenting voice. Before the grumbling dwarf had ever finished the statement, Torgar and Shingles, Ivan and Tred, and all the others were rushing out among their respective groups calling for and organizing a full retreat from the cliff.
The warlord ignored the protestor and turned his attention down the northern slopes, to where Thibbledorf Pwent and his Gutbusters were causing havoc across the center of the orc press. The old dwarf nodded his appreciation - their sacrifice was buying him precious time to get away.
"Fight hard, Pwent," he muttered, as unnecessary a cheer as could be spoken.
"Go! Go! Go!" Banak prodded those dwarves moving to the drop-ropes. "Don't ye slow a bit till ye've hit the floor o' Keeper's Dale!"
Banak watched the dwarves who had met the front end of the orc charge form into tighter squares and begin their pivot back up the slopes.
"We gotta break their front ranks to give them who're coming last time to get over," he heard Tred shout out from somewhere below and to the right.
In response to that call came two familiar forms, Wulfgar and Catti-brie, sprinting down the slope, driving the left flank of the orc line before them.
Banak held his breath. Tred's assessment was on target, he understood. If they could not break the orc momentum, could not turn the front ranks around in at least a short retreat and regroup, then many dwarves would die that day.
Behind him again, he heard several dwarves bickering, arguing that they weren't about to run away while their kin were fighting. Banak turned on them powerfully, eyes blazing with fury.
"Get ye down!" he shouted above the commotion of the argument, and all eyes turned his way.
"Go!" the old dwarf commanded. "Ye dolts, we're all to run, and them behind ye can't start until ye're off!"
One of the group punched another and roughly pushed him toward the edge and one of the drop-ropes.
"Ain't never left a friend," the dwarf continued to grumble, but he did indeed take up the rope in his strong hands and roll off the ledge.
Looking back at the furious battle, then farther down to where Pwent and his boys had been seemingly boxed in, Banak could certainly understand that sentiment.
* * *
"Crush them!" King Obould cried to his charges, urging them forward. The orc king didn't stand back and issue the order, but rather charged up toward the front ranks, prodding the orcs on, kicking aside the dead and wounded orcs who had already tried the devastating dwarven defenses.
Obould cursed his luck - his very first assault would have overwhelmed those walls and fortifications, he believed, except that the ground had violently lurched beneath them, followed by a hail of stones from up above. The orc king had no idea what in the world might have happened up there, but just then, it wasn't his concern.
Just then, he was focused on one goal alone.
"Crush them!" he cried again.
The orc king continued to push his way forward, crossing to the leading ranks. He came up against the front dwarven wall, sweeping his greatsword before him to knock aside the many prodding dwarven polearms. A couple avoided his wild parry, though, and the dwarves redirected the weapons quickly to stab at the great orc.
Those weapons of Mithral Hall, fine as they were, barely scratched the orc king's magnificent armor, and he barreled ahead, cutting a downward slash with his sword, igniting its flame as he did. One unfortunate dwarf popped up at that moment and had his head cleaved in half. Obould's sword drove down farther, crashing against the top of the stone wall and knocking out a sizeable chunk of it.
The orc king smashed again and again, sweeping that area clean. He leaped up, clearing the four vertical feet to the wall top.
And there he stood, flaming sword braced against one hip and angled diagonally upward out to the side, his other hand outstretched and clenched.
Arrows and crossbow bolts came at him and bounced away. Nearby dwarves scrambled, bringing their weapons to bear, smacking at the great ore's feet to try to dislodge him.
"Crush them!" Obould screamed, and he didn't budge an inch.
Bolstered by his display, the orcs swarmed the wall, and terrified of the display, the dwarves hesitated. To Obould's far right came a wedge of roaring giants, heaving boulders at the fortifications and charging in with abandon.
Beneath his skull-faced helmet, the orc king grinned wickedly. He had suspected that his bold attack would force Gerti and her reluctant kin into full action.
The front fortifications gave way before the swarm. The dwarves broke ranks and fled, and those who were not quick enough were pulled down by the throng and crushed into the stone.
Obould held his spot on the high ground, roaring, sword aflame, fist clenched. He glanced back up to the cliff in the northeast and wondered again about that tremendous explosion. But the implications did not hold his attention for long, for he looked back to his own overwhelming force and the growing rout in the west. Even if Urlgen failed him in the north, Obould knew that he would win the day in Keeper's Dale.
Close the door, the orc king mused, and let those dwarves trapped above-ground try to find their way home.
* * *
Drizzt couldn't see the front lines of the fighting, but he knew from the logjam of orc warriors in the middle and back of their ranks that the dwarves near to the cliff were putting up strong resistance. He could also see a commotion only a hundred yards or so south of his position, in the middle of the orc horde. As he watched one orc spinning up into the air, blood flying from multiple wounds, the drow figured that Thibbledorf Pwent was likely involved.
Drizzt didn't even allow himself a grin, for he was approaching the rear of the orc line and had drawn the attention of many of the stragglers.
