The Dark Elf Trilogy: Exile

5. Ashes


The room was empty, the fire burning low. The figure knew that there were gray dwarves, duergar, in the side chamber, through the partly opened door, but he had to chance it. This section of the complex was too full of the scum for him to continue along the tunnels without his disguise.

He slipped in from the main corridor and tiptoed past the side door to get to the hearth. He knelt before it and laid his fine mithril axe at his side. The glow of the embers made him flinch instinctively, though he felt no pain as he dipped his finger into the ash.

He heard the side door swing open a few seconds later and rubbed a final handful of the ash over his face, hoping that he had properly covered his telltale red beard and the pale flesh of his long nose all the length to its tip.

"What ye be doin'?" came a croak behind him.

The ash-covered dwarf blew into the embers, and a small flame came to life. "Bit o' chill," he answered. "Be needin' rest." He rose and turned, lifting the mithril axe beside him.

Two gray dwarves walked across the room to stand before him, their weapons securely sheathed. "Who ye be?" one asked. "Not o' Clan McUduck, an' not belongin' in these tunnels!"

"Tooktook o' Clan Trilk," the dwarf lied, using the name of a gray dwarf he had chopped down just the morning before. "Been patrollin', and been lost! Glad I be to find a room with a hearth!"

The two gray dwarves looked at each other, and then back to the stranger suspiciously. They had heard the reports over the last few weeks - since Shimmergloom, the shadow dragon that had been their god-figure, had fallen - tales of slaughtered duergar, often beheaded, found in the outer tunnels. And why was this one alone? Where was the rest of his patrol? Surely Clan Trilk knew enough to keep out of the tunnels of Clan McUduck.

And, why, one of them noticed, was there a patch of red on this one's beard?

The dwarf realized their suspicion immediately and knew that he could not keep this charade going for long. "Lost two o' me kin," he said. "To a drow." He smiled when he saw the duergar's eyes go wide. The mere mention of a drow elf always sent gray dwarves rocking back on their heels - and bought the dwarf a few extra seconds. "But worth it, it were!" he proclaimed, holding the mithril axe up beside his head. "Found me a wicked blade! See?"

Even as one of the duergar leaned forward, awed by the shining weapon, the red-bearded dwarf gave him a closer look, putting the cruel blade deep into his face. The other duergar just managed to get a hand to his sword hilt when he got hit with a backhand blow that drove the butt of the axe handle into his eye. He stumbled back, reeling, but knew through the blur of pain that he was finished a full second before the mithril axe sliced the side of his neck.

Two more duergar burst in from the anteroom, their weapons drawn. "Get help!" one of them screamed, leaping into the fight. The other bolted for the door.

Again, luck was with the red-bearded dwarf. He kicked hard at an object on the floor, launching it toward the fleeing duergar, while parrying the first blow of his newest opponent with his golden shield.

The fleeing duergar was only a couple of strides from the corridor when something rolled between his feet, tripping him up and sending him sprawling to the floor. He got back to his knees quickly but hesitated, fighting back a gush of bile, when he saw what he had stumbled over.

The head of his kin.

The red-bearded dwarf danced away from another strike, rushing across the room to shield-slam the now-kneeling duergar, smashing the unfortunate creature into the stone wall.

But the dwarf, overbalanced in the fury of his rush, was down on one knee when the remaining duergar caught up to him. The intruder swung his shield back above him to block a downward thrust of the duergar's sword, and countered with a low sweep of his axe, aiming for the knees.

The duergar sprang back just in time, taking a nick on one leg, and before he could fully recover and come back with a counter, the red-bearded dwarf was up and at the ready.

"Yer bones are for carrion-eaters!" the dwarf growled.

"Who ye be?" the duergar demanded. "Not o' me kin, fer sure!"

A white smile spread across the dwarf's ash-covered face. "Battlehammer's me name," he growled, displaying the standard emblazoned upon his shield - the foaming mug emblem of Clan Battlehammer. "Bruenor Battlehammer, rightful king of Mithril Hall!"

Bruenor chuckled softly to see the gray dwarf's face blanch to white. The duergar stumbled back toward the door of the anteroom, understanding now that he was no match for this mighty foe. In desperation, he spun and fled, trying to slam the door shut behind him.

But Bruenor guessed what the duergar had in mind, and he got his heavy boot through the door before it could close. The mighty dwarf slammed his shoulder into the hard wood, sending the duergar flying back into the small room and knocking aside a table and chair.

Bruenor strode in confidently, never fearing even odds.

