“Keeper’s Dale,” Bruenor declared solemnly. The companions stood on a high ledge, looking down hundreds of feet to the broken floor of a deep and rocky gorge.
“How are we to get down there?” Regis gasped, for every side appeared absolutely sheer, as though the canyon had been purposely cut from the stone.
There was a way down, of course, and Bruenor, walking still with the memories of his youth, knew it well. He led his friends around to the eastern rim of the gorge and looked back to the west, to the peaks of the three nearest mountains. “Ye stand upon Fourthpeak,” he explained, “named for its place beside th’ other three.”
“Three peaks to seem as one,” the dwarf recited, an ancient line from a longer song that all the young dwarves of Mithril Hall were taught before they were even old enough to venture out of the mines.
“Three peaks to seem as one, Behind ye the morning sun.”
Bruenor shifted about to find the exact line of the three western mountains, then moved slowly to the very edge of the gorge and looked over. “We have come to the entrance of the dale,” he stated calmly, though his heart was pounding at the discovery.
The other three moved up to join him. Just below the rim they saw a carved step, the first in a long line moving down the face of the cliff, and shaded perfectly by the coloration of the stone to make the entire construction virtually invisible from any other angle.
Regis swooned when he looked over, nearly overwhelmed by the thought of descending hundreds of feet on a narrow stair without even a handhold. “We’ll surely fall to our deaths!” he squeaked and backed away.
But again Bruenor wasn’t asking for opinions or arguments. He started down, and Drizzt and Wulfgar moved to follow, leaving Regis with no choice but to go. Drizzt and Wulfgar sympathized with his distress, though, and they helped him as much as they could, Wulfgar even scooping him up in his arms when the wind began to gust.
The descent was tentative and slow, even with Bruenor in the lead, and it seemed like hours before the stone of the canyon floor had moved any closer to them.
“Five hundred to the left, then a hundred more,” Bruenor sang when they finally got to the bottom. The dwarf moved along the wall to the south, counting his measured paces and leading the others past towering pillars of stone, great monoliths of another age that had seemed as mere piles of fallen rubble from the rim. Even Bruenor, whose kin had lived here for many centuries, did not know any tales that spoke of the monoliths’ creation or purpose. But whatever the reason, they had stood a silent and imposing vigil upon the canyon floor for uncounted centuries, ancient before the dwarves even arrived, casting ominous shadows and belittling mere mortals who had ever walked here.
And the pillars bent the wind into an eerie and mournful cry and gave the entire floor the sensation of something beyond the natural, timeless like the Holdfast, and imposing a realization of mortality upon onlookers, as though the monoliths mocked the living with their ageless existence.
Bruenor, unbothered by the towers, finished his count.
“Five hundred to the left, then a hundred more. The hidden lines of the secret door.”
He studied the wall beside him for any marking that would indicate the entrance to the halls.
Drizzt, too, ran his sensitive hands across the smooth stone. “Are you certain?” he asked the dwarf after long minutes of searching, for he had felt no cracks at all.
“I am!” Bruenor declared. “Me people were cunning with their workings and I fear that the door is too well in hiding for an easy find.”
Regis moved in to help, while Wulfgar, uncomfortable beneath the shadows of the monoliths, stood guard at their backs.
Just a few seconds later, the barbarian noticed movement from where they’d come, back over by the stone stair. He dipped into a defensive crouch, clutching Aegis-fang as tightly as ever before. “Visitors,” he said to his friends, the hiss of his whisper echoing around as though the monoliths were laughing at his attempt at secrecy.
Drizzt sprang out to the nearest pillar and started making his way around, using Wulfgar’s frozen squint as a guide. Angered at the interruption, Bruenor pulled a small hatchet from his belt and stood ready beside the barbarian, and Regis behind them.
Then they heard Drizzt call out, “Catti-brie!” and were too relieved and elated to pause and consider what might have possibly brought their friend all the way from Ten-Towns, or how she had ever found them.
Their smiles disappeared when they saw her, bruised and bloodied and stumbling toward them. They rushed to meet her, but the drow, suspecting that someone might be in pursuit, slipped along through the monoliths and took up a lookout.
“What bringed ye?” Bruenor cried, grabbing Catti-brie and hugging her close. “And who was it hurt ye? He’ll feel me hands on his neck!”
“And my hammer!” Wulfgar added, enraged at the thought of someone striking Catti-brie.
Regis hung back now, beginning to suspect what had happened.
“Fender Mallot and Grollo are dead,” Catti-brie told Bruenor.
“On the road with ye? But why?” asked the dwarf.
