"I have heard of your citadel," Nanfoodle said to Nikwillig.
The gnome was wandering the grounds outside of Mithral Hall's western gate when he came upon his fellow visitor to the Battlehammer stronghold sitting on a flat stone in Keeper's Dale. They could hear the fighting up above them in the north.
"Me kinsman Tred's up there now," Nikwillig remarked.
"You fear for him," reasoned the gnome.
"For Tred?" came the laughing response. "Nah, never that. Nikwillig's the name here, little one, and who might yerself be?"
"Nanfoodle Buswilligan at your service, good dwarf," the gnome answered with a polite bow. "A visitor to Mithral Hall, as are you."
"Ye come from Silverymoon?"
"Mirabar," Nanfoodle answered. "I serve as Marchion Elastul's Principal Alchemist."
'Alchemist?" Nikwillig echoed, and his tone clearly showed that he didn't hold much faith in that particular art. "Well, what's an alchemist doing out on the wider roads?"
That question set off warning bells in Nanfoodle's head and reminded him that perhaps he should not be so forthcoming, given his true mission. Certainly Torgar and the others from Mirabar knew the truth of his position in that city, but why make the information so readily available?
"Better that yer marchion sent a war advisor, I'm thinking," the dwarf added.
"Ah, but we did not know that Mithral Hall was at war," Nanfoodle answered, and coincidentally, at that moment, horns blew up above, followed by the rousing cheers of another dwarf charge. "I came with the sceptrana, following the exodus of many of Mirabar's dwarves."
"I heard about that," Nikwillig replied. He turned to the cliff behind him and nodded. "Torgar and his boys're up there now, from what I'm hearing."
"Doing Mirabar proud, though they are not of Mirabar any longer."
"Ye come to coax them back, did ye?"
Nanfoodle shook his head.
"To check on them," said the gnome. "Too see that their journey went well and that their reception here was appropriate. There are bridges to be rebuilt - animosity serves neither Mirabar nor Mithral Hall."
How Nanfoodle wished that he could believe in those words as he spoke them!
"Ah," Nikwillig mumbled. "Well, no worry then. No better hosts in all the world than King Bruenor and his kin, unless of course one goes to Citadel Fel-barr and the court of King Emerus Warcrown."
"They have treated you and your friend well?"
"How do ye think King Bruenor got himself knocked silly?" Nikwillig said. "He was hunting the band of orcs and giants that hit me and Tred. We paid them back, too, we did, though in the end too many of the stinking orcs came onto the field. Aye ... no better friend than Bruenor Battlehammer."
"How will your king react to this attack?" Nanfoodle asked, genuinely curious.
The gnome had always recognized the bond between dwarves - and had been among the loudest voices warning Marchion Elastul and his advisors that he might be erring greatly in his treatment of Torgar Hammerstriker. It touched Nanfoodle to hear this dwarf of Citadel Felbarr, the closest dwarven stronghold to Mithral Hall and certainly a trading rival, speaking so highly of Bruenor and his kin.
The gnome glanced up the tall cliff, thinking that Tred was up there battling, risking his life for a kingdom that was not his own. And that Torgar was up there, and Shingles McRuff as well, no doubt fighting with all the fury they would muster in defending Mirabar herself.
Nanfoodle began to ask another question, but the dwarf perked up suddenly and looked past him. Nikwillig hopped down and pushed past the gnome to intercept a dwarf wearing long robes.
"What of King Bruenor then?" Nikwillig asked. "Ye been with him?"
The dwarf, young in appearance but looking quite weary and worn, straight-d jjjs shoulders and his robes and tucked his brown beard into the belt sash.
"Hello once again, Nikwillig of Citadel Felbarr," he said.
"This is me new friend, Nanfoodle," Nikwillig introduced, pulling the gnome forward.
"Of Mirabar, yes," the dwarf replied, and he gave Nanfoodle's small hand a solid grasp and shake. "Cordio Muffmhead at yer service."
"Priest of Moradin," the gnome observed, and Cordio bowed deeply.
"And yes, I've just come from the side of King Bruenor, where yet again today, meself and several others have exhausted our magical energies on his behalf."
"To gain?" Nikwillig asked.
"So we were thinking," the despondent cleric replied. "King Bruenor uttered some words earlier, and we thought he'd found his way back to us. But he was calling to his father and his father's father, warning them of the shadow."