"They will test you," he said to his companion, who stumbled before him, her arms bound behind her. "You must trust in me."
Innovindil tripped and fell, and Drizzt grimaced against his instinctual response, denying even the slightest hint of it, and let her go down hard. He grabbed her by the shoulder and roughly pulled her back to her feet - and again fought against his reflexive urge to wince when he saw the welt on her face.
It was the way it had to be.
Drizzt pushed her ahead, and she nearly stumbled down again, then he prodded her with one of his drawn blades. Orcs came in at the pair, yellow eyes wide, teeth bared, weapons ready. One moved right up before Innovindil, who looked down.
"A prisoner for Urlgen," Drizzt growled in his coarse command of Orcish.
"For Urlgen!" he reiterated powerfully when the orc made a move Innovin-dil's way.
"A prisoner from Donnia," the drow added, when doubting looks came back at him from many angles.
The orc in front motioned to another, who charged up behind Innovindil and tugged at her arms, checking the bonds. Drizzt slapped him away, after letting him see that the ties were authentic.
"For Urlgen!" he shouted yet again.
Whether in another test or just out of spite, the orc in front stabbed forward suddenly with its spear, right for the surface elf's gut.
Around went Drizzt, rolling around Innovindil's hip, scimitars slashing, taking the spear out wide with three quick hits.
The drow spun again, shouting, "For Urlgen!" with his scimitars working in a circular blur.
The orc flinched again and again, and fell back.
The drow settled before the elf, scimitars at his side.
The orc looked at him, then looked down at its own torso, cut and bleeding in more than a dozen bright and deep lines. Then it fell over.
"Take me to Urlgen!" Drizzt demanded of the others, "Take me!"
The drow moved behind Innovindil, pushing her forward with all speed, and the orc ranks parted before them like the waters of a lake before the prow of a fast sailing ship.
Up the slope they went, drawing stares from all around - but few of those orcs wanted to be anywhere near to them, Drizzt noted hopefully.
His eyes were soon enough drawn forward, up the slope, to the spectacle of one tall orc barking orders and roughly shoving aside any creatures who got too close to him.
The leader. Obviously the leader.
Drizzt began to fall into himself, finding his center, finding his anger, finding the primal creature that resided within his mortal coil, that instinctive Hunter, then moving through the Hunter and into the realm of pure concentration. With the swarm around him, he held little hope that he and Innovindil could get out of it, and given that, the drow had chosen to simply ignore the throng.
He took a quick look at Innovindil, her blue eyes set as if in stone, staring with abject hatred at the orc leader, at the son of the beast who had so brutally taken her Tarathiel from her.
Before they had come in with their ruse, Innovindil had exacted Drizzt's promise that Urlgen, son of Obould, was hers to kill.
The sounds of battle echoed all around them, the cries of the orc leader cut the air, and the orcs pressed on up the slope, where the stubborn dwarves held their ground.
And Drizzt Do'Urden tuned it out, focusing instead on a singular image.
A tower crumbling, burning, falling, and a dwarf rushing around on its tilting top, crying orders to the last.
The Hunter reached for Guenhwyvar.
* * *
They knew they had to hold. For the sake of their kin atop the cliffs, the dwarves had to fend the charging hordes. Where would Banak Brawnanvil run if they were forced back into Mithral Hall?
The defenders of western Keeper's Dale knew that truth keenly and used it to bolster their every moment of doubt. There was no choice; they had to hold.
But they could not, and their more immediate choice, up and down the length of their line, quickly became a simple decision to fall back or die where they stood. Many chose the latter, or the latter found them, while others did indeed fall back to the next defensible position. But the orc horde pursued, rolling along, smashing through every wall and swarming around every obstacle.
Like driftwood on an incoming tide, the dwarves fell back.
They sent runners to the base of the northern cliffs, shouting up for Banak to retreat in full, and indeed, their hopes were bolstered in seeing the first dwarves coming down the rope ladders. Immediately, those at the base began setting up a plan for defending the area, waving in the dwarves coming down the ropes to quickly join in.
Other dwarves sprinted farther to the east, shouting out to those guards near to Mithral Hall's doors, warning of the impending disaster.
Soon enough, all the remaining Keeper's Dale defenders were in sight of those great western doors, and every valiant effort to turn and make a stand was overrun, pushing them ever farther to the west.
They were almost level with the drop ropes from above when they made yet another determined stand, knowing that if they were pushed any farther, Banak's retreat would find a swift end.
"The hall's opening!" one dwarf cried, looking back and pointing to the wall.
Every dwarf in the line found a moment to glance back that way, to see indeed the great doors of Mithral Hall opening to their call for help. Out came reinforcements, scores of their kin, many still wearing their blacksmith aprons or still dressed in common clothing instead of battle mail. Out came every remaining dwarf, it seemed, even many of the wounded who should have stayed in bed.
They all came to the call of distress; they all charged forth from the safety of their tunnels to aid in the battle.
