Shoudra Stargleam moved back toward the light of her campfire. The woman, the Sceptrana of Mirabar and a fairly adept wizard as well, had gone out to search for some roots and mushrooms to use as components for a new spell she was researching. In the verdant land south of Fell Pass, she had found exactly what she was looking for, in great abundance, and so her arms were full, wrapped around the rolled up side of her dress.
She was about to call out to her traveling companion to bring her a sack when she caught sight of him - and all that came out of her mouth was a giggle. For the little gnome cut quite a figure as he sat huddled before the fire, rubbing his hands before him. He had his cloak tight around him, the hood up and pulled far forward.
But not forward enough to hide Nanfoodle's most prominent feature, his long and crooked snout.
"If you lean in much closer, you will burn the hair out of your nose," Shoudra managed to say as she moved into the perimeter of fallen logs they had set around the fire.
"A chill wind tonight," the gnome replied.
"Unseasonably so," Shoudra agreed, for it was still summer, though fall was fast approaching.
"Which'll of course, only adds to the misery of the open road," Nanfoo-dle muttered.
Shoudra giggled again and took a seat opposite him. She started to unroll the side of her stuffed dress but paused when she caught the gnome staring at her shapely leg. She thought it perfectly ridiculous, of course; Shoudra was a statuesque woman, which made her leg alone taller than little Nanfoodle. She held the pose anyway, and even turned her leg just a bit to give Nanfoodle a better view, and watched his jaw drop open.
Eventually, the gnome glanced up enough to see Shoudra staring at him, an amused smile on her beautiful face.
Nanfoodle blinked repeatedly and cleared his throat, shuffling around as if he had misplaced something. Watching his every move, Shoudra unrolled her skirt and guided the roots and mushrooms gently to the ground.
"Do you find the road so miserable, truly?" she asked a few moments later, as she began separating the various components by type and size. "Do you not find it invigorating?"
Nanfoodle crossed his arms before him and huddled closer to the fire.
"Invigorating?" he echoed incredulously.
"Have you no sense of adventure then, my good Nanfoodle?" Shoudra asked. "Have you become so tame from your years and years in front of beakers and solutions that you've forgotten the thrill of roasting a goblin with a fireball?"
Nanfoodle fixed her with a curious stare.
"The Nanfoodle I met those years ago in Baldur's Gate could weave a spell or two, if I remember correctly," Shoudra remarked.
"Nothing as crude as a fireball, surely!" the gnome protested with a dismissive wave of his little hand. "Bah, a fireball! Next you will recount your glory at bringing forth a bolt of lightning. No, no, Shoudra. I prefer the magic of the mind to the blast and burn of elemental forces."
"Ah, yes," Shoudra replied. "Of course. I should have better recognized the link between illusion magic and alchemy."
How Nanfoodle's eyes widened at that! He had been hired by Marchion Elastul of Mirabar, Shoudra's superior, to bring his alchemical brilliance to the aid of their inferior orc in their trade war against Mithral Hall. Many times had he suffered the dry wit of Shoudra Stargleam on those occasions when he had to report his progress to the marchion, for alchemy was an imprecise and trial-and-error science. Unfortunately for Nanfoodle, his efforts in Mirabar had been almost exclusively of the error variety.
Something that Shoudra rarely failed to point out.
"What do you imply?" the gnome asked evenly.
Shoudra laughed and went back to separating her mushrooms.
"You do not believe in alchemy at all, do you?"
"Have I ever made a secret of that?"
"Yet, were you not the one who gave my name to Marchion Elastul?" Nan-foodle asked. "I was under the impression that he had learned of my growing reputation from none other than Shoudra Stargleam."
"I have no use for alchemy," Shoudra explained. "I never said that I have no use for, nor care for, Nanfoodle Buswilligan."
After a moment of quiet, the woman glanced up to see Nanfoodle staring at her curiously.
"If Marchion Elastul was so determined to throw his coin away on fool's gold, then why not have some of it go to Nanfoodle, at least?" Shoudra explained with a wry grin.
The alchemist nodded, but his perplexed expression showed her that he really didn't seem to know whether to thank her or berate her.
She liked it that way.
"We eat the food and yet our load increases," the gnome remarked, staring sourly at Shoudra's growing component collection.
"Our load?" came the sarcastic response. "A single mushroom would seem to be a load for poor little Nanfoodle." She ended by playfully throwing a small white-capped mushroom across the fire. Nanfoodle's hand came up to block it, but he merely deflected the item, which bounced from his hand to thump against his long nose, drawing yet another laugh from Shoudra.