"The shadow?" Nanfoodle asked.
"The shadow dragon, perhaps," Cordio added.
"King Bruenor was seeing in the past," Nikwillig explained. "Far in the past, before Clan Battlehammer got chased away from Mithral Hall, to wander and settle in Icewind Dale."
"Where I was born," Cordio said. "I never knew Mithral Hall until King Bruenor took it back. What a fight that was, I tell ye! I was there all the way, fighting right beside Dagnabbit, finest young warrior in all the clan."
"Dagnabbit fell at Shallows," Nikwillig explained to Nanfoodle, and the gnome offered a deferential nod at Cordio.
"Lost me a good friend that dark day," Cordio admitted. "But he died fight-ing orcs - no dwarf could ever be wanting a better way to go."
Cordio turned around and stepped away from the flat stone. Many other dwarves were in the area, ferrying supplies - both up the rope ladders to Banak Brawnanvil and his boys and out to the west where a force was digging in for the defense of Keeper's Dale. Other dwarves coming back from the wall in the north ferried the wounded and dead.
"Been a long and bloody history in these lands," Cordio remarked. "Lots o' dead dwarves."
"More dead orcs," Nanfoodle reminded. "And more dead goblins."
That brought a grin to the weary cleric, and Nikwillig clapped Cordio warmly on the shoulder.
"The most dwarves o' Mithral Hall that ever died in one place at one time, died right about where ye're sitting," Cordio explained to Nanfoodle.
"In the fight with the drow?" Nikwillig asked.
"Nah," answered the cleric. "Long before that. Way back afore me father's father's father's time. Way back when Gandalug was just a boy."
That news brought wide eyes from both of Cordio's listeners. Gandalug Battlehammer had become quite a legend in Mirabar and Citadel Felbarr, and everywhere else in the North. He had been the proud and revered King of Mithral Hall centuries before, but he had been magically imprisoned and wound up in the clutches of Matron Mother Baenre of Menzoberranzan. When the drow had come against Mithral Hall a decade before, Bruenor had slain Baenre and had freed Gandalug. And Bruenor had returned to Icewind Dale, which had been his home for centuries, giving Mithral Hall back to his returned ancestor.
"Gandalug telled me so much of them old days," Cordio Muffinhead went on, and his gray eyes seemed to look off in the distance, across space and time. "He oft walked with me out here in Keeper's Dale. The dale wasn't a valley in his childhood, but this whole place ..." He paused and swept his short arms out to encompass the whole of the rocky dale. "This whole place was the grand entry way of Mithral Hall, and what a foyer it was! With great towers. . .." He laughed and pointed to some of the closer obelisks that so dotted the floor of Keeper's Dale. "Every one o' them was covered in carvings, ye know. Grand carvings. Battles of old, even the finding of Mithral Hall. Ye can't see 'em now - wind's taken them and scattered them to the bounds o' time.
"Like the dead, ye know? Scattered and gone when we're not remembering them anymore." Cordio gave a helpless little chuckle and added, "I'm not thinking to let Gandalug or Dagnabbit go that way for a bit!"
Nanfoodle sat quietly, staring at that most unusual dwarf and at the effect his words were obviously having on Nikwillig. Their bond struck the gnome profoundly. As thick as a dwarven handshake, it seemed, or as a mug of the mead the dwarves passed off as holy water.
Nikwillig inquired as to what could have so caused the complete destruction of an area as large as Keeper's Dale, and in looking around, what most struck Nanfoodle was the lack of rubble and broken stones.
"Flight o' dragons?" Nikwillig asked, and Nanfoodle answered "No" even before Cordio could.
Both dwarves looked at the gnome.
"Ye've heard the story?" Cordio asked.
"They had tunnels below here," Nanfoodle reasoned. "Mines. And they hit some hot air."
He didn't have to explain to either of the dwarves, who had spent years and years working in tunnels, about the dangers and potential catastrophe of "hot air," or natural gas deposits. Any dwarf would babble on for hours about the dangers of their tunnels or the deeper Underdark, of goblins and displacer beasts, of drow and shadow dragons. Few spoke openly about hot air, though, for it was a killer they could not smash with a hammer or chop with an axe.
