Chapter 31

It hadn't been the victory he had hoped to achieve, for most of Clan Battle-hammer's dwarves, even those from atop the cliff, had gotten back into the safety of Mithral Hall. Worse still for King Obould, there could be little doubt of the identity of the dwarf leader who had emerged to bolster the retreat. It had been King Bruenor, thought dead and buried in the rubble of Shallows.

The Battlehammer dwarves had chanted his name when he'd charged from the hall, and the sudden increased ferocity and stubbornness of their defense upon the red-bearded dwarf's arrival left little real doubt for Obould about the authenticity of their leader.

The orc king made a mental note to speak with his son about that curious turn of events.

Despite the unexpected arrival, despite the dwarves' success in retreating from the cliffs, Obould took satisfaction in knowing that the dwarves could not claim a victory there. They had been pushed into their hall, with little chance of getting out anytime soon - even then, Gerti's giants were hard at work sealing the hall's western doors. The orc losses in Keeper's Dale had been considerable, but there was no shortage of dwarf dead lying among that carnage.

"It was Bruenor!" came the predictable cry of Gerti Orelsdottr, and the giantess stormed up to the orc king. "Bruenor himself! The King of Mithral Hall! You claimed he was dead!"

"As I was told by my son, and your own giants," Obould calmly and quietly reminded her.

"The death of Bruenor was the rallying cry, dog!"

"Lower your voice," Obould told the giantess. "We have won here. This is not the moment to voice our fears."

Gerti narrowed her eyes and issued a low growl.

"You did not lose a single giant," Obould reminded her, and that seemed to take the wind out of Gerti's bluster. "The Battlehammer dwarves are in their hole, their numbers depleted, and you did not lose a single giant."

Still staring hard at the orc king and still snarling, she walked off.

Obould's gaze went up the cliff face, and he thought of the tremendous explosion that had heralded the beginning of the battle and the shower of debris that had followed. He hoped that his claim to Gerti was correct. He hoped that the fight atop the cliff had been a success.

If not, Obould decided, he would murder his son.

* * *

Her face wet with sweat and tears, blood and mud, Catti-brie fell to her knees before her father and wrapped him in a tight hug.

Bruenor, his face scarred and bloody, with part of his beard ripped away and one eye swollen and closed, lifted one arm (for the other hung limply at his side) and returned the hug.

"How's it possible?" Banak Brawnanvil asked.

He stood with many others in the entry hall, staring incredulously at their king, returned from death itself, it seemed.

"'Twas Steward Regis who found the answer," said Stumpet Rakingclaw.

"Was him who showed us the way," agreed Cordio Muffinhead.

He walked over and slapped Regis so hard on the shoulder that the halfling stumbled and nearly dropped from his feet.

All eyes, particularly those of Wulfgar and Catti-brie, fell over Regis, who seemed uncharacteristically embarrassed by all the attention.

"Cordio woke him," he offered sheepishly.

"Bah! Was yer own work with yer ruby," Cordio explained. "Regis called to Bruenor through the gem. 'No real king'd lie there and let his people fight without him,' he said."

"You said the same thing to me some days ago," said Regis.

But Cordio just laughed, slapped him again, and continued, "So he went into that body and found the spark o' Bruenor, the one piece left o' the king keeping his body breathing. And Regis telled him what was going on. And when me and Stumpet went back to our healing spells, Bruenor's spirit was back to catch 'em. His spirit heard our call as sure as his body was taking the physical healing. Come straight from Moradin's side, I'm guessing!"

Everyone turned to regard Bruenor, who just shrugged and shook his head. Cordio became suddenly solemn, and he moved up before the dwarf king.

"And so ye returned to us when we were in need," the cleric said quietly. "We pulled ye back for our own needs, and true to yer line, ye answered them. No dwarf can deny yer sacrifice, me king, and no dwarf could ever ask more o' ye. We're in now, and the halls're closed to our enemies. Ye've done yer duty to kin and clan."

All around began to murmur and to look on more closely. They quieted almost immediately, many holding their breath, as Cordio's intent became clearer.

"Ye've come to us, returned from Moradin's own halls," the cleric said to Bruenor, and he brought his hands up before the dwarf king to offer a blessing. "We can'no compel ye to stay. Ye've done yer duty, and so ye've earned yer rest."