“No, back in Ten-Towns,” Catti-brie answered. “A man, a killer, was there, looking for Regis. I chased after him, trying to get to ye to warn ye, but he caught me and dragged me along.”
Bruenor spun a glare upon the halfling, who was even farther back now, and hanging his head.
“I knew ye’d found trouble when ye came running up on the road outside the towns!” He scowled. “What is it, then? And no more of yer lying tales!”
“His name is Entreri,” Regis admitted. “Artemis Entreri. He came from Calimport, from Pasha Pook.” Regis pulled out the ruby pendant. “For this.”
“But he is not alone,” Catti-brie added. “Wizards from Luskan search for Drizzt.”
“For what reason?” Drizzt called from the shadows.
Catti-brie shrugged. “They been taking care not to tell, but me guess is that they seek some answers about Akar Kessell.”
Drizzt understood at once. They sought the Crystal Shard, the powerful relic that had been buried beneath the avalanche on Kelvin’s Cairn.
“How many?” asked Wulfgar. “And how far behind?”
“Three they were,” Catti-brie answered. “The assassin, a mage, and a soldier from Luskan. A monster they had with them. A golem, they called it, but I’ve ne’er seen its likes before.”
“Golem,” Drizzt echoed softly. He had seen many such creations in the undercity of the dark elves. Monsters of great power and undying loyalty to their creators. These must be mighty foes indeed, to have one along.
“But the thing is gone,” Catti-brie continued. “It chased me on me flight, and would have had me, no doubting, but I pulled a trick on it and sent a mountain of rock on its head!”
Bruenor hugged her close again. “Well done, me girl,” he whispered.
“And I left the soldier and the assassin in a terrible fight,” Catti-brie went on. “One is dead, I guess, and the soldier seems most likely. A pity, it is, for he was a decent sort.”
“He’d have found me blade for helping the dogs at all!” Bruenor retorted. “But enough of the tale; there’ll be time for telling. Ye’re at the hall, girl, do ye know? Ye’re to see for yerself the splendors I been telling ye about all these years! So go and rest up.” He turned around to tell Wulfgar to see to her, but noticed Regis instead. The halfling had problems of his own, hanging his head and wondering if he had pushed his friends too far this time.
“Fear not, my friend,” said Wulfgar, also seeing Regis’s distress. “You acted to survive. There is no shame in that. Though you should have told us the danger!”
“Ah, put yer head up, Rumblebelly!” Bruenor snapped. “We expect as much from ye, ye no-good trickster! Don’t ye be thinkin’ we’re surprised!” Bruenor’s rage, an angry possessor somehow growing of its own volition, suddenly mounted as he stood there chastising the halfling.
“How dare ye to put this on us?” he roared at Regis, moving Catti-brie aside and advancing a step. “And with me home right before me!”
Wulfgar was quick to block Bruenor’s path to Regis, though he was truly amazed at the sudden shift in the dwarf. He had never seen Bruenor so consumed by emotion. Catti-brie, too, looked on, stunned.
“‘Twas not the halfling’s fault,” she said. “And the wizards would’ve come anyway!”
Drizzt returned to them then. “No one has made the stair yet,” he said, but when he took a better notice of the situation, he realized that his words had not been heard.
A long and uncomfortable silence descended upon them, then Wulfgar took command. “We have come too far along this road to argue and fight among ourselves!” he scolded Bruenor.
Bruenor looked at him blankly, not knowing how to react to the uncharacteristic stand Wulfgar had taken against him. “Bah!” the dwarf said finally, throwing up his hands in frustration. “The fool halfling’ll get us killed…but not to worry!” he grumbled sarcastically, moving back to the wall to search for the door.
Drizzt looked curiously at the surly dwarf, but was more concerned with Regis at this point. The halfling, thoroughly miserable, had dropped to a sitting position and seemed to have lost all desire to go on. “Take heart,” Drizzt said to him. “Bruenor’s anger will pass. The essence of his dreams stands before him.”
“And about this assassin who seeks your head,” Wulfgar said, moving to join the two. “He shall find a mighty welcome when he gets here, if ever he does.” Wulfgar patted the head of his warhammer. “Perhaps we can change his mind about this hunt!”
“If we can get into the mines, our trail might be lost to them,” Drizzt said to Bruenor, trying to further soothe the dwarf’s anger.
“They’ll not make the stair,” said Catti-brie. “Even watching your climb down, I had trouble finding it!” .
“I would rather stand against them now!” Wulfgar declared. “They have much to explain, and they’ll not escape my punishment for the way they have treated Catti-brie!”
“Ware the assassin,” Catti-brie warned him. “His blades mean death, and no mistaking!”
“And a wizard can be a terrible foe,” added Drizzt. “We have a more important task before us – we do not need to take on fights that we can avoid.”