Certainly there were not nearly enough reinforcements to win the day, nor even enough, it seemed, to begin to slow the orc rout.
But there was among the ranks of newcomers one dwarf in particular who could not be ignored, and whose presence could not be measured in the form of just another singular warrior.
For a dwarf larger than life centered that reinforcing line.
For Bruenor Battlehammer centered that reinforcing line.
* * *
Banak gnashed his teeth as he surveyed the scene below, hardly believing how fast the defenders of Keeper's Dale were being overrun and pushed back, hardly believing the sheer scope and ferocity of the newly arrived orc army.
The old dwarf broke his ranks and sent his charges over the ledge, scrambling like ants down the many rope ladders. It was a decision made on the fly, committed to in the blink of an eye, and when it was done, the order given, Banak could not help but second-guess himself.
For he could see the dark tide flowing west to east across Keeper's Dale. Would any of his fleeing dwarves even reach the floor of the dale before the darkness had crossed by? If they did, would they be able to mount a defense as more and more got down beside them?
The alternative, Banak Brawnanvil knew, would be abject disaster, perhaps a complete slaughter of all those brave souls entrusted to his care.
He continued to shout support at the retreating dwarves. He yelled down to Pwent and his boys to fight their way back up to the cliff, and he personally moved to the escape route of last resort: the drop chute Torgar's engineers had manufactured.
Wulfgar and Catti-brie met him there, just ahead of Torgar, Tred, and Shingles.
"The two of ye be on yer way," Banak instructed the two humans, one of whom was far too large to attempt the narrow chute. "Get to the ropes and get yerselfs down."
"We'll go when Pwent returns," Catti-brie said.
To accentuate her point, she lifted Taulmaril and sent a sizzling arrow sailing away at the orc throng. It disappeared into the morass, but none watching had any doubt that it had to have found a deadly mark on one creature or another.
Wulfgar, meanwhile, pulled two long drop ropes in closer to their position, setting them and looping them over and over to make them impossible to untie and more difficult to cut.
"Ye don't be stupid," Banak argued. "Ye're the children o' King Bruenor, and as such, ye're sure to be needed inside the hall."
"As we're needed up here right now," said Wulfgar.
"We'll go when Pwent returns," Catti-brie reiterated. She let fly again. "And not a moment before."
Banak started to argue but cut himself short, unable to counter the simple logic of it. He, too, would be an important voice in Mithral Hall after that day, of course, and yet he too, had no intention of going anywhere until the Gutbusters began their drop down the escape chute.
He stepped out in front of Catti-brie, Torgar and Shingles on his left, Tred and Ivan Bouldershoulder, who joined in after seeing a reluctant Pikel off along the ropes, on his right.
"Use me head to sight yer bow," Banak said to Catti-brie.
She did just that and cut down the closest of a group of orcs charging their way.
* * *
Her movements of grace and fluidity contrasted sharply with Urlgen's sudden, herky-jerky lunges and punches.
Innovindil glided around him, launching a series of thrusts and sweeping sword attacks, most designed merely to set the large orc up for a sudden and devastating finish.
Urlgen turned with her, his heavily armored arms swiping across and picking off each attack, his feet turning and keeping him always on balance as the elf swirled around him, circling continually to his right.
Then she was gone, reversing her movement back to the left, turning a complete circuit to gain momentum, and redirecting that newfound momentum into a single thrust for the ore's heart.
But Urlgen, son of Obould, saw the move coming and had it countered before it ever began. As soon as he lost sight of the elf, the orc turned his hips appropriately and brought his arms swinging down and across his body. That thrust, which would have skewered almost any orc, got nowhere close to hitting.
Innovindil didn't let her surprise show on her face, nor did she relinquish the attack and fall back to regroup. She didn't have the time for that, she knew, for Drizzt Do'Urden was working furiously around her, leaping and spinning, his deadly scimitars slashing down any nearby orcs who dared approach. Across from him, equally effective as she protected Innovindil's other flank, the mighty black panther reared and sprang. She came up before one orc who was scrambling desperately to get away and swiped off its face with one powerful claw, then charged back the other way, bowling over yet another orc.
Those two brave friends were giving her the battle, Innovindil knew, but time was not on their side.
She pressed the attack more furiously, stabbing left, right, and center in rapid succession. Sparks flew as her sword struck hard against one metal bracer, and a second, and again as both bracers crossed over her blade, driving it down and just to the side of Urlgen's left hip.
And the orc countered, not by raising his arms to the offense, but by living up to the reputation of his name, Threefist. He leaned over the blocked sword and snapped his forehead down. Though Innovindil was agile enough to shift her head away from a direct hit, even a glancing blow from the ore's metal head plate had her stumbling backward, dazed.
Instinct alone had her sword flailing before her, fending the heavy punches of the ore's spiked gauntlets. Only gradually did Innovindil collect her wits enough to get her feet firmly under her and solidify both her stance and her defenses. She fought the orc back to even footing.
"Lesson learned," she muttered under her breath, and she vowed that she'd watch for that devastating head-butt more closely.
