Belwar heard the echoes, subtle vibrations in the thick stone that no surface dweller could ever have noticed.
The other three hundred svirfnebli heard them as well.
This was the way of the deep gnomes-in the deeper tunnels of the Underdark, they often communicated by sending quiet vibrations through the rock. They heard the echoes now, constant echoes, not like the one huge explosion they had heard a couple of hours before, the rumbling of an entire network of tunnels being dropped. The seasoned svirfnebli fighters considered the newest sound, a peculiar rhythm, and they knew what it meant. Battle had been joined, a great battle, and not so far away.
Belwar conferred with his commanders many times as they inched through the unfamiliar terrain, trying to follow the strongest vibrations. Often one of the svirfnebli on the perimeter, or at the point of the group, would tap his hammer slightly on the stone, trying to get a feel for the density of the rock. Echo hunting was tricky because the density of the stone was never uniform, and vibrations were often distorted. Thus, the svirfnebli, arguably the finest echo followers in all the world, found themselves more than once going the wrong way down a fork in the trail.
A determined and patient bunch, though, they stayed with it, and after many frustrating minutes, a priest named Suntunavick bobbed up to Belwar and Firble and announced with all confidence that this was as close to the sound as these tunnels would allow them to get.
The two followed the priest to the exact spot, alternately putting their ears against the stone. Indeed the noise beyond was loud, relatively speaking.
And constant, Belwar noted with some confusion, for this was not the echoing of give-and-take battle, not the echoes they had heard earlier, or at least, there was more to the sound than that.
Suntunavick assured the burrow warden this was the correct place. Mixed in with this more constant sound was the familiar rhythm of battle joined.
Belwar looked to Firble, who nodded, then to Suntunavick. The burrow warden poked his finger at the spot on the wall, then backed away, so Suntunavick and the other priests could crowd in.
They began their chanting, a grating, rumbling, and apparently wordless sound, and every once in a while one of the priests would throw a handful of some mudlike substance against the stone.
The chanting hit a crescendo; Suntunavick rushed up to the wall, his hands straight out in front of him, palms pressed tightly together. With a cry of ecstacy, the little gnome thrust his fingers straight into the stone. Then he groaned, his arm and shoulder muscles flexing as he pulled the wall apart, opened it as though it were no more solid than a curtain of heavy fabric.
The priest jumped back, and so did all the others, as the echo became a roar and a fine spray, the mist of a waterfall, came in on them.
"The surface, it is," Firble muttered, barely able to find his breath.
And so it was, but this deluge of water was nothing like any of the gnomes had pictured the surface world, was nothing like the descriptions in the many tales they had heard of the strange place. Many in the group harbored thoughts of turning back then and there, but Belwar, who had spoken with Drizzt not so long ago, knew something here was out of the ordinary.
The burrow warden hooked a rope from his belt with his pick-axe hand and held it out to Firble, indicating that the councilor should tie it about his waist. Firble did so and took up the other end, bracing himself securely.
With only the slightest of hesitation, the brave Belwar squeezed through the wall, through the veil of mist. He found the waterfall, and a ledge that led him around it, and Belwar gazed upon stars.
Thousands of stars!
The gnome's heart soared. He was awed and frightened all at once. This was the surface world, that greatest of caverns, under a dome that could not be reached.
The moment of pondering, of awe, was short-lived, defeated by the clear sounds of battle. Belwar was not in Keeper's Dale, but he could see the light of the fight, flames from torches and magical enchantments, and he could hear the ring of metal against metal and the familiar screams of the dying.
With Belwar in their lead, the three hundred svirfnebli filtered out of the caverns and began a quiet march to the east. They came upon many areas that seemed impassable, but a friendly elemental, summoned by gnomish priests, opened the way. In but a few minutes, the battle was in sight, the scramble within the misty vale, of armor-clad horsemen and lizard-riding drow, of wretched goblins and kobolds and huge humans more than twice the height of the tallest svirfneblin.
Now Belwar did hesitate, realizing fully that his force of three hundred would plunge into a battle of thousands, a battle in which the gnomes had no way of discerning who was winning.