“No delays!” said Bruenor, ending any rebuttals from the big barbarian. “Mithril Hall stands before me, and I’m meaning to go in! Let them follow, if they dare.” He turned back to the wall to resume his search for the door, calling for Drizzt to join him. “Keep the watch, boy,” he ordered Wulfgar. “And see to me girl.”
“A word of opening, perhaps?” Drizzt asked when he stood alone again with Bruenor before the featureless wall.
“Aye,” said Bruenor, “there be a word. But the magic that holds to it leaves it after a while, and a new word must be named. None were here to name it!”
“Try the old word, then.”
“I have, elf, a dozen times when we first came here.” He banged his fist on the stone. “Another way there be, I know,” he growled in frustration.
“You will remember,” Drizzt assured him. And they set back to inspecting the wall.
Even the stubborn determination of a dwarf does not always pay off, and the night fell and found the friends sitting outside the entrance in the darkness, not daring to light a fire for fear of alerting their pursuers. Of all their trials on the road, the waiting so very close to their goal was possibly the most trying. Bruenor began to second-guess himself, wondering if this was even the correct place for the door. He recited the song he had learned as a child in Mithril Hall over and over, searching for some clues he might have missed.
The others slept uneasily, especially Catti-brie, who knew that the silent death of an assassin’s blade stalked them. They would not have slept at all, except that they knew that the keen, ever vigilant eyes of a drow elf watched over them.
* * *
A few miles down the trail behind them, a similar camp had been set. Entreri stood quietly, peering to the trails of the eastern mountains for signs of a campfire, though he doubted that the friends would be so careless as to light one if Catti-brie had found and warned them. Behind him, Sydney lay wrapped in a blanket upon the cool stone, resting and recovering from the blow Catti-brie had struck her.
The assassin had considered leaving her – normally he would have without a second thought – but Entreri needed to take some time anyway to regroup his thoughts and figure out his best course of action.
Dawn came and found him standing there still, unmoving and contemplative. Behind him, the mage awoke.
“Jierdan?” she called, dazed. Entreri stepped back and crouched over her.
“Where is Jierdan?” she asked.
“Dead,” Entreri answered, no hint of remorse in his voice. “As is the golem.”
“Bok?” Sydney gasped.
“A mountain fell on him,” Entreri replied.
“And the girl?”
“Gone.” Entreri looked back to the east. “When I have seen to your needs, I will go,” he said. “Our chase is ended.”
“They are close,” Sydney argued. “You will give up your hunt?”
Entreri grinned. “The halfling will be mine,” he said evenly, and Sydney had no doubt that he spoke the truth. “But our party is disbanded. I will return to my own hunt, and you to yours, though I warn you, if you take what is mine, you will mark yourself as my next prey.”
Sydney considered the words carefully. “Where did Bok fall?” she asked on a sudden thought.
Entreri looked along the trail to the east. “In a vale beyond the copse.”
“Take me there,” Sydney insisted. “There is something that must be done.”
Entreri helped her to her feet and led her along the path, figuring that he would part with her when she had put her final business to rest. He had come to respect this young mage and her dedication to her duty, and he trusted that she would not cross him. Sydney was no wizard, and no match for him, and they both knew that his respect for her would not slow his blade if she got in his way.
Sydney surveyed the rocky slope for a moment, then turned on Entreri, a knowing smile upon her face. “You say that our quest together is ended, but you are wrong. We may prove of value to you still, assassin.”
Sydney turned to the slope. “Bok!” she called loudly and kept her gaze upon the slope.
A puzzled look crossed Entreri’s face. He, too, studied the stones, but saw no sign of movement.
“Bok!” Sydney called again, and this time there was indeed a stir. A rumble grew beneath the layer of boulders, and then one shifted and rose into the air, the golem standing beneath it, stretching into the air. Battered and twisted, but apparently feeling no pain, Bok tossed the huge stone aside and moved toward its master.
“A golem is not so easily destroyed,” Sydney explained, drawing satisfaction from the amazed expression on Entreri’s normally emotionless face. “Bok still has a road to travel, a road it will not so easily forsake.”
“A road that will again lead us to the drow,” Entreri laughed. “Come, my companion,” he said to Sydney, “let us be on with the chase.”
* * *
The friends still had found no clues when dawn came. Bruenor stood before the wall, shouting a tirade of arcane chants, most of which had nothing to do with words of opening.
Wulfgar took a different approach. Reasoning that a hollow echo would help them ensure that they had come to the correct spot, he moved methodically along with his ear to the wall, tapping with Aegis-fang. The hammer chimed off the solid stone, singing in the perfection of its crafting.