Nanfoodle could only imagine the height of catastrophe that had shaped Keeper's Dale. It must have been quite a flow of hot air to get up there so completely and in so short a span of time as to go undetected until it was too late. The gnome could imagine those last frantic moments - perhaps the dwarves had at last detected the invisible killer. And the explosion, a clean puff of fiery orange and the grating of stone being torn apart. The area all around Keeper's Dale was littered with boulders. Nanfoodle had a better idea of what had put them there.
"No mines below Keeper's Dale now," Cordio Muffinhead remarked. "We shut them down centuries ago. Sealed them good!"
Nanfoodle nodded his agreement. Before going out there, he had wandered around the great Undercity of Mithral Hall, with the lines of forges and the many entryways for carts filled with orc coming in from all the working mines. There were many maps down there, old and new, and in recalling some of them, it seemed to Nanfoodle indeed that the western gate to Mithral Hall was the westernmost point below, as well as above.
Their thoughts were interrupted then by renewed shouts and sounds of battle from up on the cliff to the north. Cordio Muffinhead glanced that way and gave a great sigh.
"I must go and take my rest," he remarked. "My powers will be needed all too soon, I fear."
"Damn orcs," muttered Nikwillig.
Nanfoodle eyed the Felbarr dwarf for a long while, then meandered back to the gate and into Mithral Hall. He headed for the Undercity and the maps, wanting to view them again in light of Cordio's tale.
* * *
Regis was surprised to see Torgar Hammerstriker awaiting an audience later that day.
"Well met, Steward," the dwarf from Mirabar greeted with a low bow.
"The battle goes well?"
Torgar gave a shrug and replied, "Orcs ain't really throwing much our way. They're more thinking to knock down our defenses and stop us from digging in too deep, is me own guess."
"While they bring up allies," Regis reasoned and Torgar nodded.
"Group o' giants been seen moving this way."
"I'm surprised that you've come down then."
"Just for a bit," said Torgar. "Just to see yerself in private. I'm moving me Mirabar dwarfs off to Banak's left flank when darkness falls. We're to hold the tunnels beneath the mountain spur."
"We've protected the backside, the western end of Keeper's Dale, as much as we can," Regis explained. "Every dwarf but the necessary workers in Mithral Hall are out on the fronts now, but I couldn't send too many out. We have reports of trouble in Nesme, not too far to the southwest, and there are tunnels connecting to our mines from there."
"Protect the hall at all costs," Torgar agreed. "Them who're outside will run back in, if they're needing to."
Regis replied with a warm smile, for he was truly glad to hear even more approval of his decisions. This mantle of steward weighed heavily upon him, even though he realized that the true leaders of Mithral Hall in Bruenor's absence, the toughened Battlehammer dwarves, wouldn't let him do anything they didn't agree with.
"And I come down here to talk to yerself about protecting yer hall," Torgar went on. "Ye've got more visitors from Mirabar, so's been told to me."
"The sceptrana herself, and a gnome companion," Regis confirmed.
"Good enough folk, mostly," said Torgar. "But keep yer head that Mirabar's in desperate straits now that me and so many o' me kin've walked away. Nan-foodie's a clever one, and Shoudra's got some powerful magic at her disposal."
"You believe they were sent here to do more than check up on your welcome?"
"I'm not for knowing," Torgar admitted. "But when I heard from Catti-brie that they'd come in, first thing I thinked was that them two are worth watchin'."
"From afar," Regis agreed, and Torgar nodded again.
"Whatever ye're thinking is best, Steward Regis," he said, and the halfling could hardly hold back from wincing at the open recitation of his title. "I just figured it'd be best for me to come to yerself direct and let ye know me feelings."
"And it is appreciated, Torgar," Regis quickly replied. "More than you can understand. You and your boys from Mirabar have already proven yourselves as friends of the hall, and I expect that Bruenor will have more than a little to say to you all when he awakens. He does like to personally greet the newest members of his clan, after all."
Regis knew that he had worded that perfectly when he saw the smile beam out from Torgar's hairy face. The dwarf nodded and bowed, then moved off, leaving Regis with his warning.
What to do about Shoudra and Nanfoodle? the halfling wondered. Regis had been taken by their warmth and openness in his meeting with them, and certainly, they seemed to be reasonable enough folks. But the Steward of Mithral Hall could not ignore the possibility of mischief, not when such mischief could prove absolutely disastrous for Clan Battlehammer.