"It is why we have come," Firble whispered into the burrow warden's ear.
Belwar looked hard at his uncharacteristically brave companion.
"For Blingdenstone," Firble said.
Belwar led the way.
Drizzt held his breath, they all did, and even Guenhwyvar was wise enough to stifle an instinctive snarl.
The five companions huddled on a narrow ledge in a high, wide corridor, while a column of drow, many drow, marched past, a line that went on and on and seemed as if it would never end.
Two thousand? Drizzt wondered. Five thousand? He had no way of guessing. There were too many, and he couldn't rightly stick his head out and begin a count. What Drizzt did understand was that the bulk of the drow force had linked together and was marching with a singular purpose. That could mean only that the way had been cleared, at least to Mithril Hall's lower door. Drizzt took heart when he thought of that door, of the many cunning defenses that had been rigged in that region. Even this mighty force would be hard-pressed to get through the portal; the tunnels near the lower door would pile high with bodies, drow and dwarf alike.
Drizzt dared to slowly shift his head, to look past Guenhwyvar, tight against the wall beside him, to Bruenor, stuck uncomfortably between the panther's rear end and the wall. Drizzt almost managed a smile at the sight, and at the thought that he had better move quickly once the drow column passed, for Bruenor would likely heave the panther right over the lip of the ledge, taking Drizzt with her.
But that smile did not come to Drizzt, not in the face of his doubts. Had he done right in leading Bruenor out here? he wondered, not for the first time. They could have gone back to the lower door with the dwarves they had met hours before; the king of Mithril Hall could be in place among his army. Drizzt did not underestimate how greatly Bruenor's fiery presence would bolster the defense of that lower door, and the defense of the Undercity. Every dwarf of Mithril Hall would sing a little louder and fight with a bit more heart in the knowledge that King Bruenor Battlehammer was nearby, joining in the cause, his mighty axe leading the way.
Drizzt's reasoning had kept Bruenor out, and now the drow wondered if his action had been selfish. Could they even find the enemy leaders? Likely the priestesses who had led this army would be well hidden, using magic from afar, directing their forces with no more compassion than if the soldiers were pawns on a gigantic chess board.
The matron mother, or whoever was leading this force, would take no personal risks, because that was the drow way.
Suddenly, up there and crouched on that ledge, Drizzt Do'Urden felt very foolish. They were hunting the head, as he had explained to Bruenor, but that head would not be easy to find. And, given the size of the force that was marching along below them, toward Mithril Hall, Drizzt and Bruenor and their other companions would not likely get anywhere near the dwarven complex anytime soon.
The ranger put his head down and blew a deep, silent breath, composing himself, reminding himself he had taken the only possible route to winning the day, that though that lower door would not be easily breached, it would eventually come down, whether or not Bruenor Battlehammer was among the defenders. But out here now, with so many drow and so many tunnels, Drizzt began to appreciate the enormity of the task before him. How could he ever hope to find the leaders of the drow army?
What Drizzt did not know was that he was not the only one on a purposeful hunt.
"No word from Bregan D'aerthe."
Matron Baenre sat atop her driftdisk, digesting the words and the meaning behind them. Quenthel started to repeat them, but a threatening scowl from her mother stopped her short.
Still the phrase echoed in Matron Baenre's mind. "No word from Bregan D'aerthe."
Jarlaxle was lying low, Baenre realized. For all his bravado, the mercenary leader was, in fact, a conservative one, very cautious of any risks to the band he had spent centuries putting together. Jarlaxle hadn't been overly eager to march to Mithril Mall, and had, in fact, come along only because he hadn't really been given a choice in the matter.
Like Triel, Baenre's own daughter and closest advisor, the mercenary had hoped for a quick and easy conquest and a fast return to Menzoberranzan, where so many questions were still to be answered. The fact that no word had come lately from the Bregan D'aerthe scouts could be coincidence, but Baenre suspected differently. Jarlaxle was lying low, and that could mean only that he, with the reports that he was constantly receiving from the sly scouts of his network, believed the momentum halted, that he, like Baenre herself, had come to the conclusion that Mithril Hall would not be easily swept away.