Scowling and muttering under his breath, Nanfoodle deliberately reached down and picked up the missile, then regarded it for a moment, still muttering, before throwing it back.
Shoudra had her defenses set, her hands up in front of her, except that not one, but a half dozen identical mushrooms suddenly flew her way.
"Well done!" she congratulated as the real missile bounced off her forehead, the illusionary ones flying right through her, and she laughed all the louder.
"One should be careful not to raise the ire of Nanfoodle," the gnome boasted, and he puffed out his chest, which almost tightened his small cloak around him.
"I have a few here we can use to dress our dinner," the woman remarked, and she held up both hands full of mushrooms and various roots. "If you eat enough - and that has never seemed to be a problem for you! - our load will lighten."
Nanfoodle started to offer a reply, but the sound of hoofbeats stopped him short and turned both him and Shoudra to regard the road that passed just south of their camp.
"The rider has seen our fire!" the gnome said with alarm.
He fell back to the shadows, seeming to retreat even more under his cloak, and he began chanting and waggling his fingers almost immediately.
Shoudra watched the gnome with some amusement, but then focused on the road. She wasn't overly afraid, for she was a seasoned adventurer and could stand her ground with weapon and with spell.
But then everything seemed to go out of focus, as if some enchantment had engulfed the camp, and Shoudra gave a slight cry and started to dive aside.
Started to, for she quickly enough realized that the spell was not the work of an enemy, but of Nanfoodle. She glared at the gnome, who just looked at her from under the cowl of his hood, grinning from ear to ear. He placed a finger over his lips, bidding her to silence.
Up bounded the horse, a large and muscular bay stallion, bearing a tall human rider in a weather-beaten gray cloak. The man pulled his mount up short, then dismounted with practiced ease. He walked before the horse and patted the dust from his cloak, then bowed politely - bowed to a tree a couple of feet to the side of Nanfoodle.
The rider seemed to be of middle age, perhaps forty years, but was in fine physical shape, and his hair was still mostly black, with a bit of gray showing at the edges. He wore a broadsword on his left hip and a dagger on his right, and he had his right hand resting on that smaller weapon as he approached, in a position that seemed one of convenience to the untrained eye. To a seasoned adventurer like Shoudra, though, the man's posture was one of readiness. She could tell from the angle of his settled right arm that he could bring his hand around in an instant, drawing forth and launching the dagger in a single fluid movement.
"Well met, good gnome," the tall man said to the tree, and Shoudra had to fight hard to stop from giggling.
She looked to Nanfoodle, who was grinning even wider and more emphat-ically trying to silence her. The little one began waggling his fingers once more.
"I am Galen Firth of Nesme," the man introduced himself.
"And I am Nanfoodle, principal alchemist of the Marchion of Mirabar," the tree answered through the power of the illusionist gnome's spell. "Pray tell us, good sir, your business in these parts. You are a long way from home."
"As are you," Galen commented.
Indeed, but it was our camp which was violated," Nanfoodle's chosen tree replied.
Galen bowed again.
"Grim news from Nesme," he remarked. "The bog blokes and the trolls have marched upon us. Our situation is grim - I do not know if my people hold on even as we speak."
"We can turn fast for Mirabar!" came a voice from the side, Shoudra's voice, and the woman moved toward Galen.
His gig up, Nanfoodle waggled his fingers and dispelled the grand illusion, leaving Galen Firth to blink repeatedly as he tried to get his bearings.
"I am the Sceptrana of Mirabar," Shoudra explained when Galen focused on her at last. "Let us turn for Mirabar immediately, that I can persuade Mar-chion Elastul to rouse the guard to your aid."
"Riders are well on their way to your Marchion," Galen explained, and he continued to blink and look around. "My course is Mithral Hall and the court of King Bruenor Battlehammer."
The man finally focused on the real Nanfoodle, looking from the gnome to the area of illusion, as if he was still trying to figure out what had just happened, and why he was talking to and bowing before a tree.
"Mithral Hall is our destination as well," came Nanfoodle's voice from the back of the camp, and the gnome came forward under Galen's scrutinizing glare. "Forgive the misdirection illusion that greeted you, good rider of Nesme. One cannot be too careful, after all."
"Indeed," said Galen. "Especially where illusionists are concerned."
Nanfoodle grinned and bowed.
"Your horse shines with sweat," Shoudra remarked. "He cannot run much farther this night. Come, share our evening meal with us and tell us your tale of Nesme more completely. We will accompany you with all haste to find King Bruenor, and I will add what weight I can to the urgency of your cause."
"That is most generous, Sceptrana," Galen replied.
He moved to the side and tethered his horse.
"This is not good," Nanfoodle whispered to Shoudra while they were alone by the fire.