* * *
"You understand that you did not come down here alone," Shoudra Star-gleam remarked to Nanfoodle when she caught up to the gnome along the floor of the Undercity.
Hammers rang out all around them and smoke filled the uncomfortably warm air, for every furnace was fully stoked, every anvil engaged. To the side, great whetstones spun unceasingly, weapon after weapon running across them, honing the fine edges so that they could be delivered back to the forces engaged with the orcs.
"They are unobtrusive enough," the gnome replied, referring to the dwarf pair who had quietly shadowed his every movement through the tunnels. Nanfoodle wiped the sweat from his face, then pulled off his red robe and began to cross it over his forearm. Noting the soot that had already settled upon the fine garment, the gnome crinkled his long nose, brushed the robe, then reversed it back to its weathered brown. "Could we expect anything else?"
"Of course not," Shoudra agreed. "And I do not complain of our treatment here, certainly. Steward Regis is a fine host. But if we are to carry out our designs, we might need a bit of deceptive magic. Easily enough accomplished."
The sceptrana narrowed her gaze as she scrutinized Nanfoodle's sour expression.
With a shrug, the gnome continued on his way, Shoudra falling into step beside him.
"Why here?" she asked. "Would we not have a better opportunity in the lower transfer rooms, where the separated orc awaits delivery?"
Still the sour expression, and Nanfoodle noticeably increased his pace.
"Or have you perhaps forgotten why we ventured here to Mithral Hall?" Shoudra asked bluntly.
"I have forgotten nothing," Nanfoodle snapped back.
"Second thoughts, then?"
"Have you noted the treatment Mithral Hall has afforded Torgar and the others?"
"Regis needs the warriors," Shoudra replied. "Torgar was a convenient addition."
Nanfoodle stopped and stared hard at her.
The sceptrana smiled helplessly back. Of course the gnome was right, she knew. Torgar and the other dwarves of Mirabar were helping the cause, and in a vital role, and it was just that vital role that proved Nanfoodle's point. Bruenor's clan had taken the Mirabarran dwarves at their word and on their honor, without question. Especially in such dangerous times, that was no small thing.
"You have made a friend in the other visitor to Mithral Hall, I have heard," she remarked as Nanfoodle started on his way once more.
"Nikwillig of Citadel Felbarr - a place that is as much a rival to Mithral Hall as is Mirabar, surely," the gnome explained. "Have you heard his tale?"
"You will tell me that Bruenor fell avenging him," Shoudra predicted, for she had indeed.
They came up to a large wood and stone table then, its front side holding a rack of pigeon holes and each with a rolled parchment inside. Nanfoodle bent low, reading the descriptions, then he pulled forth a map and unrolled it on the sloping tabletop. A quick perusal brought a frustrated sigh, and the gnome bent low again, seeking a second map.
"None are better at shaping an axe blade, but one would think that these dwarves would know how to label a simple map!" he complained.
Shoudra put her hand on his shoulder, drawing his attention.
"We are being observed, you understand," she said.
"Then what are you doing?"
Nanfoodle drew out the second map and stood straight, spreading it over the first one before him.
"Trying to determine how I might aid in the cause of Clan Battlehammer," the gnome said matter-of-factly.
Shoudra's hand slapped down on the center of the map.
"Bruenor fought for the dwarves of Felbarr," the gnome responded.
"Bruenor himself! Fighting for a rival. Would Marchion Elastul think of such a thing?"
"Is it our place to judge?"
"Is it not?"
Shoudra glared at her diminutive companion - or tried to, for in truth, she had a hard task in defending their mission. They had come to use Nanfoodle's alchemical potions to secretly ruin a great deal of Mithral Hall's orc, that Clan Battlehammer would produce a batch of inferior works - perhaps enough to weaken Mithral Hall's reputation with the merchants of the North, thus affording Mirabar an upper hand in the trade war.
"How petty are we two, Shoudra?" Nanfoodle quietly asked. "The marchion pays me well, 'tis true, but how am I to ignore that which I see about me? These dwarves follow a course of justice, first and foremost. They welcomed Torgar and the wayward pair from Felbarr with open hearts."
"Dwarf to dwarf," came the skeptical reply.
"And dwarf to gnome, and dwarf to sceptrana," Nanfoodle countered. "Consider our welcome here compared to that which Elastul afforded King Bruenor."