The withered old matron mother accepted the news stoically, with confidence that Jarlaxle would be back in the fold once the tide turned again in the dark elves' favor. She would have to come up with a creative punishment for the mercenary leader, of course, one that would let Jarlaxle know the depth of her dismay without costing her a valuable ally.
A short while later, the air in the small chamber Baenre had come to use as her throne room began to tingle with the budding energy of an enchantment. All in the room glanced nervously about and breathed easier when Methil stepped out of thin air into the midst of the drow priestesses.
His expression revealed nothing, just the same passive, observant stare that always came from one of Methil's otherworldly race. Baenre considered that always unreadable face the most frustrating facet of dealing with the illithids. Never did they give even the subtlest clue of their true intentions.
Uthegental Armgo is dead, came a thought in Baenre's mind, a blunt report from Methil.
Now it was Baenre's turn to put on a stoic, unrevealing facade. Methil had given the disturbing thought to her and to her alone, she knew. The others, particularly Zeerith and Auro'pol, who were becoming more and more skittish, did not need to know the news was bad, very bad.
The march to Mithril Hall goes well, came Methil's next telepathic message. The illithid shared it with all in the room, which Matron Baenre realized by the suddenly brightening expressions. The tunnels are clear all the way to the lower door, where the army gathers and prepares.
Many nods and smiles came back at the illithid, and Matron Baenre did not have any more trouble than Methil in reading the thoughts behind those expressions. The illithid was working hard to bolster morale-always a tentative thing in dealing with dark elves. But, like Quenthel's report, or lack of report, from Bregan D'aerthe, the first message the illithid had given echoed in Baenre's thoughts disconcertingly. Uthegental Armgo was dead! What might the soldiers of Barrison del'Armgo, a significant force vital to the cause, do when they discovered their leader had been slain?
And what of Jarlaxle? Baenre wondered. If he had learned of the brutish weapon master's fall, that would certainly explain the silence of Bregan D'aerthe. Jarlaxle might be fearing the loss of the Barrison del'Armgo garrison, a desertion that would shake the ranks of the army to its core.Jarlaxle does not know, nor do the soldiers of the second house, Methil answered her telepathically, obviously reading her thoughts.Still Baenre managed to keep up the cheery (relatively speaking) front, seeming thrilled at the news of the army's approach to the lower door. She clearly saw a potential cancer growing within her ranks, though, a series of events that could destroy the already shaky integrity of her army and her alliances, and could cost her everything. She felt as though she were falling back to that time of ultimate chaos in Menzoberranzan just before the march, when K'yorl seemed to have the upper hand.The destruction of House Oblodra had solidified the situation then, and Matron Baenre felt she needed something akin to that now, some dramatic victory that would leave no doubts in the minds of the rank and file. Foster loyalty with fear. She thought of House Oblodra again and toyed with the idea of a similar display against Mithril Hall's lower door. Baenre quickly dismissed it, realizing that what had happened in Menzoberranzan had been a one-time event. Never before (and likely never again-and certainly not so soon afterward!) had Lloth come so gloriously and so fully to the Material Plane. On the occasion of House Oblodra's fall, Matron Baenre had been the pure conduit of the Spider Queen's godly power.That would not happen again.Baenre's thoughts swirled in a different direction, a more feasible trail to follow. Who killed Uthegental? she thought, knowing that Methil would "hear" her.The illithid had no answer, but understood what Baenre was implying. Baenre knew what Uthegental had sought, knew the only prize that really mattered to the mighty weapon master. Perhaps he had found Drizzt Do'Urden.If so, that would mean Drizzt Do'Urden was in the lower tunnels, not behind Mithril Hall's barricades.You follow a dangerous course, Methil privately warned, before Baenre could even begin to plot out the spells that would let her find the renegade.Matron Baenre dismissed that notion with hardly a care. She was the first matron mother of Menzoberranzan, the conduit of Lloth, possessed of powers that could snuff the life out of any drow in the city, any matron mother, any wizard, any weapon master, with hardly an effort. Baenre's course now was indeed dangerous, she agreed-dangerous for Drizzt Do'Urden.Most devastating was the dwarven force and the center of the blocking line, a great mass