Eyes went wide all around. Wulfgar had to grab Catti-brie, who seemed as if she would just fall over. In truth, the barbarian needed the support every bit as much as she.

For it seemed like Cordio's words were affecting Bruenor greatly. His eyes were half-closed, and he leaned forward, shoulders slumped.

"Ye need feel no more pain, me king," Cordio went on, his voice breaking.

He reached up to support Bruenor's shoulder, for indeed it seemed as if the dwarf would tumble face down.

"Moradin's welcomed ye. Ye can go home."

The gasp came from Regis, the sobs from everywhere around.

Bruenor closed his eyes.

Then Bruenor opened his eyes, and wide! And he stood straight and fixed the priest with the most incredulous look any dwarf ever offered.

"Ye dolt!" he bellowed. "I got me home surrounded by stinkin' orcs and giants, and ye're telling me to lie down and die?"

"B-but. . . but..." Cordio stammered.

"Bah!" Bruenor snorted. "No more o' the stupid talk. We got work to do!"

For a moment, no one moved or said anything, or even breathed. Then such a cheer went up in Mithral Hall as had not been known since the defeat of the drow those years before. They had been chased in, yes, and could hardly claim victory, but Bruenor was with them again, and he was fighting mad.

"All cheers for Bruenor!" one dwarf cried, and the throng erupted. "Hero of the day!"

"Who fought no more than the rest of ye," Bruenor shouted them down. "Was one of us alone who found the way to call me home."

And his gaze led those of all the others to a particular halfling.

"Then Steward Regis is the hero of the day!" one dwarf cried from the back of the hall.

"One of many," Wulfgar was quick to reply. "Nanfoodle the gnome facilitated our retreat from above."

"And Pikel!" Ivan Bouldershoulder put in.

"And Pwent and his boys," said Banak. "And without Pwent, King Bruenor'd be dead on our doorstep!"

The cheers went up with each proclamation.

Bruenor heard them keenly and let them continue, but he did not join in any longer. He still wasn't quite sure of what had happened to him. He recalled a feeling of bliss, a sense of complete peace, a place he never wanted to leave. But then he had heard a cry of help from afar, from a familiar halfling, and he walked a dark path, back to the realm of the living.

Just in time to jump into the fight with both feet. It would take some time to sort through the fog of the battle and measure their success or failure, Bruenor knew, but one thing was certain at that moment: Clan Battlehammer had been pushed back into Mithral Hall. Whatever the count of the dead, orc and dwarf, it had not been a victory.

Bruenor knew that he and his kin had a lot of work to do.

* * *

In the corridor running off the main entry chamber, Nanfoodle sat against the wall and wept.

Wulfgar found him there, among the many wounded and the many dwarves attending to them.

"You did well today," the barbarian said, crouching down beside the gnome.

Nanfoodle looked up at him, his face streaked with tears, and with more still rolling down his cheeks.

"Shoudra," he whispered and he shook his head.

Wulfgar had no answer to that simple remark and the horrific images it conjured, and so he patted the gnome on the head and rose. He brought a hand up tenderly to his ribs, wondering how bad he had been hurt by that tremendous blow the mighty orc had delivered.

But then all thoughts of pain washed away from the barbarian as he spotted a familiar figure rushing down the corridor toward him.

Delly ran up and wrapped her husband in a tight hug, and as soon as they were joined, all strength seemed to leave the woman, and she just melted into Wulfgar's strong chest, her shoulders bobbing with sobs.

Wulfgar held her tight.

From the entrance to the corridor, Catti-brie witnessed the scene and smiled and nodded.

* * *

In Keeper's Dale, Obould had lost orcs at somewhere around a four-to-one pace to the dying dwarves, an acceptable ratio indeed against a dug-in and battle-hardened defender. No one could question the cost of that victory, given the gains they had achieved.

Up there, though, without even getting any real body counts, Obould understood that the dwarves had slaughtered Urlgen's orcs at a far higher ratio, perhaps as sorely as twenty-to-one.

The ridge was gone, and all but one of the giants who had been up there were dead, and that one, who had been thrown several hundred feet by the monstrous explosion, would likely soon join his deceased companions.

Obould wanted nothing more than to call his son out for that disaster and to slaughter the fool openly before the entire army, to lay all the blame at Urlgen's deserving feet.

"Go and find my son!" he commanded all of those around him, and his crooked teeth seemed locked together as he spat the words. "Bring Urlgen to me!"