"I only hope the Marchion is more sympathetic to Nesme's plight than he has shown toward outsiders of late," Shoudra replied.
"King Bruenor will send aid," Nanfoodle reasoned, and Galen Firth, heading into the camp by then, heard him.
"I can only hope that King Bruenor's memory is short concerning slights," Galen admitted, drawing curious looks from both.
"He came through the region of Nesme some years ago," the newcomer explained as he took an offered seat on a log beside the fire. "I fear that my patrol did not treat him very well." He gave a little sigh and lowered his eyes, but then
quickly added, "It was not King Bruenor who instilled our doubts and fear, but his traveling companion, a drow elf."
"Drizzt Do'Urden," Shoudra remarked. "Yes, I expect that the company Bruenor keeps is off-putting to many people."
"I am hoping that the dwarf will see beyond our past indiscretion," said Galen, "and recognize that it is in his best interests to bolster Nesme in her time of need."
"From all that we know of King Bruenor, we would expect no less," Nan-foodle put in, and Shoudra nodded her agreement.
Galen Firth nodded as well, but his expression held grim.
The night deepened around them, and given Galen's news of Nesme, the darkness seemed all the more intimidating.
* * *
"A big well-done for yer friend Rumblebelly," Banak Brawnanvil said to Catti-brie as he and a group of others looked over the rope-strewn cliff facing down into Keeper's Dale, to see a substantial dwarf force moving east-to-west across the valley.
"He's one to count on," Catti-brie remarked. "Oo oi!" Pikel Bouldershoulder seconded.
"Well, I feel better knowing the dale's secure behind us," Ivan Boulder-shoulder joined in. "But I'm still thinking that the ridge to the west is a problem in the making."
All eyes turned to the north and west as Ivan reminded them, to view that e long mountain spur, the only higher ground in the region that seemed at all accessible.
"The orcs have been hunting beside giants," Ivan added. "They might be thinking to put a few o' them up there."
"Giants couldn't reach us from up there," Banak answered, the same reply he had offered earlier in their strategy discussions. "Long way off."
"Still a good place for them to hold," Ivan countered. "Even if they just put a few scouts up there, it will give them a fine view of the entire battlefield." It is good ground," agreed Torgar Hammerstriker. "Yer scouts get back from the ridge yet?" Banak asked. 'It's clear so far," Torgar reported. "Me boys said the place is full of tunnels. Quite a network, as far as they could tell. They're guessing that some would lead up to the high ground."
"Probably," said Ivan.
"Let me take a hunnerd," Torgar offered. "I'll go and hold those tunnels."
"And if they find out ye're there?" Banak asked. "Them orcs might come on ye in full. I'm not for losing a hundred!"
"Ye won't," Torgar assured him. "There's an entry into the tunnels way back near to the Keeper's Dale cliff, just down to the west o' here. We'll get in fast and get out faster, if need be."
Banak looked to Ivan for some answers, then to Catti-brie and Wulfgar.
"Catti-brie and I will move to the tunnel entrance and serve as liaison," Wulfgar offered.
Banak looked back out over his current defenses. They had turned the orcs back twice, though the second assault had been nowhere as determined as the first. The orc leader had simply come on again with his forces to disrupt the work of the dwarves, Banak understood, and he was quite a bit impressed by the unusual display of tactics.
Still, that second assault had done little to disrupt the dwarves' preparations, for Banak's warriors had repelled it with ease, and with many never stopping the rock chopping and stone piling. The battlefield was nearly shaped, with solid walls of piled stones forcing any orc charge into a bottleneck. Given that and the fact that the engineers were done with their initial rope work along the cliff face, Banak knew that he could spare a hundred dwarves, even two hundred, without compromising his position.
For if the orcs came on, a large number of the dwarves would have to simply stand behind their fighting kin, missing all the fun.
"Take half of yer own and sweep those tunnels clear," Banak instructed Torgar. "And get a good look at what's to the north once ye get up atop them rocks, will ye?"
"I'll paint ye a picture," Torgar said with a wide grin.
"Hee hee hee," said Pikel.
"And if they come against ye with too much, ye get yerself and yer boys out o' there," Banak instructed. "I don't want to be telling King Bruenor that I lost all his new recruits before they even got themselves into his halls!"
"Ye're not to be losing Torgar and the boys from Mirabar to a bunch of smelly orcs!" Torgar insisted.
"Even if they bring a hundred giants beside them!" agreed Shingles McRuff, the old and grizzled dwarf standing beside Torgar.