* * *
Upon a stone did Bruenor make his stand.
His legs widespread and planted, his many-notched axe held high, the King of Mithral Hall called for his kin, called for all the Delzoun dwarves, to hold firm. And there did the dwarves of Clan Battlehammer rally. Whether by luck or by the guarding hands of his ancestors and his god, no spear found Bruenor that day.
With the swirling orc sea around him, he stood, a beacon of hope for the dwarves, a testament to sheer determination. Spears thrust and flew his way, orc hands grabbed at his sturdy legs, but none could uproot King Bruenor. A flying club smashed him in the face, opening a long wound, closing one eye.
Bruenor roared through it.
An orc saw the opportunity to get up beside the dwarf, slamming hard with a warhammer.
Bruenor took the hit and didn't flinch, then chopped the orc away with a deadly slash of his axe.
Another orc was up beside him and another and another, and for a moment, it seemed as if the dwarf king would be buried where he stood.
But they went flying away, one after another, thrown by the strength and determination of Bruenor Battlehammer, who would not fall, who would not fail. Blood ran freely from many wounds, some obviously serious. But Bruenor's roar was not in pain nor in fear. It was a denial, stubborn and strong, determined beyond mortal bounds.
Never did Delzoun hearts so swell with pride as on that day, as on that stone, when King Battlehammer cried!
There was no choice before them. To retreat past Bruenor meant to abandon those hundreds of dwarves even then crawling down the cliff face. Better to die, by all measures of dwarven logic, than to forsake kin.
Bruenor reminded them of that. His presence alone, somehow risen from his deathbed, reminded them all of who they were, of what they were, and of what, above all else, mattered: kin and kind.
And so the retreating dwarves did pivot as one, did dig in their heels and press back against the onslaught, matching spear with hammer and axe, matching orc bloodlust with dwarf determination.
And there, around the stone upon which stood the King of Mithral Hall, the orc wave broke and was halted.
* * *
Shoulder to shoulder and with Banak Brawnanvil in their middle, the five dwarves met the tip of the orc ranks with sheer fury, leaping in as one and pounding away with hammer and axe. Behind them, Catti-brie worked Taulmaril to devastating effect, coordinating her shots with Wulfgar as he ran back and forth along the short defensive line, preventing any orcs from getting behind the fighting fivesome.
"Pwent, ye hurry! All the boys're down!" Banak shouted to the very depleted group of Gutbusters who were finally making some headway in their desperate attempt to reach him and the drop chute.
Banak couldn't even see if Pwent was alive among that group.
"Girl, ye bring yer fire to bear!" Ivan Bouldershoulder shouted back to Catti-brie.
"Go," Wulfgar bade her, assuring her that he had the situation in hand.
Indeed it seemed as if he did, for no orcs wanted anything to do with the terrible barbarian warrior.
Catti-brie sprinted ahead, coming to a stop right behind Ivan. She took quick note of the situation ahead, of the group of orcs who had turned around in an attempt to seal off the retreat of the bloodied Gutbusters.
Up came Taulmaril, the Heartseeker, and sizzling lines of silver raced out from the line of five dwarves. Catti-brie worked left and right, not daring to shoot straight down the center for fear that her enchanted arrows would blow right through some orcs and into the retreating dwarves. She found her rhythm, swinging left and right, left and right, each shot slicing down to devastating effect. Those orcs in between the continuing lines of deadly arrows found no reinforcements to bolster their barricade against the fury of the Gutbusters, and seeing that reality, the Gutbusters themselves reacted, tightening their ranks and spearheading their way up the slope.
"Now get ye over that cliff!" Banak demanded of Catti-brie and Wulfgar when the line closed. "We got us a faster way down!"
Reluctantly, but unable to argue the logic, Catti-brie ran up to Wulfgar and the pair charged back to the cliff face. They shouldered their weapons, took up their respective ropes, and went over side by side, sliding down the face of the cliff.
They heard the Gutbusters leaping into the drop chute above them and took satisfaction in that. They heard Banak calling frantically for his fellows to go.
And they heard orcs, so many orcs.
Wulfgar's rope jolted suddenly, and again, and Catti-brie reached out for him, and he for her.
His rope fell away, cut from above.
* * *
Obould did not see his forces stall around the stone upon which stood King Bruenor, for his attention had been drawn to the side by that point, to the defensive stand in the north, where dwarves were fast descending.
The dwarves were making a stubborn stand, to be sure, but Obould's numbers should have swept them away.
But then a fireball exploded in the midst of his line. And, inexplicably, another charging group ran off to the side and began fighting against... against nothing, the orc king realized, or against each other, or against the stones.
A quick scan showed Obould the truth of it, that two others, a human woman and a gnome, had joined in the defensive stand, waggling their fingers and launching their magic. More dwarves came down from above, leaping to the dale floor, pulling free their weapons, and throwing themselves in to bolster the defensive line.
His orcs were going to break ranks!
