From her high perch, her eyesight enhanced by magical dweomers, they seemed an army of ants, swarming over the eastern and steepest side of the mountain, filling every vale, clambering over every rock. Filtering behind in tight formations came the deeper blackness, the tight formations of drow warriors.
Never had the Lady of Silverymoon seen such a disconcerting sight, never had she been so filled with trepidation, though she had endured many wars and many perilous adventures. Alustriel's visage did not reflect those battles. She was as fair as any woman alive, her skin smooth and pale, almost translucent, and her hair long and silvery-not gray with age, though she was indeed very old, but lustrous and rich, the quiet light of night and the sparkling brightness of stars all mixed together. Indeed, the fair lady had endured many wars, and the sorrow of those conflicts was reflected in her eyes, as was the wisdom to despise war.
Across the way toward the southern face, around the bend of the conical mountain, Alustriel could see the banners of the gathered forces, most prominent among them the silver flag of her own knights. They were proud and anxious, Alustriel knew, because most of them were young and did not know grief.
The Lady of Silverymoon shook away the disconcerting thoughts and focused on what likely would transpire, what her role might be.
The bulk of the enemy force was kobolds, and she figured that the huge barbarians and armored riders should have little trouble in scattering them.
But how would they fare against the drow? Alustriel wondered. She brought her flying chariot in a wide loop, watching and waiting.
Skirmishes erupted along the point line, as human scouts met the advancing kobolds.
At the sound of battle, and with reports filtering back, Berkthgar was anxious to loose his forces, to charge off to fight and die with a song to Tempus on his lips.
Besnell, who led the Knights in Silver, was a tempered fighter, and more the strategist. "Hold your men in check," he bade the eager barbarian. "We will see more fighting this night than any of us, even Tempus, your god of battle, would enjoy. Better that we fight them on ground of our choosing." Indeed, the knight had been careful in selecting that very ground, and had argued against both Berkthgar and King Bruenor himself to win over their support for his plan. The forces had been broken into four groups, spaced along the south side of the mountain, Fourthpeak, which held both entrances to Mithril Hall. Northwest around the mountain lay Keeper's Dale, a wide, deep, rock-strewn, and mist-filled valley wherein lay the secret western door to the dwarven complex.
From the soldiers' positions northeast around the mountain, across wide expanses of open rock and narrow, crisscrossing trails, lay the longer, more commonly used path to Mithril Hall's eastern door.
Bruenor's emissaries had wanted the force to split, the riders going to defend Keeper's Dale and the men of Settlestone guarding the eastern trails. Besnell had held firm his position, though, and had enlisted Berkthgar by turning the situation back on the proud dwarves, by insisting that they should be able to conceal and defend their own entrances. "If the drow know where the entrances lie," he had argued, "then that is where they will expect resistance."
Thus, the south side of Fourthpeak was chosen. Below the positions of the defenders the trails were many, but above them the cliffs grew much steeper, so they expected no attack from that direction. The defenders' groups were mixed according to terrain, one position of narrow, broken trails exclusively barbarians, two having both barbarians and riders, and one, a plateau above a wide, smooth, gradually inclined rock face, comprised wholly of the Riders of Nesme.
Besnell and Berkthgar watched and waited now from the second position. They knew the battle was imminent; the men about them could feel the hush, the crouch of the approaching army. The area lower on the mountain, to the east, exploded suddenly in bursts of shining light as a rain of enchanted pellets, gifts from dwarven clerics, came down from the barbarians of the first defense.
How the kobolds scrambled! As did the few dark elves among the diminutive creatures' front ranks. Those monsters highest on the face, near the secret position, were overwhelmed, a horde of mighty barbarians descending over them, splitting them in half with huge swords and battle-axes, or simply lifting the kobolds high over head and hurling them down the mountainside.
"Wo must go out and meet them!" Berkthgar roared, seeing his kin engaged. He raised huge Bankenfuere high into the air. "To the glory of Tempus!" he roared, a cry repeated by all those barbarians on the second position, and those on the third as well.
"So much for ambush," muttered Regweld Harpell, seated on his horse-frog, Puddlejumper. With a nod to Besnell, for the time drew near, Regweld gave a slight tug on Puddlejumper's rein and the weird beast croaked out a guttural whinny and leaped to the west, clearing thirty feet.
"Not yet," Besnell implored Berkthgar, the barbarian's hand cupping a dozen or so of the magic light-giving pellets. The knight pointed out the movements of the enemy force below, explained to Berkthgar that, while many climbed up to meet the defenders holding the easternmost position, many, many more continued to filter along the lower trails to the west. Also, the light was not so intense anymore, as dark elves used their innate abilities to counter the stingingly bright enchantments.
"What are you waiting for?" Berkthgar demanded.