With no escape, the gray dwarf rushed back at him wildly, his shield leading and his sword above his head. Bruenor easily blocked the downward thrust, then smashed his axe into the duergar's shield. It, too, was of mithril, and the axe could not cut into it. But so great was Bruenor's blow that the leather strappings snapped apart and the duergar's arm went numb and drooped helplessly. The duergar screamed in terror and brought his short sword across his chest to protect his opened flank.

Bruenor followed the duergar's sword arm with a shield-rush, shoving into his opponent's elbow and causing the duergar to overbalance. In a lightning combination with his axe, Bruenor slipped the deadly blade over the duergar's dipped shoulder.

A second head dropped free to the floor.

Bruenor grunted at the job well done and moved back into the larger room. The duergar beside the door was just regaining consciousness when Bruenor came up to him and shield-slammed him back into the wall. "Twenty-two," he mumbled to himself, keeping count of the number of gray dwarves he had cut down during these last few weeks.

Bruenor peeked out into the dark corridor. All was clear. He closed the door softly and went back to the hearth to touch up his disguise.

Following the wild descent to the bottom of Garumn's Gorge on the back of a flaming dragon, Bruenor had lost consciousness. Truly he was amazed when he managed to open his eyes. He knew the dragon to be dead as soon as he looked around, but he couldn't understand why he, still lying atop the smoldering form, had not been burned.

The gorge had been quiet and dark around him; he could not begin to guess how long he had remained unconscious. He knew, though, that his friends, if they had escaped, would probably have made their way out through the back door, to the safety of the surface.

And Drizzt was alive! The image of the drow's lavender eyes staring at him from the wall of the gorge as the dragon had glided past in its descent remained firmly etched in Bruenor's mind. Even now, weeks later as far as he could figure, he used that image of the indomitable Drizzt Do'Urden as a litany against the hopelessness of his own situation. For Bruenor could not climb from the bottom of the gorge, where the walls rose straight and sheer. His only option had been to slip into the sole tunnel running off the chasm's base and make his way though the lower mines.

And through an army of gray dwarves - duergar even more alert, for the dragon Bruenor had killed, Shimmergloom, had been their leader.

He had come far, and each step he took brought him a little closer to the freedom of the surface. But each step also brought him closer to the main host of the duergar. Even now he could hear the thrumming of the furnaces of the great undercity, no doubt teeming with the gray scum. Bruenor knew that he had to pass through there to get to the tunnels connecting the higher levels.

But even here, in the darkness of the mines, his disguise could not hold out to close scrutiny. How would he fare in the glow of the undercity, with a thousand gray dwarves milling all about him?

Bruenor shook away the thought and rubbed more ash onto his face. No need to worry now; he'd find his way through. He gathered up his axe and shield and headed for the door.

He shook his head and smiled as he approached, for the stubborn duergar beside the door was awake again - barely - and struggling to find his feet.

Bruenor slammed him into the wall a third time and casually dropped the axe blade onto his head as he slumped, this time never to awaken. "Twenty-two," the mighty dwarf reiterated grimly as he stepped into the corridor.

The sound of the closing door echoed through the darkness, and when it died away, Bruenor heard again the thrumming of the furnaces.

The undercity, his only chance.

He steadied himself with a deep breath, then slapped his axe determinedly against his shield and started stomping along the corridor toward the beckoning sound.

It was time to get things done.

The corridor twisted and turned, finally ending in a low archway that opened into a brightly lit cavern.

For the first time in nearly two hundred years, Bruenor Battlehammer looked down upon the great undercity of Mithril Hall. Set in a huge chasm, with walls tiered into steps and lined with decorated doorways, this massive chamber had once housed the entirety of Clan Battlehammer with many rooms to spare.

The place had remained exactly as the dwarf remembered it, and now, as in those distant years of his youth, many of the furnaces were bright with fire and the floor level teemed with the hunched forms of dwarven workers. How many times had young Bruenor and his friends looked down upon the magnificence of this place and heard the chiming of the smithies' hammers and the heavy sighing of the huge bellows? he wondered.

Bruenor spat away the pleasant memories when he reminded himself that these hunched workers were evil duergar, not his kin. He brought his mind back into the present and the task at hand. Somehow he had to get across the open floor and up the tiers on the far side, to a tunnel that would take him higher in the complex.

A shuffle of boots sent Bruenor back into the shadows of the tunnel. He gripped his axe tightly and didn't dare to breathe, wondering if the time of his last glory had finally caught up to him. A patrol of heavily armed duergar marched up to the archway then continued past, giving only a casual glance down the tunnel.

Bruenor sighed deeply and scolded himself for his delay. He could not afford to tarry; every moment he spent in this area was a dangerous gamble. Quickly he searched for options. He was about halfway up one wall, five tiers from the floor. One bridge, at the highest tier, traversed the chasm, but no doubt it would be heavily guarded. Walking alone up there, away from the bustle of the floor, would make him too conspicuous.