But one blow did not reach its mark. Wulfgar brought the hammer’s head in, but just as it reached the stone, it was stopped by a blanket of blue light. Wulfgar jumped back, startled. Creases appeared in the stone, the outline of a door. The rock continued to shift and slide inward, and soon it cleared the wall and slid aside, revealing the entry hall to the dwarven homeland. A gust of air, bottled up within for centuries and carrying the scents of ages past, rushed out upon them.
“A magic weapon!” cried Bruenor. “The only trade me people would accept at the mines!”
“When visitors came here, they entered by tapping the door with a magical weapon?” Drizzt asked.
The dwarf nodded, though his attention was now fixed squarely on the gloom beyond the wall. The chamber directly before them was unlit, except by the daylight shining through the open door, but down a corridor behind the entry hall, they could see the flicker of torches.
“Someone is here,” said Regis.
“Not so,” replied Bruenor, many of his long-forgotten images of Mithril Hall flooding back to him. “The torches ever burn, for the life of a dwarf and more.” He stepped through the portal, kicking dust that had settled untouched for two hundred years.
His friends gave him a moment alone, then solemnly joined him. All around the chamber lay the remains of many dwarves. A battle had been fought here, the final battle of Bruenor’s clan before they were expelled from their home.
“By me own eyes, the tales be true,” the dwarf muttered. He turned to his friends to explain. “The rumors that came down to Settlestone after me and the younger dwarves arrived there told of a great battle at the entry hall. Some went back to see what truth the rumors held, but they never returned to us.”
Bruenor broke off, and on his lead, the companions moved about to inspect the place. Dwarven-sized skeletons lay about in the same poses and places where they had fallen. Mithril armor, dulled by the dust but not rusted, and shining again with the brush of a hand, clearly marked the dead of Clan Battlehammer. Intertwined with those dead were other, similar skeletons in strangely crafted mail, as though the fighting had pitted dwarf against dwarf. It was a riddle beyond the surface-dwellers’ experience, but Drizzt Do’Urden understood. In the city of the dark elves, he had known the Duergar, the malicious gray dwarves, as allies. Duergar were the dwarven equivalent of the drow, and because their surface cousins sometimes delved deep into the earth, and into their claimed territory, the hatred between the dwarven races was even more intense than the clash between the races of elves. The Duergar skeletons explained much to Drizzt, and to Bruenor, who also recognized the strange armor, and who for the first time understood what had driven his kin out of Mithril Hall. If the gray ones were in the mines still, Drizzt knew, Bruenor would be hard-pressed to reclaim the place.
The magical door slid shut behind them, dimming the chamber even further. Catti-brie and Wulfgar moved close together for security, their eyes weak in the dimness, but Regis darted about, searching for the gems and other treasures that a dwarven skeleton might possess.
Bruenor had also seen something of interest. He moved over to two skeletons lying back to back. A pile of gray dwarves had fallen around them, and that alone told Bruenor who these two were, even before he saw the foaming mug crest upon their shields.
Drizzt moved behind him, but kept a respectable distance.
“Bangor, me father,” Bruenor explained. “And Garumn, me father’s father, King of Mithril Hall. Suren they took their toll before they fell!”
“As mighty as their next in line,” Drizzt remarked.
Bruenor accepted the compliment silently and bent to dust the dirt from Garumn’s helm. “Garumn wears still the armor and weapons of Bruenor, me namesake and the hero of me clan. Me guess is that they cursed this place as they died,” he said, “for the gray ones did not return and loot.”
Drizzt agreed with the explanation, aware of the power of the curse of a king when his homeland has fallen.
Reverently, Bruenor lifted Garumn’s remains and bore them into a side chamber. Drizzt did not follow, allowing the dwarf his privacy in this moment. Drizzt returned to Catti-brie and Wulfgar to help them comprehend the importance of the scene around them.
They waited patiently for many minutes, imagining the course of the epic battle that had taken place and their minds hearing clearly the sounds of axe on shield, and the brave war cries of Clan Battlehammer.
Then Bruenor returned and even the mighty images the friends’ minds had concocted fell short of the sight before them. Regis dropped the few baubles he had found in utter amazement, and in fear that a ghost from the past had returned to thwart him.
Cast aside was Bruenor’s battered shield. The dented and one-horned helm was strapped on his backpack. He wore the armor of his namesake, shining mithril, the mug standard on the shield of solid gold, and the helm ringed with a thousand glittering gemstones. “By me owns eyes, I proclaim the legends as true,” he shouted boldly, lifting the mithril axe high above him. “Garumn is dead and me father, too. Thus I claim me title: Eighth King of Mithril Hall!”