Besnell continued to hold his hand in the air, continued to delay the charge.
To the east, a barbarian screamed as he saw that his form was outlined suddenly by blue flames, magical fires that did not burn. They weren't truly harmless, though, for in the night, they gave the man's position clearly away. The sound of many crossbows clicked from somewhere below, and the unfortunate barbarian cried out again and again, then he fell silent.
That was more than enough for Berkthgar, and he hurled out the pellets. His nearby kin did likewise, and this second section of the south face brightened with magic. Down charged the men of Settlestone, to Besnell's continuing dismay. The riders should have gone down first, but not yet, not until the bulk of the enemy force had passed.
"We must," whispered the knight behind the elven leader from Silverymoon, and Besnell quietly nodded. He surveyed the scene for just a moment. Berkthgar and his hundred were already engaged, straight down the face, with no hope of linking up with those brave men holding the high ground in the east. Despite his anger at the impetuous barbarian, Besnell marveled at Berkthgar's exploits. Mighty Bankenfuere took out three kobolds at a swipe, launching them, whole or in parts, high into the air.
"The light will not hold," the knight behind Besnell remarked.
"Between the two forces," Besnell replied, speaking loud enough so that all those riders around him could hear. "We must go down at an angle, between the two forces, so that the men in the east can escape behind us."
Not a word of complaint came back to him, though his chosen course was treacherous indeed. The original plan had called for the Knights in Silver to ride straight into the enemy, both from this position and the next position to the west, while Berkthgar and his men linked behind them, the whole of the defending force rolling gradually to the west. Now Berkthgar, in his bloodlust, had abandoned that plan, and the Knights in Silver might pay dearly for the act. But neither man nor elf complained.
"Keep fast your pellets," Besnell commanded, "until the drow counter what light is already available."
He reared his horse once, for effect.
"For the glory of Silverymoon!" he cried.
"And the good of all good folk!" came the unified response.
Their thunder shook the side of Fourthpeak, resonated deep into the dwarven tunnels below the stone. To the blare of horns, down they charged, a hundred riders, lances low, and when those long spears became entangled or snapped apart as they skewered the enemy, out came flashing swords.
More deadly were the sturdy mounts, crushing kobolds under pounding hooves, scattering and terrifying kobolds and goblins and drow alike, for these invaders from the deepest Underdark had never seen such a cavalry charge.
In mere minutes the enemy advance up the mountain was halted and reversed, with only a few of the defenders taken down. And as the dark elves continued to counter the light pellets, Besnell's men countered their spells with still more light pellets.
But the dark force continued its roll along the lower trails, evidenced by the blare of horns to the west, the calls to Tempus and to Longsaddle, and the renewed thunder as the Longriders followed the lead of the Knights in Silver.
The first real throw of magic led the charge from that third position, a lightning bolt from Regweld that split the darkness, causing more horror than destruction.
Surprisingly, there came no magical response from the drow, other than minor darkness spells or faerie fire limning selected defenders.The remaining barbarian force did as the plan had demanded, angling between the Longriders and the area just below the second position, linking up, not with the Knights in Silver, as was originally planned, but with Berkthgar and his force.High above the battle, Alustriel used all her discipline and restraint to hold herself in check. The defenders were, as expected, slicing the kobold and goblin ranks to pieces, killing the enemy in a ratio far in excess of fifty to one.That number would have easily doubled had Alustriel loosed her magic, but she could not. The drow were waiting patiently, and she respected the powers of those evil elves enough to know that her first attack might be her only one.She whispered to the enchanted horses pulling the aerial chariot and moved lower, nodding grimly as she confirmed that the battle was going as anticipated. The slaughter high on the south face was complete, but the dark mass continued to flow below the struggle to the west.Alustriel understood that many drow were among the ranks of that lower group.The chariot swooped to the east, swiftly left the battle behind, and the Lady of Silverymoon took some comfort in the realization that the enemy lines were not so long, not so far beyond the easternmost of the defensive positions.She came to understand why when she heard yet another battle, around the mountain, to the east. The enemy had found Mithril Hall's eastern door, had entered the complex, and was battling the dwarves within!Flashes of lightning and bursts of fire erupted within the shadows of that low door, and the creatures that entered were not diminutive kobolds or stupid goblins. They were dark elves, many, many dark elves.She wanted to go down there, to rush over the enemy in a magical, explosive fury, but Alustriel had to trust in Bruenor's people. The tunnels had been prepared, she knew, and the attack from outside the mountain had been expected.Her chariot flew on, around to the north, and Alustriel thought to complete the circuit, to cut low through Keeper's Dale in the east, where the other allies, another hundred of her Knights in Silver, waited.What she saw did not settle well, did not