They were shadows among the shadows, flickering movements that disappeared before the eye could take them in. And there was no sound. Though three hundred dark elves moved in formation, right flank, left flank, center, there was no sound.
They had come to the west of Menzoberranzan, seeking the easier and wider tunnels that would swing them back toward the east and all the way to the surface, to Mithril Hall. Blingdenstone, the city of svirfnebli, whom the drow hated above all others, was not so far away, another benefit of this roundabout course.
Uthegental Armgo paused in one small, sheltered cubby. The tunnels were wide here, uncomfortably so. Svirfnebli were tacticians and builders; in a fight they would depend on formations, perhaps even on war machines, to compete with the more stealthy and individual-minded drow. The widening of these particular tunnels was no accident, Uthegental knew, and no result of nature. This battlefield had long ago been prepared by his enemies.
So where were they? Uthegental had come into their domain with three hundred drow, his group leading an army of eight thousand dark elves and thousands of humanoid slaves. And yet, though Blingdenstone itself could not be more than a twenty minute march from his position-and his scouts were even closer than that-there had been no sign of svirfnebli.
The wild patron of Barrison del'Armgo was not happy. Uthegental liked things predictable, at least as far as enemies were concerned, and had hoped that he and his warriors would have seen some action against the gnomes by now. It was no accident that his group, that he, was at the forefront of the drow army. That had been a concession by Baenre to Mez'Barris, an affirmation of the importance of the second house. But with that concession came responsibility, which Matron Mez'Barris had promptly dropped on Uthegental's sturdy shoulders. House Barrison del'Armgo needed to come out of this war with high glory, particularly in light of Matron Baenre's incredible display in the destruction of House Oblodra. When this business with Mithril Hall was settled, the rearrangement of the pecking order in Menzoberranzan would likely begin. Interhouse wars seemed unavoidable, with the biggest holes to be filled those ranks directly behind Barrison del'Armgo.
Thus had Matron Mez'Barris promised full fealty to Baenre, in exchange for being personally excused from the expedition. She remained in Menzoberranzan, solidifying her house's position and working closely with Triel Baenre in forming a web of lies and allies to insulate House Baenre from further accusations. Baenre had agreed with Mez'Barris's offer, knowing that she, too, would be vulnerable if all did not go well in Mithril Hall.
With the matron mother of his house back in Menzoberranzan, the glory of House Barrison del'Armgo was Uthegental's to find. The fierce warrior was glad for the task, but he was edgy as well, filled with nervous energy, wanting a battle, any battle, that he might whet his appetite for what was to come, and might wet the end of his wicked trident with the blood of an enemy.
But where were the ugly little svirfnebli? he wondered. The marching plan called for no attack on Blingdenstone proper- not on the initial journey, at least. If there was to be an assault on the gnome city, it would come on the return from Mithril Hall, after the main objective had been realized. Uthegental had been given permission to test svirfneblin defenses, though, and to skirmish with any gnomes he and his warriors found out in the open tunnels.
Uthegental craved that, and had already determined that if he found and tested the gnome defenses and discovered sufficient holes in them, he would take the extra step, hoping to return to Baenre's side with the head of the svirfneblin king on the end of his trident.
All glory for Barrison del'Armgo.
One of the scouts slipped back past the guards, moved right up to the fierce warrior. Her fingers flashed in the silent drow code, explaining to her leader that she had gone closer, much closer, had even seen the stairway that led up to the level of Blingdenstone's massive front gates. But no sign had she seen of the svirfnebli.
It had to be an ambush; every instinct within the seasoned weapon master told Uthegental that the svirfnebli were lying in wait, in full force. Almost any other dark elf, a race known for caution when dealing with others (mostly because the drow knew they could always win such encounters if they struck at the appropriate time), would have relented. In truth, Uthegental's mission, a scouting expedition, was now complete, and he could return to Matron Baenre with a full report that she would be pleased to hear.
But fierce Uthegental was not like other drow. He was less than relieved, was, in fact boiling with rage.
Take me there, his fingers flashed, to the surprise of the female scout.
You are too valuable, the female's hands replied.
"All of us!" Uthegental roared aloud, his volume surprising every one of the many dark elves about him. But Uthegental wasn't startled, and did not relent. "Send the word along every column," he went on, "to follow my lead to the very gates of Blingdenstone!"
More than a few drow soldiers turned nervous looks to each other. They numbered three hundred, a formidable force, but Blingdenstone held many times that number, and svirfnebli, full of tricks with the stone and often allied with powerful monsters from the Plane of Earth, were not easy foes. Still, not one of the dark elves would argue with Uthegental Armgo, especially since he alone knew what Matron Baenre expected of this point group.