"You are beginning to sound a bit too much like Torgar Hammerstriker," the tall and beautiful woman remarked.
"You did not disagree with Torgar."
"Not with his greeting of King Bruenor, no," Shoudra admitted. "But with his abandonment of Mirabar? I do indeed disagree, Nanfoodle. I am glad of our reception, do not doubt, and I harbor no ill will toward Bruenor and his clan, but I am first and foremost the Sceptrana of Mirabar, and there remains my first loyalty."
"Do not ask me to poison their metal," Nanfoodle pleaded. "Not now . . . I beg you."
Shoudra stared at him for a few moments, then backed away, removing her hand from the map.
"No, of course not," she agreed, and Nanfoodle gave a great sigh of relief. Our actions would do more than wound them in trade, but would likely cost the lives of many now engaged with the foul orcs. Clearly Elastul would agree with our decision to abort the mission ... for now."
Nanfoodle nodded and smiled, but his expression told Shoudra clearly that he, like her, did not believe that last statement in the least. Shoudra knew - and it truly pained her to know - that Marchion Elastul would insist on attack-ing the orc even more aggressively if he thought it might bring even greater catastrophe upon Mithral Hall.
"So tell me what you are looking for, and what you plan to do?" she asked the gnome, and she peered at the map over his shoulder, recognizing it at once as the westernmost reaches of Mithral Hall, the gate at Keeper's Dale and the tunnels below.
"I do not yet know," Nanfoodle admitted. "But I will see what I can see and try to find a way to use my expertise to the benefit of the cause."
"Seeking a better offer from King Bruenor?" Shoudra asked with a wry grin.
Nanfoodle started to protest, until he noted her expression.
"I have been here but a couple of days and already I feel as if Mithral Hall is more my home than Mirabar ever was," he admitted.
Shoudra didn't argue the point. She wasn't quite as enamored of the place, for the whole of it was below ground, but she certainly understood the gnome's feelings.
"You should study beside me," Nanfoodle said, turning his attention back to the map. "Your skills with magic could prove of great value to Clan Battle-hammer in this dark time."
Again, despite herself, Shoudra didn't argue the point.
* * *
Exhausted and with several new wounds to attend, Catti-brie was barely back into Mithral Hall that night when she heard the commotion of the clerics rushing to her father's side. The woman dropped her cloak, her bow, and even her sword belt right there in the hallway and sprinted off to the room, to find her father's bed surrounded by a handful of priests and Pikel Bouldershoulder. All of them were chanting, praying, and one by one they placed their hands gently on Bruenor's chest and released their healing magic.
Halfway through the process, Bruenor actually moved a bit and even coughed, but then he settled quickly back into his completely sedentary state.
Cordio Muffinhead and Stumpet Rakingclaw, the two highest ranking clerics, took a moment to examine Bruenor, then looked around and nodded with satisfaction. They had staved off another potential disaster, had once again brought Bruenor back from the very brink of death.
Catti-brie spent more time looking at the priests then, than at her resting father. Several leaned on the edge of Bruenor's bed, obviously spent, and though they had performed another apparent miracle, not a one of them seemed overly pleased - not even the perpetually happy Pikel.
They began to filter out then, moving past Cathi-brie, most of them patting her on the shoulder as they passed.
"Every day we come to him. . . ." Cordio Muffinhead remarked when he and Catti-brie were alone in the room.
Catti-brie moved to her father's side and knelt by the bed. She took his hand in her own and squeezed it to her breast. How cool he felt, as if the energy of his life had diminished to almost nothingness. She gave a cursory glance around the room, to the many candles and the warm furnishings, trying to remind herself that this was a very different place than the cramped, dark, and wet tunnels beneath the ruins of Withegroo's crumbled tower in Shallows. Surely it was more comfortably furnished and ventilated, and gently lit, but to Catti-brie, it didn't seem all that different. The focus of the young woman could not be the furnishings, nor the light, but on, always on, the central figure that lay so very still in the middle of the room.
In looking at him at that moment, Catti-brie was reminded of another friend lying close to death. Back in the west, along the Sword Coast, she and the others had found Drizzt in such a state, lying mortally wounded on one side of the room with Le'lorinel - Ellifain - that most tragic of elves, similarly slashed on the other. Drizzt had begged her to save Ellifain instead of him, to use the one magical potion available to them to heal the elf's wounds and not his own.