A bolt of blue lightning flashed through the throng and a dozen orcs fell dead and a score more flopped on the ground, stunned and shocked.
The real beauty of his plan, to not simply push the dwarves into their holes but to slaughter the whole of the force up above, began to unravel before Obould's angry eyes. With a roar, he denied that unacceptable turn. With a growl and a fist clenched so tightly that it would have crushed solid stone, the great orc king began his own charge to that northern wall, determined to turn the tide yet again.
The dwarves were not going to escape his trap. Not again.
* * *
Banak went into the hole head first and last, after having forcibly thrown the exhausted and bloody Thibbledorf Pwent in before him. He expected to fall into the steep slide, but he had barely gotten into the hole when he got hung up.
Only then did the old dwarf realize that he had a spear sticking out of his back, and that it was stuck on the stone.
Orcs crowded around the hole above him, whacking at his feet, prodding down with their nasty spears.
Banak kicked furiously, but he knew he was dead, knew that there was no way he could extricate himself.
But then a hand grabbed him by the collar and the smelly Pwent clawed back up before him.
"Come on, ye dolt!" Pwent yelled.
"Spear," Banak tried to explain, but Pwent wasn't even listening, was just tugging.
A searing eruption of fire burned suddenly in poor Banak's back as the spear twisted around, and he gave a howl of agony.
And Pwent tugged all the harder, understanding that there was no choice, no option at all.
The spear shaft snapped and Banak and Pwent fell free, sliding down the steep, turning chute Torgar's engineers had fashioned. They came into a straight descent then and fell through an opening, dropping several feet onto a pile of hay that had been strategically placed in the exit chamber. Of course by that point, most of the hay had been scattered by those coming down earlier, and the two dwarves hit hard and lay there groaning.
Rough hands grabbed them, ignoring their cries of pain. For they had no time to concern themselves over wounds.
"Close the chute!" Pwent cried, but too late, for down dropped a pursuer, a small goblin who had likely been thrown down as leading fodder by the bullying orcs. The creature landed right atop the still prone Banak, who gave another agonized groan.
Pwent rolled back and drove his spiked gauntlet through the stunned goblin's face, and shouted again for the others to close the chute.
Torgar Hammerstriker was already moving. He shoved a lever, releasing a block, then reached up and guided the block plate into position beneath the chute. The top side of the block plate was set with long spikes, and they claimed their first victim almost as soon as the chute was closed, an orc or goblin dropping hard atop it and impaling itself.
The dwarves were too busy to relish in that kill, though, grabbing their two fallen comrades up, ushering Pwent along and carrying the seriously wounded Banak. The escape chamber opened onto a ledge about a quarter of the way down the cliff, where more rope ladders were in place. Many of the Gutbusters were already well on their way down the ladders, rushing to join the critical battle at the base of the cliff.
As soon as he saw that spectacle below, Thibbledorf Pwent shook away his dizziness - or embraced it, for it was often hard to distinguish which with Pwent! - and scrambled over the ledge and down the ropes.
"I got him first," Ivan Bouldershoulder insisted.
He carefully lifted Banak up over his shoulder and moved to the rope ladder. Tred went over the cliff side before him, offering assistance from below.
Torgar and Shingles drew out their weapons and stood guard at the entrance to the escape room, ready to protect their departing friends should the chute's block plate fail and the orcs come down at them. Not until Ivan and the others were far below, moving to the second series of lower rope ladders did the pair from Mirabar turn and flee.
* * *
He grabbed for her, instinctively, as she reached out for him. They caught each other by the wrists and held fast as the barbarian fell away, then rolled around, rebounding off the stone of the cliff face. The jolt of his weight almost dislodged the woman from her rope, but she stubbornly held on, grasping with all of her strength and determination.
Wulfgar's rope fell past, slapping over the big man, and again, he nearly broke free of Catti-brie's grasp.
But she wouldn't let him go. Her arms stretched, her muscles ached, her shoulders felt as if they would simply pop out of joint.
But she wouldn't let go.
Wulfgar looked up at her, his eyes wide with fear - as much for her, she knew, as for himself, for it seemed that he would indeed dislodge her and drop them both to their deaths.
But she wouldn't let go. For all her life, at the cost of her life, Catti-brie was not going to let her friend fall.
It seemed like minutes, though in truth, it had all occurred in the span of a split second. Finally, Wulfgar caught Catti-brie's rope with his free hand and pulled himself in tight.
"Go!" Catti-brie prompted as soon as she got her wits back about her, as soon as she understood that if his rope had been cut, hers would likely go next.
Wulfgar went down hand-over-hand, verily running down the thick line. He reached a ledge and scrambled onto it, then set himself as solidly as the footing would allow.
Catti-brie came down fast behind, but not fast enough, as her rope, too, came free and she dropped. Wulfgar caught her and pulled her in, and the both of them pressed themselves flat against the cliff.
"Not yet halfway," Wulfgar said a moment later.
He motioned across to the other side of the small ledge, where the next descending ladders were set.