of pounding, singing warriors, mulching goblins and orcs under their heavy hammers and axes, leaping in packs atop towering minotaurs, their sheer weight of numbers bringing the brutes down.But all along the eastern end of Keeper's Dale, the press was too great from every side. Mounted knights rushed back and forth across the barbarian line, bolstering the ranks wherever the enemy seemed to be breaking through, and with their timely support, the line held. Even so, Berkthgar's people found themselves inevitably pushed back.The bodies of kobolds and goblins piled high in Keeper's Dale; a score dying for every defender. But the drow could afford those losses, had expected them, and Berg'inyon, sitting astride his lizard, calmly watching the continuing battle from afar along with the rest of the Baenre riders, knew that the time for slaughter grew near. The defenders were growing weary, he realized. The minutes had turned into an hour, and that into two, and the assault did not diminish.Back went the defending line, and the towering eastern walls of Keeper's Dale were not so far behind them. When those walls halted the retreat, the drow wizards would strike hard. Then Berg'inyon would lead the charge, and Keeper's Dale would run even thicker with the blood of humans.Besnell knew they were losing, knew that a dozen dead goblins were not worth the price of an inch of ground. A resignation began to grow within the elf, tempered only by the fact that never had he seen his knights in finer form. Their tight battle groups rushed to and fro, trampling enemies, and though every man was breathing so hard he could barely sing out a war song, and every horse was lathered in thick sweat, they did not relent, did not pause.Grimly satisfied, and yet terribly worried-and not just for his own men, for Alustriel had made no further appearance on the field-the elf turned his attention to Berkthgar, then he was truly amazed. The huge flamberge, Bankenfuere, hummed as it swept through the air, each cut obliterating any enemies foolish enough to stand close to the huge man. Blood, much of it his own, covered the barbarian from head to toe, but if Berkthgar felt any pain, he did not show it. His song and his dance were to Tempus, the god of battle, and so he sang, and so he danced, and so his enemies died.In Besnell's mind, if the drow won here and conquered Mithril Hall, one of the most tragic consequences would be that the tale of the exploits of mighty Berkthgar the Bold would not leave Keeper's Dale.A tremendous flash to the side brought the elf from his contemplations. He looked down the line to see Regweld Harpell surrounded by a dozen dead or dying, flaming goblins. Regweld and Puddlejumper were also engulfed by the magical flames, dancing licks of green and red, but the wizard and his extraordinary mount did not seem bothered and continued to fight without regard for the fires. Indeed, those fires engulfing the duo became a weapon, an extension of Regweld's fury when the wizard leaped Puddlejumper nearly a dozen yards, to land at the feet of two towering minotaurs. Red and green flames became white hot and leaped out from the wizard's torso, engulfing the towering brutes. Puddlejumper hopped straight up, bringing Regweld even with the screaming minotaurs' ugly faces. Out came a wand, and green blasts of energy tore into the monsters.Then Regweld was gone, leaping to the next fight, leaving the minotaurs staggering, flames consuming them."For the good of all goodly folk!" Besnell cried, holding his sword high. His battle group formed beside him, and the thunder of the charge began anew, this time barreling full stride through a mass of kobolds. They scattered the beasts and came into a thicker throng of larger enemies, where the charge was stopped. Still atop their mounts, the Knights in Silver hacked through the morass, bright swords slaughtering enemies.Besnell was happy. He felt a satisfaction coursing through his body, a sensation of accomplishment and righteousness. The elf believed in Silverymoon with all his heart, believed in the precept he yelled out at every opportunity.He was not sad when a goblin spear found a crease at the side of his breastplate, rushed in through his ribs, and collapsed a lung. He swayed in his saddle and somehow managed to knock the spear from his side."For the good of all goodly folk!" he said with all the strength he could muster. A goblin was beside his mount, sword coming in.Besnell winced with pain as he brought his own sword across to block. He felt weak and suddenly cold. He hardly registered the loss as his sword slipped from his hand to clang to the ground.The goblin's next strike cut solidly against the knight's thigh, the drow-made weapon tearing through Besnell's armor and drawing a line of bright blood.The goblin hooted, then went flying away, broken apart by the mighty sweep of