Bruenor had been the one to dismiss that thought out of hand, and so Drizzt had survived. Still, Catti-brie and the others had been given a difficult choice at that moment, and they had acted for their own personal needs and for the greater good - fortunately, the two had seemed congruous.
But what about now? Were their personal, perhaps even selfish, desires making them all follow a course that was not for the greater good?
The heroics of the clerics were keeping Bruenor alive - if what he was now could even be considered alive. Every day, often more than once, they had to rush in and put forth their greatest healing efforts just to bring him back to that comatose state of near-death.
"Should we just let ye go?" the woman asked Bruenor quietly.
"What was that ye say?" asked Cordio, hustling over beside her.
Catti-brie looked up at the dwarf, studied his concerned expression, and smiled and said, "Not a thing, Cordio. Was just calling to my father."
She looked back at Bruenor's grayish face and added, "But he's not hearing me."
"He knows ye're here," the dwarf whispered, and he put his hands on the back of the woman's shoulders, offering her his strength.
"Does he? I'm not thinking it so," Catti-brie replied. "Might that that's the Problem. Have ye lost all of your heart and hope?" she asked Bruenor. "Are you thinking me dead, and Wulfgar and Regis and Drizzt all dead? The orcs won at Shallows, from what you know, didn't they?"
She stared at Bruenor a moment longer, then looked up at Cordio, and his expression was all the agreement she needed.
"Is he all right?" came a call from the door, and the two looked to see Regis come running into the room, Wulfgar close behind.
Cordio assured them that Bruenor was fine, then took his leave, but not before bowing low to Catti-brie's side and offering her a kiss on the cheek.
"Keep talking to him, then," the dwarf whispered.
Catti-brie squeezed Bruenor's hand all the tighter and focused all of her senses on that hand, seeking some return grasp, some tiny hint that Bruenor felt her presence.
Nothing. Just the cool, seemingly inanimate skin.
The woman took a deep breath, gave another squeeze, then forced herself back to her feet and turned around to regard her friends.
"We've got some choices we're needing to make," she said, holding her voice steady with great determination.
Wulfgar looked at her curiously, but Regis, more familiar with all that was going on within the hall, offered a loud sigh.
"The priests grow more and more frustrated," he said.
"And they're needed elsewhere, as much as here," Catti-brie made herself admit, though every word stung her profoundly. She looked back at poor Bruenor, his breath coming so shallow that she couldn't even see the rise and fall of his chest. "We have wounded with injuries that can be tended."
"Do you believe they will leave their king?' Wulfgar asked, with a hint of anger edging his tone. "Bruenor is Mithral Hall. He brought his clan back here and brought them back to prominence. They owe him all of their efforts and more."
"And do you think Bruenor would want that?" Regis asked before Catti-brie could reply. "If he knew that others were suffering, perhaps even dying, because so many priests were stuck here time after time, holding him alive when he had so little life left in him, he would not be pleased."
"How can you speak such words?" Wulfgar shouted back. "After all that Bruenor has - "
"None of us love him less than yourself," Catti-brie interrupted. She moved right up to Wulfgar and pushed his pointing, accusing fingers aside, battling with him for a moment before wrapping her arms around him and pulling him close. "Not me, and not Rumblebelly."
She finished by hugging Wulfgar even tighter, and he didn't resist.
"None of us can serve in his stead," Regis remarked. "I am Steward of Mithral Hall, but that is only because I speak for Bruenor. I cannot speak without Bruenor - not to Clan Battlehammer."
"Nor can I, and not Wulfgar nor Drizzt," Catti-brie agreed, finally letting go and stepping back from the overwhelmed barbarian. "Only a dwarf can serve as King of Mithral Hall, but I'm thinking that we three, as Bruenor's family and friends, will have a large say in who succeeds him. We owe it to Bruenor to choose well."
"It would have been Dagnabbit, I think," said Regis.
"His father, then?" Catti-brie asked, and though she had incited it, she could hardly believe that they were discussing such grim business.
Regis shook his head and replied, "Dagna wouldn't take it... as he refused the stewardship. We should speak with him, of course, but he's shown little interest."
"Then who?" asked Wulfgar.
"Cordio Muffinhead has been an amazing leader among the dwarves in the hall," Regis remarked. "He has organized the defense of the lower tunnels brilliantly, as well as putting all of the priests into balanced shifts to handle the wounded and Bruenor."