Shingles gave a wink at Banak, then dropped a friendly hand hard onto Torgar's shoulder. Torgar's look told all the onlookers that the two were good old friends indeed. In fact, Shingles had been a friend of Torgar's family long before Torgar had seen his first sunrise over Mirabar, and that was centuries gone by.
When the Marchion of Mirabar had treated Torgar so shabbily, blaming him for the warm reception some of Mirabar's dwarves had given to Bruenor, Shingles had been the first to Torgar's side, and had, in fact, been the one to organize the exodus that had taken more than four hundred of Mirabar's finest dwarves out of the city and onto the road to Mithral Hall.
And there they were, a long way from their old home but with their new home in sight across Keeper's Dale. Before they had ever gotten near to Mithral Hall, they had chanced upon the caravan fleeing the disaster of Shallows with the wounded King Bruenor. Torgar, Shingles, and the Mirabarran dwarves had fought a rearguard for that caravan and had performed brilliantly.
Even with all the fighting, even with the orc hordes pressing down upon them, not one of the Mirabarran dwarves had shown the slightest inclination to turn back to their old city in the west.
And soon after Torgar's meeting with Banak, with the potentially dangerous duty offered before them, not one backed away from volunteering to spearhead the push into the tunnels of the mountain spur.
Torgar left it to Shingles to pick the half who would accompany him.
* * *
The expressions on the faces of the three guests showed that the leader sitting on Mithral Hall's throne before them was not exactly who or what they had expected.
But Regis did not shrink away in the face of those obvious doubts.
"I am the Steward of Mithral Hall," he explained, "serving in the name and interests of King Bruenor."
And where is your king?" asked Galen Firth, his tone a bit abrupt and impatient.
"Recovering from grievous wounds," Regis admitted, and how he hoped his description was correct. "He was on the front end of the fighting you heard when you were escorted across Keeper's Dale."
Galen started to respond again, but Regis came forward and put on as stern an expression as he could muster with his cherubic features.
"I have heard rumors as to whom you three are," said the halfling, "who come here unbidden - but surely not unwelcome! - in this dangerous time. Before I answer any more of your understandable questions, I would know the truth from you, of who you are and why you have come."
"I am Galen Firth of the Riders of Nesme," said Galen, and his mention of the riders brought a hint of a scowl to the halfling's face. "Come to bid King Bruenor to send aid to my besieged town. For the trolls have arisen out of their moors. We are sorely pressed!"
Regis brought a hand up to rub his chin, and he glanced to the Battlehammer dwarves standing a bit off to the side. They were a long way from Nesme; could he dare to send any of Bruenor's clan so far and into such exposure? He offered Galen a nod, for he had nothing more to give just then.
"And you are the Sceptrana of Mirabar," Regis remarked, turning from Galen to Shoudra. "Such was told to me, and I recognize you in any case from my recent visit to your town."
"Your scrimshaw has become quite a novelty in Mirabar, good Steward Regis," Shoudra said politely, and she bowed low. "Shoudra Stargleam at the service of Mithral Hall. This is my assistant, Nanfoodle Buswilligan."
"At the service of Mithral Hall?" Regis echoed. "Or come to check on your wayward dwarves?"
The gnome at Shoudra's side bristled, but the sceptrana merely smiled all the wider.
"I pray that Torgar fares well," she replied, and if she was bothered at all by the emigration of Torgar and his band of dwarves, neither her tone nor her expression showed it.
"But you have not come to join him," said Regis.
Shoudra chuckled at the seemingly absurd notion and said, "I do not agree with Torgar's choice, nor with those who accompanied him away from Mirabar, but it was I who convinced Marchion Elastul that he must allow the dwarves to leave, if that was their decision. It was a sad day in Mirabar when Torgar Ham-merstriker and his kin departed."
"When they came to Mithral Hall," Regis reminded. "And Mithral Hall has accepted them as brothers, a bond forged in battle from the day we first met up with Torgar in the mountains and valleys north of here. They are of Clan Battlehammer now. You know this?"
"I do, and though it pains me greatly, I accept it," Shoudra finished with another bow.
"Then why have you come?"
"I beg of your pardon, Steward Regis," Galen Firth interrupted, "but I have not come to witness an argument over the disposition of purposefully misplaced dwarves. My town is besieged, my business urgent." Some of the dwarves at the side of the room began to mutter and shift uneasily as Galen's voice steadily rose in ire. "Could you not continue your discussion with Sceptrana Shoudra at a later time?"
Regis paused and stared at the tall man for a long time.
"I have heard your request," the halfling said, "and deeply regret the situation in Nesme. I too have some experience with the foul creatures of the Trollmoors, having come through that place in our search to find and reclaim Mithral Hall."