Bankenfuere.Berkthgar caught Besnell in his free hand as the knight slid off his mount. The barbarian felt somehow removed from the battle at that moment, as though he and the noble elf were alone, in their own private place. Around them, not so far away, the knights continued the slaughter and no monsters approached.Berkthgar gently lowered Besnell to the ground. The elf looked up, his golden eyes seeming hollow."For the good of all goodly folk," Besnell said, his voice barely a whisper, but, by the grace of Tempus, or whatever god was looking over the battle of Keeper's Dale, Berkthgar heard every syllable.The barbarian nodded and silently laid the dead elf's head on the stone.Then Berkthgar was up again, his rage multiplied, and he charged headlong into the enemy ranks, his great sword cutting a wide swath.Regweld Harpell had never known such excitement. Still in flames that did not harm him or his horse-frog, but attacked any that came near, the wizard single-handedly bolstered the southern end of the defending line. He was quickly running out of spells, but Regweld didn't care, knew that he would find some way to make himself useful, some way to destroy the wretches that had come to conquer Mithril Hall.A group of minotaurs converged on him, their great spears far out in front to prevent the fires from getting at them.Regweld smiled and coaxed Puddlejumper into another flying leap, straight up between the circling monsters, higher than even minotaurs and their long spears could reach.The Harpell let out a shout of victory, then a lightning bolt silenced him.Suddenly Regweld was free-flying, spinning in the air, and Puddlejumper was spinning the other way just below him.A second thundering bolt came in from a different angle, and then a third, forking so that it hit both the wizard and his strange mount.They were each hit again, and again after that as they tumbled, falling very still upon the stone.The drow wizards had joined the battle.The invaders roared and pressed on, and even Berkthgar, outraged by the valiant elf's death, could not rally his men to hold the line. Drow lizard riders filtered in through the humanoid ranks, their long lances pushing the mounted knights inevitably back, back toward the blocking wall.Berg'inyon was among the first to see the next turn of the battle. He ordered a rider up the side of a rock pillar, to gain a better vantage point, then turned his attention to a group nearby, pointing to the northern wall of the valley.Go up high, the weapon master's fingers signaled to them. Up high and around the enemy ranks, to rain death on them from above when they are pushed back against the wall.Evil smiles accompanied the agreeing nods, but a cry from the other side, from the soldier Berg'inyon had sent up high, stole the moment.The rock pillar had come to life as a great elemental monster. Berg'inyon and the others looked on helplessly as the stone behemoth clapped together great rock arms, splattering the drow and his lizard.There came a great clamor from behind the drow lines, from the west, and above the thunder of the svirfneblin charge was heard a cry of "Bivrip!" the word Belwar Dissengulp used to activate the magic in his crafted hands.It was a long time before Berkthgar and the other defenders at the eastern end of Keeper's Dale even understood that allies had come from the west. Those rumors eventually filtered through the tumult of battle, though, heartening defender and striking fear into invader. The goblins and dark elves engaged near that eastern wall began to look back the other way, wondering if disaster approached.Now Berkthgar did rally what remained of the non-dwarven defenders: two-third of his barbarians, less than a hundred Knights in Silver, a score of Longriders, and only two of the men from Nesme. Their ranks were depleted, but their spirit returned, and the line held again, even made progress in following the dwarven mass back out toward the middle of Keeper's Dale.Soon after, all semblance of order was lost in the valley; no longer did lines of soldiers define enemies. In the west, the svirfneblin priests battled drow wizards, and Belwar's warriors charged hard into drow ranks. They were the bitterest of enemies, ancient enemies, drow and svirfnebli. No less could be said on the eastern side of the valley, where dwarves and goblins hacked away at each other with abandon.It went on through the night, a wild and horrible night. Berg'inyon Baenre engaged in little combat and kept the bulk of his elite lizard riders back as well, using his monstrous fodder to weary the defense. Even with the unexpected arrival of the small but powerful svirfneblin force, the drow soon turned the tide back their way."We will win," the young Baenre promised those soldiers closest to him. "And then what defense might be left in place beyond the western door of the dwarven complex?"