"But Cordio's not a Battlehammer," Catti-brie reminded them. "And never has a priest led Mithral Hall."
"The Brawnanvil's are the closest cousins of Bruenor," said Wulfgar. "And surely none has distinguished himself any greater than Banak in the fighting outside the hall."
The other two thought on that for a moment, then each nodded their agreement.
"Banak, then," said Regis. "If he survives the war with the orcs."
"And if..." Catti-brie started to add, but the words caught in her throat, and she turned back to regard Bruenor.
They would recommend Banak as the new King of Mithral Hall, but only, of course, after her father, the dear old dwarf who had taken her in as an orphaned child and raised her with dignity and hope, had passed on from the world of flesh and blood.
Part Two - Looking In The Mirror
I erred, as I knew I would. Rationally, in those moments when I have been able to slip away from my anger, I have known for some time that my actions have bordered on recklessness, and that I would find my end out here on the mountain slopes.
Is that what I have desired all along, since the fall of Shallows? Do I seek the end of pain at the end of a spear?
There is so much more to this orc assault than we believed when first we encountered the two wayward and wounded dwarves from Citadel Fel-barr. The orcs have found organization and cooperation, at least to an extent that they save their sharpened swords for a common enemy. All the North is threatened, surely, especially Mithral Hall, and I would not be surprised to learn that the dwarves have already buttoned themselves up inside their dark halls, sealing their great doors against the assault of the overwhelming orc hordes.
Perhaps it is that realization, that these hordes threaten the place that for so long was my home, that so drives me on to strike against the raiders. Perhaps my actions are bringing some measure of discomfort to the invaders, and some level of assistance to the dwarves.
Or is that line of thinking merely justification? Can I admit that possibility to myself at least? Because in my heart I know that even if the orcs had retreated back to their holes after the fall of Shallows, I would not have turned back for Mithral Hall. I would have followed the orcs to the darkest places, scimitars high and ready, Guenhwyvar crouched beside me. I would have struck hard at them, as I do now, taking what little pleasure seems left in my life in the warmth of spilling orc blood.
How I hate them.
Or is it even them?
It is all too confusing to me. I strike hard and in my mind I see Bruenor atop the burning tower, tumbling to his death. I strike hard and in my mind I see Ellifain falling wounded across the room, slumping to her death.
I strike hard, and if I am lucky, I see nothing - nothing but the blur of the moment. As my instincts engulf my rational mind, I am at peace.
And yet, as those immediate needs retreat, as the orcs flee or fall dead, I often find unintended and unwelcome consequences.
What pain I have caused Guenhwyvar these last days! The panther comes to my call unerringly and fights as I instruct and as her instincts guide. I ask her to go against great foes, and there is no complaint. I hear her wounded cry as she writhes in the grip of a giant, but there is no accusation toward me buried within that wail. And when I call upon her again, after her rest in the Astral Plane, she is there, by my side, not judging, uncomplaining.
It is as it was in the Underdark those days after I walked out of Men-zoberranzan. She is my only contact to the humanity within me, the only window on my heart and soul. I know that I should be rid of her now, that I should hand her over to one more worthy, for I have no hope that I will survive this ordeal. How great it wounds me to think of the figurine that summons Guenhwyvar, the link to the astral spirit of the panther, in the clutches of an orc.
And yet, I find that I cannot make that trip to Mithral Hall to turn over the panther to the dwarves. I cannot walk this road without her, and it is a road I am unable to turn from.
I am weak, perhaps, or I am a fool. Whichever the case, I am not yet ready to stop this war I wage; I am not yet ready to abandon the warmth of spilled orc blood. These beasts have brought this pain upon me, and I will repay them a thousand thousand times over, until my scimitars slip from my weakened grasp and I fall dying to the stone.
I can only hope that Guenhwyvar has gone beyond the compulsion of the magic figurine, that she has found some free will against its pressure. I believe that she has, and that if an orc pries the figurine from my dead body and somehow discovers how to use it, he will bring to his side the instrument of his death.
That is my hope at least.
Perhaps it is another lie, another justification.
Perhaps I am lost in a web of such soft lies too deep to sift through.
I know only the pain of memory and the pleasure of the hunt. I will take that pleasure, to the end.
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