He stormed around, looking for any sign of his son, kicking dead bodies with nearly every stride. Only a few moments later, an orc ran up and nervously bowed over and over again, and explained to the great orc that his son had been found among the dead. Obould grabbed the messenger by the throat and with just that one strong hand, lifted him into the air.

"How do you know this?" he demanded, and he jerked the orc back and forth.

The poor creature tried to answer, brought both of its hands up and tried to break the choking grip. But Obould only squeezed all the harder, and the ore's neck snapped with a sharp retort.

Obould snarled and tossed the dead messenger aside.

His son was dead. His son had failed. The orc king glanced around to measure the reaction of those cowering orcs nearby.

A few images of Urlgen flashed through Obould's thoughts, and a slight wave of regret found its way through the crust of the vicious ore's heart, but all of that quickly passed. All of that was fast buried under the weight of necessity, of the immediate needs of the moment.

Urlgen was dead. Given that, Obould knew that he had to focus on the positive aspects of the day, on the fact that the dwarves had been dislodged from the cliff and forced back into Mithral Hall. It was a critical moment for his forces and the course of their conquest, he understood. He had his kingdom overrun, from the Spine of the World to Mithral Hall, from the Surbrin to Fell Pass. Little resistance remained.

He had to maintain his force's enthusiasm, though, for the inevitable coun-terstrike. How he wished that Arganth was there, proclaiming him to be Gruumsh.

Soon after, though, Obould learned that Arganth was dead, killed by an elf and a drow.

"This is unacceptable!" Gerti growled at the orc king as night encompassed the land and the weary army continued its work of reorganizing.

"Nineteen of yours fell, but thousands of mine," the orc countered.

"Twenty," said Gerti.

"Then twenty," Obould agreed, as if it didn't matter.

Gerti scowled at him and asked, "What weapon did they use? What magic so sundered that mountain arm? How did your son let this happen?"

Obould didn't blink, didn't shrink in the least under the giantess's imposing stare. He turned and walked away.

He heard the telltale noise of a sword sliding free of its sheath and moved completely on instinct, drawing forth his own greatsword as he swung around, bringing his blade across to parry the swipe of Gerti's huge weapon.

With a roar, the giantess came on, trying to overwhelm the orc king with her sheer size and strength. But Obould brought his sword to flaming life and slashed it across at Gerti's knees. She avoided the cut, turning sidelong and lifting her leg away from the fires.

Obould barreled in, dipping his shoulder against her thigh and driving on with supernatural strength.

To Gerti's complete surprise, to the amazement of all in attendance - orc, goblin, and giant alike - the orc king muscled Gerti right off the ground. With a great heave, he sent her flopping through the air to land hard and unceremoniously on the ground, face down.

She started to rise but wisely stopped short, feeling the heat of a fiery great-sword hovering above the back of her neck.

"All that is left here are the dwarven tunnels," Obould told her. "Go and defend the Surbrin or take your dead and retreat to Shining White." Obould bent low and whispered, so that only Gerti could hear, "But if you forsake our road now, know that I will visit you when Mithral Hall is mine."

He backed away then and allowed Gerti to scramble back to her feet, where she stood staring down at him with open hatred.

"Enough of this foolishness, giantess," Obould said loudly, so that those few astonished onlookers could hear. "We are both angered and sorrowful. My own son lies among the dead.

"But we have won a great victory this day!" the orc king proclaimed to the throng. "The cowardly dwarves have run away and will not soon return!"

That brought cheering.

Obould walked around, his arms raised in victory, his flaming sword serving as a focus of their collective glory. Every so often, though, the orc did glance back at Gerti, letting her alone see the continuing hatred and threat in his jaundiced and bloodshot eyes.

For Gerti, there was only uncertainty.

* * *

From a distance, another watched the celebration of the victorious orcs and saw that flaming sword lifted high in glory. Satisfied that he had done his duty well and that his work had been of a great benefit to the retreating dwarves, Nikwillig of Citadel Felbarr settled back against the cold stone and considered the distant glow of the setting sun.

His vantage point had allowed him a view of the general course of the battle not only up there, but down in Keeper's Dale, and he knew that the dwarves had been driven underground.

He knew that he had nowhere to run.

He knew that he would soon have nowhere to hide.

But so be it, the dwarf honestly told himself. He had done his duty. He had helped his kin.

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