"Even now is Regweld, who shall lead us, meeting with Bruenor, who is king," said a rider, a knight wearing the most unusual of armor. There wasn't a smooth spot on the mail; it was ridged and buckled, with grillwork pointing out at various angles, its purpose to turn aside any blows, to deflect rather than absorb.

The man's fifty comrades-a strange-looking group indeed- were similarly outfitted, which could be readily explained by looking at their unusual pennant. It depicted a stick-man, his hair straight up on end and arms held high, standing atop a house and throwing lightning bolts to the sky (or perhaps he was catching lightning hurled down at him from the clouds-one could not be sure). This was the banner of Longsaddle and these were the Longriders, the soldiers of Longsaddle, a capable, if eccentric, group. They had come into Settlestone this cold and gloomy day, chasing the first flakes of the first snow.

"Regweld shall lead you," answered another rider, tall and sure on his saddle, carrying the scars of countless battles. He was more conventionally armored, as were his forty companions, riding under the horse-and-spear banner of Nesme, the proud frontier town on the edge of the dreaded Trollmoors. "But not us. We are the Riders of Nesme, who follow no lead but our own!"

"Just because you got here first doesn't mean you pick the rules!" whined the Longrider.

"Let us not forget our purpose," intervened a third rider, his horse trotting up, along with two companions, to greet the newest arrivals. When he came closer, the others saw from his angular features, shining golden hair, and similarly colored eyes that he was no man at all, but an elf, though tall for one of his race. "I am Besnell of Silverymoon, come with a hundred soldiers from Lady Alustriel. We shall each find our place when battle is joined, though if there is to be any leader among us, it shall be me, who speaks on behalf of Alustriel."

The man from Nesme and the man from Longsaddle regarded each other helplessly. Their respective towns, particularly Nesme, were surely under the shadow of Silverymoon, and their respective rulers would not challenge Alustriel's authority.

"But you are not in Silverymoon," came a roaring reply from Berkthgar, who had been standing in the shadows of a nearby doorway, listening to the argument, almost hoping it would erupt into something more fun than bandied words. "You are in Settle-stone, where Berkthgar rules, and in Settlestone, you are ruled by Berkthgar!"

Everyone tensed, particularly the two Silverymoon soldiers flanking Besnell. The elven warrior sat quietly for a moment, eyeing the huge barbarian as Berkthgar, his gigantic sword strapped across his back, steadily and calmly approached. Besnell was not overly proud, and his rank alone in the Silverymoon detachment proved that he never let pride cloud good judgment.

"Well spoken, Berkthgar the Bold," he politely replied. "And true enough." He turned to the other two mounted leaders. "We have come from Silverymoon, and you from Nesme, and you from Longsaddle, to serve in Berkthgar's cause, and in the cause of Bruenor Battlehammer."

"We came to Bruenor's call," grumbled the Longrider, "not Berkthgar's."

"Would you then take your horse into the dark tunnels beneath Mithril Hall?" reasoned Besnell, who understood from his meetings with Berkthgar and Catti-brie that the dwarves would handle the underground troubles, while the riders would join with the warriors of Settlestone to secure the outlying areas.

"His horse and he might be underground sooner than he expects," Berkthgar piped in, an open threat that shook the Longrider more than a little.

"Enough of this," Besnell was quick to interject. "We have all come together as allies, and allies we shall be, joined in a common cause."

"Joined by fear," the Nesme soldier replied. "We in Nesme once met Bruenor's..." He paused, looking to the faces of the other leaders, then to his own grim men for support, as he searched for the proper words. "We have met King Bruenor's dark-skinned friend," he said finally, his tone openly derisive. "What good might come from association with evil drow?"

The words had barely left his mouth before Berkthgar was upon him, reaching up to grab him by a crease in his armor and pull him low in the saddle, that he might look right into the barbarian's snarling visage. The nearby Nesme soldiers had their weapons out and ready, but so, too, did Berkthgar's people, coming out of every stone house and around every corner.

Besnell groaned and the Longriders, every one, shook their heads in dismay.

"If ever again you speak ill of Drizzt Do'Urden," Berkthgar growled, caring nothing of the swords and spears poised not so far away, "you will offer me an interesting choice. Do I cut you in half and leave you dead on the field, or do I bring you in to Drizzt, that he might find the honor of severing your head himself?"

Besnell walked his horse right up to the barbarian and used its heavy press to force Berkthgar back from the stunned Nesme soldier.

"Drizzt Do'Urden would not kill the man for his words," Besnell said with all confidence, for he had met Drizzt on many occasions during the dark elf's frequent visits to Silverymoon.

Berkthgar knew the elf spoke truly, and so the barbarian leader relented, backing off a few steps.

"Bruenor would kill him," Berkthgar did say, though.

"Agreed," said Besnell. "And many others would take up arms in the dark elf's defense. But, as I have said, enough of this. All joined, we are a hundred and ninety calvary, come to aid in the cause." He looked all around as he spoke and seemed taller and more imposing than his elven frame would normally allow. "A hundred and ninety come to join with Berkthgar and his proud warriors. Rarely have four such groups converged as allies. The Longriders, the Riders of Nesme, the Knights in Silver, and the warriors of Settlestone, all joined in common cause. If the war does come-and looking at the allies I have discovered this day, I hope it does-our deeds shall be echoed throughout the Realms! And let the drow army beware!"