* * *
Drizzt double-stabbed, then stepped forward, driving on and forcing the orc to go tumbling backward, thus hindering any approach by those others near it.
The drow turned away immediately, rolling around, scimitars flying widely but not wildly, every strike in complete control, every cut working to fend any interference from the onlookers to the spectacle of Innovindil's battle with their leader.
The drow turned again, taking in the scene across the way, where Guen-hwyvar leaped onto an orc and suddenly sprang away to bury another.
Drizzt eyes scanned over to the main fight as he turned to meet the charge of two more, and in that instant scan, he noted that Urlgen was pressing his elf friend hard, that she had stumbled backward. He had to go to her, but he could not as an orc pair pressed in.
"Fall into your anger!" he cried to Innovindil. "Remember Tarathiel! Remember your loss and embrace the pain!"
With every word he cried, the drow had to swipe or parry with his blades, working furiously to keep back the press of increasingly emboldened orcs.
"Find a place of balance," he tried to explain to Innovindil. "A balance between your anger and your determination! Use the pain to focus!"
He was asking her to become the Hunter, he knew. He was asking her to forsake her reason at that moment and fall into a more primal state, a state of feeling, of emotion and fear. As she had worked to coax him from that anger, so he tried to moved her toward it.
Was there any other way?
Drizzt let go of his fears for his friend and let himself fall even more fully into the Hunter. The orcs pressed in, and his scimitars went into a frenzied dance, driving them back, cutting them down.
* * *
Despite her suddenly desperate situation, despite the press of that ferocious orc and the tumult of the crowding monsters all around her, Innovindil did hear the words of Drizzt Do'Urden.
Her sword worked furiously, fending blow after blow as the wild orc came at her, his spiked gauntlets swinging wildly. Her feet worked with equal desperation, trying to keep under her as she was forced to dodge and to back away. She tried to find her rhythm, but the ore's fighting style was unconventional at best, with attacks quickly re-angled to punch through any opening she presented. Innovindil had no doubt that she could gradually come to a point of understanding and logical counter, but she knew that she had no such luxury of time.
Thus, she followed the words of Drizzt Do'Urden, who was battling so brilliantly to keep the others away. She allowed her mind to wander the road of memory, to Tarathiel's horrible fall. She felt her anger rising and channeled it into determination.
Out left went her sword, cutting short a hooking right hand, and back fast to center to block a left jab.
Innovindil put her conscious thoughts aside, fell into the flow and the feeling of the fight. Sparks flew as she connected with a fist, and again as the orc blocked her own thrust with a second metal gauntlet.
She worked with sudden intensity, taking the fight back to him, and at last discerned a pattern to his counters and his blocks.
He was setting her up for a head-butt, she realized, looking for that killing opening.
Innovindil rolled with the punches and the continuing flow, fell deeper into her instinctual self, catching herself somewhere between rage and complete concentration.
She ducked one blow and seemed to fall almost completely off her balance, lunging to the side so violently that her free hand slapped against her doeskin boot. In came the ore's counter punch - one that could have truly hurt her. But it was not aimed for her, and she understood that. Rather, Urlgen was going for her sword, striking it hard and knocking it aside.
Presenting him with that opening.
He darted ahead, his strong back snapping his head forward.
Innovindil threw her free hand up across her forehead to block and felt the sudden impact driving down through her hand and smashing against her skull. Back she skittered, trying to hold her balance, but stumbling down to a sitting and vulnerable position.
But Urlgen wasn't pursuing, for he had driven his head down not only onto the elf's blocking hand, but onto the small knife she had cleverly pulled out from her boot, impaling himself up to its crosspiece. The orc staggered back, the hilt of the knife protruding from his forehead like some strange unicorn horn. His black gauntlets waved in the air, and he turned around and around, head thrown back, pommel high in the air.
In that moment of distraction, when all the orcs nearby stared incredulously at their leader, Drizzt Do'Urden rushed to Innovindil and roughly pulled her to her feet, then pushed her ahead, to the north, and took up the run. The drow cut back and forth in front of the stumbling, still-dazed Innovindil, his scimitars clearing the way. When they came upon a particularly dense group of enemies, Guenhwyvar leaped by the pair, launching herself full force into the crowd, scattering them and taking them down.
Drizzt sprinted by, pulling Innovindil behind him. He took out a slender rope and thrust its other end into her hand, and that tactile feel brought her somewhat back to her sensibilities, reminding her of her duties. She urged Drizzt to press on, then brought a free hand to her lips and blew a shrill whistle.
Down they ran, angling to a flat area to the side, and, coming in low under the rising sun, they saw their one hope: a winged horse fast descending.
Sunset touched down and charged across the stone, scattering orcs before his run. Drizzt and Innovindil moved to intercept, one on either side, a rope strung before them. Sunset accepted the hit as he ran into the rope, and both drow and elf used the sudden pull to move them aside the pegasi's flanks, ducking under the high-held wings. Innovindil went up first, Drizzt leaping right behind her, as Sunset never slowed in his run. His wide wings beat the air, and he sprang away, half-running, half-flying, moving out of range of any pursuit.