comfort her.The northern face of Fourthpeak was a treacherous, barren stretch of virtually unclimbable rock faces and broken ravines that no man could pass.Virtually unclimbable, but not to the sticky feet of giant subterranean lizards.Berg'inyon Baenre and his elite force, the four hundred famed lizard riders of House Baenre, scrambled across that northern facing, making swift progress to the west, toward Keeper's Dale, The waiting knights had been positioned to shore up the final defenses against the force crossing the southern face. Their charge, if it came, would be to open up the last flank, to allow Besnell, the Longriders, and the men of Nesme and Settlestone to get into the dale, which was accessible through only one narrow pass.The lizard-riders would get there first, Alustriel knew, and they outnumbered the waiting knights-and they were drow.The easternmost position was surrendered. The barbarians, or what remained of their ranks, ran fast to the west, crossing behind the Knights in Silver to join Berkthgar.After they had crossed, Besnell turned his force to the west as well, pushing Berkthgar's force, which had swelled to include nearly every living warrior from Settlestone, ahead.The leader of the Knights in Silver began to think that Berkthgar's error would not be so devastating, that the retreat could proceed as planned. He found a high plateau and surveyed the area, nodding grimly as he noted that the enemy force below had rolled around the first three positions.Besnell's eyes widened, and he gasped aloud as he realized the exact location of the leading edge of that dark cloud. The Riders of Nesme had missed their call! They had to get down the mountainside quickly, to hold that flank, and yet, for some reason, they had hesitated and the leading edge of the enemy force seemed beyond the fourth, and last, position.Now the Riders of Nesme did come, and their full-out charge down the smoothest stone of the south face was indeed devastating, the forty horsemen trampling thrice that number of kobolds in mere moments.But the enemy had that many to spare, Besnell knew, and many more beyond that. The plan had called for an organized retreat to the west, to Keeper's Dale, even in through Mithril Hall's western door if need be.It was a good plan, but now the flank was lost and the way to the west was closed.Besnell could only watch in horror.Part 5OLD KINGS AND OLD QUEENSThey came as an army, but not so. Eight thousand dark elves and a larger number of humanoid slaves, a mighty and massive force, swarmed toward Mithril Hall.The descriptions are fitting in terms of sheer numbers and strength, and yet "army" and "force" imply something more, a sense of cohesion and collective purpose. Certainly the drow are among the finest warriors in the Realms, trained to fight from the youngest age, alone or in groups, and certainly the purpose seems clear when the war is racial, when it is drow battling dwarves. Yet, though their tactics are perfect, groups working in unison to support each other, that cohesion among drow ranks remains superficial.Few, if any, dark elves of Lloth's army would give her or his life to save another, unless she or he was confident that the sacrifice would guarantee a place of honor in the afterlife at the Spider Queen's side. Only a fanatic among the dark elves would take a hit, however minor, to spare another's life, and only because that fanatic thought the act in her own best interest. The drow came crying for the glory of the Spider Queen, but, in reality, they each were looking for a piece of her glory.Personal gain was always the dark elves' primary precept.That was the difference between the defenders of Mithril Hall and those who came to conquer. That was the one hope of our side when faced with such horrendous odds, outnumbered by skilled drow warriors!If a single dwarf came to a battle in which his comrades were being overrun, he would roar in defiance and charge in headlong, however terrible the odds. Yet if we could catch a group of drow, a patrol, perhaps, in an ambush, those supporting groups flanking their unfortunate comrades would not join in unless they could be assured of victory.We, not they, had true collective purpose. We, not they, understood cohesion, fought for a shared higher principle, and understood and accepted that any sacrifice we might make would be toward the greater good.There is a chamber-many chambers, actually-in Mithril Hall, where the heroes of wars and past struggles are honored. Wulfgar's hammer is there; so was the bow-the bow of an elf-that Catti-brie put into service once more. Though she has used the bow for years, and has added considerably to its legend, Catti-brie refers to it still as "the bow of Anariel," that long-dead elf. If the bow is put into service again by a friend of Clan Battlehammer centuries hence, it will be called "the bow of Catti-brie, passed from Anariel."There is in Mithril Hall another place, the Hall of Kings, where the busts of Clan Battlehammer's patrons, the eight kings, have been carved, gigantic and everlasting.The drow have no such monuments. My mother, Malice, never spoke of the previous matron mother of House Do'Urden, likely because Malice played a hand in her mother's death. In the Academy, there are no plaques of former mistresses and masters. Indeed, as I consider it now, the only monuments in Menzoberranzan are the statues of those punished by Baenre, of those struck by Vendes and her wicked whip, their skin turned to ebony, that they might then be placed on display as testaments of disobedience on the plateau of Tier Breche outside the Academy.That was the difference between the defenders of Mithril Hall and those who came to conquer. That was the one hope.