And so they arrived in full, at the stairway and up it they climbed, to the very gates of Blingdenstone-gates that a drow engineer found devilishly trapped, with the entire ceiling above them rigged to fall if they were opened. Uthegental called to a priestess that had been assigned to his group.
You can get one of us past the barrier? his fingers asked her, to which she nodded.
Uthegental's stream of surprises continued when he indicated he would personally enter the svirfneblin city. It was an unheard-of request. No drow leader ever went in first; that's what commoners were for.
But again, who would argue with Uthegental? In truth, the priestess really didn't care if this arrogant male got torn apart. She began her casting at once, a spell that would make Uthegental as insubstantial as a wraith, would make his form melt away into something that could slip through the slightest cracks. When it was done, the brave Uthegental left without hesitation, without bothering to leave instructions in the event that he did not return.
Proud and supremely confident, Uthegental simply did not think that way.
A few minutes later, after passing through the empty guard chambers, crisscrossed with cunningly built trenches and fortifications, Uthegental became only the second drow, after Drizzt Do'Urden, to glance at the rounded, natural houses of the svirfnebli and the winding, unremarkable ways that composed their city. How different Blingdenstone was from Menzoberranzan, built in accord with what the gnomes had found in the natural caverns, rather than sculpted and reformed into an image that a dark elf would consider more pleasing.
Uthegental, who demanded control of everything about him, found the place repulsive. He also found it, this most ancient and hallowed of svirfneblin cities, deserted.
Belwar Dissengulp stared out from the lip of the deep chamber, far to the west of Blingdenstone, and wondered if he had done right in convincing King Schnicktick to abandon the gnomish city. The most honored burrow warden had reasoned that, with magic returned, the drow would surely march for Mithril Hall, and that course, Belwar knew, would take them dangerously close to Blingdenstone.
Though he had little difficulty in convincing his fellows that the dark elves would march, the thought of leaving Blingdenstone, of simply packing up their belongings and deserting their ancient home, had not settled well. For more than two thousand years the gnomes had lived in the ominous shadow of Menzoberranzan, and more than once had they believed the drow would come in full war against them.
This time was different, Belwar reasoned, and he had told them so, his speech full of passion and carrying the weight of his relationship with the renegade drow from that terrible city. Still, Belwar was far from convincing Schnicktick and the others until Councilor Firble piped in on the burrow warden's side.
It was indeed different this time, Firble had told them with all sincerity. This time, the whole of Menzoberranzan would band together, and any attack would not be the ambitious probing of a single house. This time the gnomes, and anyone else unfortunate enough to fall in the path of the drow march, could not depend on interhouse rivalries to save them. Firble had learned of House Oblodra's fall from Jarlaxle; an earth elemental sent secretly under Menzoberranzan and into the Clawrift by svirfneblin priests confirmed it and the utter destruction of the third house. Thus, when, at their last meeting, Jarlaxle hinted "it would not be wise to harbor Drizzt Do'Urden," Firble, with his understanding of drow ways, reasoned that the dark elves would indeed march for Mithril Hall, in a force unified by the fear of the one who had so utterly crushed the third house.And so, on that ominous note, the svirfnebli had left Blingdenstone, and Belwar had played a critical role in the departure. That responsibility weighed heavily on the burrow warden now, made him second-guess the reasoning that had seemed so sound when he had thought danger imminent. Here to the west the tunnels were quiet, and not eerily so, as though enemy dark elves were slipping from shadow to shadow. The tunnels were quiet with peace; the war Belwar had anticipated seemed a thousand miles or a thousand years away.The other gnomes felt it, too, and Belwar had overheard more than one complaining that the decision to leave Blingdenstone had been, at best, foolish.Only when the last of the svirfnebli had left the city, when the long caravan had begun its march to the west, had Belwar realized the gravity of the departure, realized the emotional burden. In leaving, the gnomes were admitting to themselves that they were no match for the drow, that they could not protect themselves or their homes from the dark elves. More than a few svirfnebli, Belwar perhaps most among them, were sick about that fact. Their illusions of security, of the strength of their shamans, of their very god figure, had been shaken, without a single drop of spilled svirfneblin blood.Belwar felt like a coward.The most honored burrow warden took some comfort in the fact that eyes were still in place in Blingdenstone. A friendly elemental, blended with the stone, had been ordered to wait and watch, and to report back to the svirfneblin shamans who had summoned it. If the dark elves did come in, as Belwar expected, the gnomes would know of it.But what if they didn't come? Belwar wondered. If he and Firble were wrong and the march did not come, then what loss had the svirfnebli suffered for the sake of caution?Could any of them ever feel secure in Blingdenstone again?Matron