He had played perfectly on the pride of all of them, and so they took up the cheer together, and the moments of tension were passed. Besnell smiled and nodded as the shouts continued, but he understood that things were not as solid and friendly as they should be. Longsaddle had sent fifty soldiers, plus a handful of wizards, a very great sacrifice from the town that, in truth, had little stake in Bruenor's well-being. The Harpells looked more to the west, to Waterdeep, for trade and alliance, than to the east, and yet they had come to Bruenor's call, including their leader's own daughter.Silverymoon was equally committed, both by friendship to Bruenor and Drizzt and because Alustriel was wise enough to understand that if the drow army did march to the surface, all the world would be a sadder place. Alustriel had dispatched a hundred knights to Berkthgar, and another hundred rode independently, skirting the eastern foothills below Mithril Hall, covering the more rugged trails that led around Fourthpeak's northern face, to Keeper's Dale in the west. All told, there were two hundred mounted warriors, fully two-fifths of the famed Knights in Silver, a great contingent and a great sacrifice, especially with the first winds of winter blowing cold in the air.Nesme's sacrifice was less, Besnell understood, and likely the Riders of Nesme's commitment would be too. This was the town with the most to lose, except of course for Settlestone, and yet Nesme had spared barely a tenth of its seasoned garrison. The strained relations between Mithril Hall and Nesme were no secret, a brewing feud that had begun before Bruenor had ever found his homeland, when the dwarf and his fellow companions had passed near Nesme. Bruenor and his friends had saved several riders from marauding bog blokes, only to have the riders turn on them when the battle had ended. Because of the color of Drizzt's skin and the reputation of his heritage, Bruenor's party had been turned away, and though the dwarf's outrage had been later tempered somewhat by the fact that soldiers from Nesme had joined in the retaking of Mithril Hall, relations had remained somewhat strained.This time the expected opponents were dark elves and, no doubt, that fact alone had reminded the wary men of Nesme of their distrust for Bruenor's closest friend. But at least they had come, and forty were better than none, Besnell told himself. The elf had openly proclaimed Berkthgar the leader of all four groups, and so it would be (though, if and when battle was joined, each contingent would likely fall into its own tactics, hopefully complementing each other), but Besnell saw a role for himself, less obvious, but no less important. He would be the peacemaker; he would keep the factions in line and in harmony.If the dark elves did come, his job would be much easier, he knew, for in the face of so deadly an enemy, petty grievances would fast be forgotten.Belwar didn't know whether to feel relief or fear when word came from the spying elemental that the drow, a single drow at least, had indeed gone into Blingdenstone, and that a drow army had marched past the deserted city, finding the tunnels back to the east, the route to Mithril Hall.The most honored burrow warden sat again in his now customary perch, staring out at the empty tunnels. He thought of Drizzt, a dear friend, and of the place the dark elf now called home. Drizzt had told Belwar of Mithril Hall when he had passed through Blingdenstone on his way to Menzoberranzan several months earlier. How happy Drizzt had been when he spoke of his friends, this dwarf named Bruenor, and the human woman, Catti-brie, who had crossed through Blingdenstone on Drizzt's heels, and had, according to later reports, aided in Drizzt's wild escape from the drow city.That very escape had facilitated this march, Belwar knew, and yet the gnome remained pleased that his friend had gotten free of Matron Baenre's clutches. Now Drizzt was home, but the dark elves were going to find him.Belwar recalled the true sadness in Drizzt's lavender eyes when the drow had recounted the loss of one of his surface-found friends. What tears might Drizzt know soon, the gnome wondered, with a drow army marching to destroy his new home?"Decisions we have to make," came a voice behind the sturdy gnome. Belwar clapped his mithril "hands" together, more to clear his thoughts than anything else, and turned to face Firble.One of the good things that had come from all of this confusion was the budding friendship between Firble and Belwar. As two of the older svirfnebli of Blingdenstone, they had known each other, or of each other, a very long time, but only when Belwar's eyes (because of his friendship with Drizzt) had turned to the world outside the gnomish city had Firble truly come into his life. At first the two seemed a complete mismatch, but both had found strength in what the other offered, and a bond had grown between them- though neither had as yet openly admitted it."Decisions?""The drow have passed," said Firble."Likely to return."Firble nodded. "Obviously," the round-shouldered councilor agreed. "King Schnicktick must decide whether we are to return to Blingdenstone."The notion hit Belwar like the slap of a cold, wet towel. Return to Blingdenstone? Of course they were to return to their homes! the most honored burrow warden's thoughts screamed out at him. Any other option was too ridiculous to entertain. But as he calmed and considered Firble's grim demeanor, Belwar began to see the truth of it all. The drow would be back, and if they had made a conquest near or at the surface, a conquest of Mithril Hall, as most believed was their intention, then there would likely remain an open route between Menzoberranzan and that distant place, a route that passed too close to Blingdenstone."Words, there are, and from many with influence, that we should go farther west, to find a new cavern, a new Blingdenstone," Firble said. From his tone it was obvious the little councilor was not thrilled at that prospect."Never," Belwar said unconvincingly."King Schnicktick will ask your opinion in this most important matter," Firble said. "Consider it well, Belwar Dissengulp. The lives of us all may hinge on your answer."A long, quiet moment passed, and Firble gave a curt nod and turned to leave."What does Firble say?" Belwar asked before he could scurry off.The councilor turned slowly, determinedly, staring Belwar straight in the eye. "Firble says there is only one Blingdenstone," he answered with more grit than Belwar had ever heard, or ever expected to hear, from him. "To leave as the drow pass by is one thing, a good thing. To stay out is not so good.""Worth fighting for are some things," Belwar added."Worth dying for?" Firble was quick to put in, and the councilor did turn and leave.Belwar sat alone with his thoughts for his home and for his friend.