"Go home, Guenhwyvar!" Drizzt cried out to the panther, who was still scattering orcs, still battling fiercely.
Up into the air they went, climbing fast to the north. Spears reached up at them, but few got close to hitting the mark, and those who did were knocked away by the scimitars of the drow. Finally, they were safely out of range, and Drizzt looked back to the diminishing battle.
The orcs were right up to the cliff, by then, and the drow understood that the dwarves had been pushed over into Keeper's Dale.
Had he gotten up into the sky only a minute before, he might have noted the telltale silver flash of Taulmaril.
* * *
Shoudra Stargleam's eyes glowed with determination as she watched her fireball engulf a handful of orcs, sending them scurrying about, all aflame.
The sorceress launched a second strike to devastating effect, a burning bolt of lightning that dropped a line of orcs at the center of their press.
More than one dwarf glanced back her way to nod in appreciation, which only spurred the proud and noble sceptrana on even more. She was a Battle-hammer then, by all measure, fighting as fiercely as if Mithral Hall was her home and the dwarves all around her, her kin.
Beside her, little Nanfoodle worked his wonders, confusing an entire company of orcs with an illusion that had them charging face first into the cliff wall.
"Well done," Shoudra congratulated him.
She followed his mind attack with a physical blast of lightning that scattered the confused group and laid many low. Shoudra threw a wink Nanfoodle's way, then glanced up nervously at the cliffs, where dwarves continued their descent. Behind her, she heard those first who had come down forming up the defensive plan that would take them all to Mithral Hall's grand doors.
But they had to hold out until all were down.
The sceptrana turned away and sucked in her breath as one dwarf up ahead of her fell back, a spear deep in his chest. With no reserves immediately available to fill the gap, the sceptrana stepped forward, extending one arm and calling forth a burst of magical missiles that drove the orcs back. So many more came on, though.
Shoudra breathed a sigh of relief as a pair of dwarves scrambled past her, one going to his wounded kin, the other taking the downed dwarf's position at the low stone wall.
The orcs came on.
Looking all around to find the most effective area for her blasts, Shoudra's attention was caught and held by the spectacle of a single orc, a huge, armored creature swinging a sword nearly as tall as she at the end of one strong arm. He waded through his own ranks, orcs scrambling to get out of his way, stalking determinedly for the wall.
A crossbow bolt whistled out and smacked hard against his metal breastplate, but it did not penetrate and did not slow him in the least. In fact, he even sped up his rush, leaping forward into a roaring run.
Shoudra brought forth her magical power and struck him head-on with a lightning bolt, one that lifted him from his feet and threw him back into the throng. Figuring him dead, the sceptrana turned her attention back to the throng pressing the dwarves, and she ignited another fireball just forward of the dwar-ven line, so close that even the dwarves felt the rush of heat.
Again, flaming orcs scrambled and fell burning to the ground, but through that opening came a familiar figure, that great orc carrying a huge greatsword.
Shoudra's eyes widened when she saw him, for no orc could so readily accept the hit of one of her lightning blasts!
But it was the same orc, she knew, and he came on with fury, plowing over any orcs who could not scramble out of his way, reaching the wall and dwar-ven line in a rush, his sword slashing across, scattering the dwarves. He dropped his shoulder and plowed on, driving right through the hastily built rock wall, knocking heavy stones aside with ease.
Dwarves went at him, and dwarves went flying away, slashed by the sword, swatted with his free arm, even kicked high into the air.
And all the while, Shoudra suddenly realized, he was looking directly at her.
On came the mighty orc, and Nanfoodle gave a shriek. Shoudra heard the gnome quickly casting, but she knew instinctively that he would not divert that beast. She brought her hands up before her, thumbs touching tip to tip.
"Be gone, little demon," she said, and a wide arc of orange flames erupted from her fingers.
The sceptrana turned, using the distraction to get out of the way, but then she got punched - or thought it was a punch. She tried to move, but her feet skidded on the stone, and she was strangely held in place. She looked back, and she understood, for it was no punch that had hit her, but the thrust of a great-sword. Shoudra looked down to see less than half of that blade remaining before her chest; she knew that it had gone right through her.
Still with only the one mighty hand holding the sword, the orc lifted Shoudra Stargleam up into the air.
She heard Nanfoodle shriek, but it was somehow very far away.
She heard the dwarves cry out and saw them scrambling, in fear, it seemed.
She saw a sudden flash of silver and felt the jerk as the great orc staggered backward.
* * *
Her legs looped within the coils of the drop rope, Catti-brie hung upside down, reloading her bow, letting fly another shot at the monstrous beast who held Shoudra aloft. Her first arrow had struck home, right in the thing's chest, and had knocked the orc backward a single step.
But it had not penetrated.
"Get him away!" Catti-brie yelled to Wulfgar.