Baenre was not pleased at Uthegental's report that the gnomish city was deserted. As sour as her expression was, though, it could not match the open wrath showing on the face of Berg'inyon, at her side. His eyes narrowed dangerously as he considered the powerful patron of the second house, and Uthegental, seeing a challenge, more than matched that ominous stare.Baenre understood the source of Berg'inyon's anger, and she, too, was not pleased by the fact that Uthegental had taken it upon himself to enter Blingdenstone. That act reflected clearly the desperation of Mez'Barris. Obviously Mez'Barris felt vulnerable in the shadows of Matron Baenre's display against Oblodra, and thus she had placed a great weight upon Uthegental's broad shoulders.Uthegental marched for the glory of Barrison del'Armgo, Matron Baenre knew, marched fanatically, along with his force of more than three hundred drow warriors.To Berg'inyon, that was not a good thing, for he, and not Matron Baenre, was in direct competition with the powerful weapon master.Matron Baenre considered all the news in light of her son's expression, and, in the end, she thought Uthegental's daring a good thing. The competition would push Berg'inyon to excellence. And if he failed, if Uthegental was the one who killed Drizzt Do'Urden (for that was obviously the prize both sought), even if Berg'inyon was killed by Uthegental, then so be it. This march was greater than House Baenre, greater than anyone's personal goals-except, of course, for Matron Baenre's own.When Mithril Hall was conquered, whatever the cost to her son, she would be in the highest glory of the Spider Queen, and her house would be above the schemes of the others, if all the others combined their forces against her!"You are dismissed," Baenre said to Uthegental. "Back to the forefront."The spike-haired weapon master smiled wickedly and bowed, never taking his eyes from Berg'inyon. Then he spun on his heel to leave, but spun again immediately as Baenre addressed him once more."And if you chance to come upon the tracks of the fleeing svirfnebli," Baenre said, and she paused, looking from Uthegental to Berg'inyon, "do send an emissary to inform me of the chase."Berg'inyon's shoulders slumped even as Uthegental's grin, showing those filed, pointy teeth, widened so much that it nearly took in his ears. He bowed again and ran off."The svirfnebli are mighty foes," Baenre said offhandedly, aiming the remark at Berg'inyon. "They will kill him and all of his party." She didn't really believe the claim, had made it only for Berg'inyon's sake. In looking at her wise son, though, she realized he didn't believe it either."And if not," Baenre said, looking the other way, to Quenthel, who stood by impassively, appearing quite bored, and to Methil, who always seemed quite bored, "the gnomes are not so great a prize." The matron mother's gaze snapped back over Berg'inyon. "We know the prize of this march," she said, her voice a feral snarl. She didn't bother to mention that her ultimate goal and Berg'inyon's goal were not the same.The effect on the young weapon master was instantaneous. He snapped back to rigid attention, and rode off on his lizard as soon as his mother waved her hand to dismiss him.Baenre turned to Quenthel. See that spies are put among Uthegental's soldiers, her fingers subtly flashed. Baenre paused a moment to consider the fierce weapon master, and to reflect on what he would do if such spies were discovered. Males, Baenre added to her daughter, and Quenthel agreed.Males were expendable.Sitting alone as her driftdisk floated amidst the army, Matron Baenre turned her thoughts to more important issues. The rivalry of Berg'inyon and Uthegental was of little consequence, as was Uthegental's apparent disregard for proper command. More disturbing was the svirfneblin absence. Might the wicked gnomes be planning an assault on Menzoberranzan even as Baenre and her force marched away?It was a silly thought, one Matron Baenre quickly dismissed. More than half the dark elves remained in Menzoberranzan, under the watchful eyes of Mez'Barris Armgo, Triel, and Gromph. If the gnomes attacked, they would be utterly destroyed, more to the Spider Queen's glory.But even as she considered those city defenses, the thought of a conspiracy against her nagged at the edges of Baenre's consciousness.Triel is loyal and in control, came a telepathic assurance from Methil, who remained not so far away and was reading Baenre's every thought.Baenre took some comfort in that. Before she had left Menzoberranzan, she had bade Methil to scour her daughter's reactions to her plans, and the illithid had come back with a completely positive report. Triel was not pleased by the decision to go to Mithril Hall. She feared her mother might be overstepping her bounds, but she was convinced, as most likely were all the others, that, in the face of the destruction of House Oblodra, Lloth had sanctioned this war. Thus, Triel would not head a coup for control of House Baenre in her mother's absence, would not, in any way, go against her mother at this time.Baenre relaxed. All was going according to design; it was not important that the cowardly gnomes had fled.All was going even better than design, Baenre decided, for the rivalry between Uthegental and Berg'inyon would provide much entertainment. The possibilities were intriguing. Perhaps if Uthegental killed Drizzt, and killed Berg'inyon in the process, Matron Baenre would force the spike-haired savage into House Baenre to serve as her own weapon master. Mez'Barris would not dare protest, not after Mithril Hall was conquered.