He fixed Galen with a look that told the man in no uncertain terms that he remembered well the shabby treatment the Riders of Nesme had offered to Bruenor and the Companions of the Hall on that long-ago occasion.
"But you cannot expect me to throw wide the gates of Mithral Hall and empty the place of warriors with a horde of orcs and giants pressing us across the northland," Regis went on, and he gave a glance at the dwarves and took comfort in their assenting nods. "Your situation and request will be discussed at length, and in short order, but before I adjourn this meeting I wish to have all the facts open before me concerning the disposition of all of Mithral Hall's guests, that I might bring all options to the council."
"Decisive action is necessary!" Galen argued.
"And I have not the power to give you that which you desire!" Regis yelled right back. He came forward out of the throne and stood upon the dais, which allowed him to almost look the tall man in the eye. "I am not King Bruenor. I am not the king of anything. I am a steward, an advisor. I will discuss your situation in detail with the dwarves who better understand what Mithral Hall could or could not do to aid Nesme in her time of need, particularly when we, too, are in a time of need."
"Then my business now, at this meeting, is at its end?" Galen asked, not blinking as he matched Regis's stare.
"I will take my leave, then," said Galen. "Am I to presume that Mithral Hall will offer me a place of respite, at least?"
That last "at least" had Regis narrowing his brown eyes.
"Of course," he said, though his jaw hardly moved to let the words escape.
The halfling turned to the side and nodded. A pair of dwarves moved up to flank Galen. The man gave a bow that was more curt than polite and moved off, his heavy boots emphatically thumping against the stone floor.
"He is fearful for the fate of his town, is all," Shoudra remarked when Galen had left.
"True enough," Regis agreed. "And I certainly understand his fears and impatience. But the folk of Clan Battlehammer do not consider Nesme to be much of a friend, I fear, for Nesme has never shown much friendship to the folk of Mithral Hall. When we came looking for the Hall those many years ago, we encountered a group of the Riders of Nesme just outside of the Trollmoors. They were in dire straits, under assault by a band of bog blokes. Bruenor didn't hesitate to go to their rescue - neither did Wulfgar, nor Drizzt. We saved their lives, I believe, and were soundly rebuffed in return."
"Because of the drow elf," Shoudra said.
"True enough," Regis sighed. He gave a little shrug as he settled back in his chair. "That in itself wasn't such a problem. It has happened often and will again."
His obvious reference to the treatment the caravan out of Icewind Dale had received at Mirabar's gate, where Drizzt Do'Urden had not been allowed entrance, had the woman and the gnome looking to each other with a bit of embarrassment.
"After the reclamation of Mithral Hall, Settlestone was rebuilt," the half-ling went on. "By Uthgardt warriors, not dwarves."
"I remember Berkthgar the Bold and his people," said Shoudra.
"The community was promising early on," said Regis. "We were all hopeful that the barbarians from Icewind Dale would flourish here. But while they maintained a close relationship with Mithral Hall, their primary goods - furs - were of little use to the dwarves who lived underground, where the temperature remains nearly constant. If Nesme, the closest neighbor of Berkthgar's people, had welcomed them with trade, Settlestone might still thrive today. Instead, it is just another abandoned ruin along the mountain pass."
"The people of Nesme lead a difficult existence," Shoudra remarked. "They suffer on the very edge of the dangerous moors, in nearly constant battle. They have learned through tragic experience that they must rely upon themselves most of all, oftentimes only upon themselves. Not a family in Nesme has not known the tragedy of loss. Most have witnessed at least one of their loved ones being carried off by horrid trolls."
"It's all true," Regis admitted. "And I do understand. But I could not pledge any help to Galen. Not now. Not with Bruenor lying near death and the orcs pressing us to our gates."
"Offer him a sanctuary, then," Shoudra suggested. "Tell him that if his people are overrun, they should turn to Mithral Hall, where they will find friendship, comfort, and shelter."
Regis was nodding before she ever finished, for that was exactly along the lines he had been thinking.
"Perhaps we might find some spare warriors to return with him to Nesme, as well," the halfling said. He paused for a moment, then gave a little snort. "Here I am, begging advice from a visitor. A fine steward am I!"
Shoudra started to reply, but Nanfoodle cut in, "The finest leaders are those who listen more than they talk."
That brought a smile to Shoudra and to Regis, but the halfling asked, "Does that show wisdom? Or trepidation?"
"For one whose actions greatly affect others, they are one and the same," Nanfoodle insisted.
Regis pondered that remark, and took some comfort in it. However, the finest leader Regis had ever known was none other than Bruenor Battlehammer, and if the dwarf was ever unsure of a decision, even the boldest of decisions, he surely had never shown it.