The barbarian had leaped to the ground and was even then bearing down on the orc. He cried out to Tempus and brought his hammer to bear - brought his whole body to bear - throwing himself at the orc, trying to knock it aside.
Suddenly Wulfgar was flying backward, blocked, stopped and thrown back by a swipe of the great ore's arm. The great barbarian, who had taken hits offered by giants, staggered back and stumbled to the ground.
The orc lifted his arm higher, presented the squirming Shoudra up into the air, and roared. The sword came to fiery life, and Shoudra howled all the louder. The mighty orc jerked his arm side to side.
Shoudra Stargleam fell apart.
Catti-brie hit the beast with another arrow, and a third, but by that last shot, he wasn't even staggering backward from the blows anymore. He turned and started toward Wulfgar.
The spinning Aegis-fang hit him hard. The orc stumbled back a few steps, and almost fell to the ground.
On came the beast, charging Wulfgar with abandon.
The barbarian recalled Aegis-fang to his hand and met that charge with another cry to his god, and a great swipe of his mighty hammer. Sword against hammer they battled, two titans standing tall above the onlookers.
Down came Aegis-fang, smashing hard against the ore's shoulder, sending him skidding to the side. Across came the flaming greatsword, and Wulfgar had to throw his hips back, barely getting out of reach.
The orc followed that wide slash by leaping forward even as Wulfgar came forward behind the blade, and the two collided hard, muscle against muscle.
A heavy punch sent Wulfgar flying away, had him staggering on the stones, barely able to keep his feet.
The orc pursued, sword in both hands, leaping in for the killing blow that the barbarian couldn't begin to block,
An arrow hit the orc in the face, spraying sparks across the glassteel, but he came on anyway and cleaved at the barbarian.
At least, the orc thought it was the barbarian, for where force and fire had failed, Nanfoodle had succeeded, misdirecting the blow with an illusionary Wulfgar, to the swift demise of a second orc who happened to be standing too close to King Obould's rage.
Catti-brie leaped down to the stone, caught up Wulfgar under one arm, and shoved him away.
The orc moved to catch them - or tried to, for suddenly the stone around his feet turned to mud, right up to his ankles, then turned back to stone.
"Bad orc!" cried a green-bearded dwarf, and he poked the fingers of his one hand in Obould's direction.
The furious orc king roared and squirmed, then reached down and punched the stone. Then, with strength beyond belief, he tore one foot free.
"Oooo," said the green-bearded dwarf.
Down came more help then, in the form of the Gutbusters, falling all around the pair, leaping into battle. Any who got near to the great orc, though, fell fast and fell hard.
Down came Torgar and Tred, Shingles and Ivan, and the wounded Banak, sweeping up Catti-brie and Wulfgar, the stunned and crying Nanfoodle, and all the others in their wake as they ran flat out across Keeper's Dale, angling for the doors of Mithral Hall.
Only then did Catti-brie notice the pillar of strength that stood supporting the routed dwarves in the wider battle, the indomitable power of her own father, legs planted firmly upon a tall stone, axe sweeping orcs away, dwarves rallying all around him.
"Bruenor," she mouthed, unable to even comprehend how it could be, how her father could have arisen once more.
* * *
Out toward the center of the dale, Bruenor marked well the run of Banak's retreat and of his own son and daughter - and glad he was to see them alive.
His forces had held strong, somehow, against the overwhelming odds, had stemmed the undeniable tide.
At great cost, the dwarf king knew, and he knew, too, that that orc sea would not be denied - especially since the giants were fast approaching, bolstering the orc lines.
From up on his rock, the dwarf king called for a retreat, told his boys to turn and run for the doors. But Bruenor didn't move, not an inch, until the others had all broken ranks.
His axe led the way as he chased after them. He felt the spears and swords reaching out for him, but there were no openings within the fury that was Bruenor Battlehammer. He spun and he dodged. He fled for the doors and stopped suddenly, reversing his course and chopping down the closest orc, and sending those others nearby into a terrified retreat.
He ushered all behind him as the doors drew near, refusing to break and flee until all were within. He fought with the strength of ten dwarves and the heart of a thousand, his many notched axe earning more marks that day than in many years previous. He piled orc bodies around him and painted all the ground a bloody red.
And it was time to go, he knew, and those holding the door called out to him. A swipe of his axe drove back the orc wall before him, and Bruenor turned and sprinted.
Or started to, for there behind him stood an orc, spear coming forward at an angle that Bruenor could not hope to fend. Seeing his doom, the dwarf king gave a howl of denial.
The orc lurched over backward and a spike drove out through its chest. A helmet spike, Bruenor realized as Thibbledorf Pwent stood straight behind his attacker, lifting the orc up in the air atop his head.
Before Bruenor could utter a word, Pwent grabbed him by the beard and yanked him into a stumbling charge that brought him into the hall.
And so Thibbledorf Pwent was the last to enter the dwarven stronghold that fateful day, the great doors booming closed behind him, the dead orc still flopping about atop his helmet, impaled by the long spike.