Across the busy floor seemed a better route. The tunnels halfway up the other wall, almost directly across from where he now stood, would lead him to the western end of the complex, back to the hall he had first entered on his return to Mithril Hall, and to the open valley of Keeper's Dale beyond. It was his best chance, by his estimation - if he could get across the open floor.

He peeked out under the archway for any signs of the returning patrol. Satisfied that all was clear, he reminded himself that he was a king, the rightful king of the complex, and boldly stepped out onto the tier. The closest steps, down were to the right, but the patrol had headed that way and Bruenor thought it wise to keep clear of them.

His confidence grew with each step. He passed a couple of gray dwarves, answering their casual greetings with a quick nod and never slowing his stride.

He descended one tier and then another, and before he even had time to consider his progress, Bruenor found himself bathed in the bright light of the huge furnaces at the final descent, barely fifteen feet from the floor. He crouched instinctively at the glow of the light, but he realized on a rational level that the brightness was actually his ally. Duergar were creatures of the dark, not accustomed to, nor liking, the light. Those on the floor kept their hoods pulled low to shield their eyes, and Bruenor did likewise, only improving his disguise. With the apparently unorganized movements on the floor, he began to believe that the crossing would be easy.

He moved out slowly at first, gathering speed as he went, but staying in a crouch, the collar of his cloak pulled up tightly around his cheeks, and his battered, one-horned helmet dipped low over his brow. Trying to maintain an air of easiness, Bruenor kept his shield arm at his side, but his other hand rested comfortably on his belted axe. If it came to blows, Bruenor was determined to be ready.

He passed by the three central forges - and the cluster of duergar they attracted - without incident, then waited patiently as a small caravan of ore-filled wheelbarrows were carted by. Bruenor, trying to keep the easy, cordial atmosphere, nodded to the passing band, but bile rose in his throat as he saw the mithril load in the carts and at the thought of the gray scum extracting the precious metals from the walls of his hallowed homeland.

"Ye'll be paid for yer troubles," he mumbled under his breath. He rubbed a sleeve over his brow. He had forgotten how very hot the bottom area of the undercity became when the furnaces were burning. As with everyone else there, streaks of sweat began to make their way down his face.

Bruenor thought nothing of the discomfort at first, but then the last of the passing miners gave him a curious sidelong glance.

Bruenor hunched even lower and quickly stepped away, realizing the effect his sweating would have on his feeble disguise. By the time he reached the first stair on the other side of the chasm, his face was fully streaked and parts of his whiskers were showing their true hue.

Still, he thought he might make it. But halfway up the stair, disaster struck. Concentrating more on hiding his face, Bruenor stumbled and bumped into a duergar soldier standing two steps above him. Reflexively Bruenor looked up, and his eyes met with the duergar's.

The dumbfounded stare of the gray dwarf told Bruenor beyond any doubt that the ploy was over. The gray dwarf went for his sword, but Bruenor didn't have time for a pitched battle. He drove his head between the duergar's knees - shattering one kneecap with the remaining horn of his helmet - and heaved the duergar behind him and down the stairs.

Bruenor glanced around. Few had noticed, and fights were commonplace among the duergar ranks. Casually he started again up the stairs.

But the soldier was still conscious after he crashed to the floor and still coherent enough to point a finger up to the tier and shout, "Stop 'im!"

Bruenor lost all hope of remaining inconspicuous. He pulled out his mithril axe and tore along the tier toward the next stair. Cries of alarm sprang up throughout the chasm. A general commotion of spilled wheelbarrows, the clanging of weapons being drawn, and the thumping of booted feet closed in around Bruenor. Just as he was about to turn onto the next stairway, two guards leaped down in front of him.

"What's the trouble?" one of them cried, confused and not understanding that the dwarf they now faced had been the cause of the commotion. In horror, the two guards recognized Bruenor for what he was just as his axe tore the face off one and he shoulder-blocked the other off the tier.

Then up the stairs he sprinted, only to reverse his tracks as a patrol appeared at the top. Hundreds of gray dwarves rushed all about the undercity, their focus increasing on Bruenor.

Bruenor found another stair and got to the second tier.

But he stopped there, trapped. A dozen duergar soldiers came at him from both directions, their weapons drawn.

Bruenor scanned the area desperately. The tumult had brought more than a hundred of the gray dwarves on the floor rushing over to, and up, the original stair he had climbed.

A broad smile found the dwarf's face as he considered a desperate plan. He looked again at the charging soldiers and knew that he had no choice. He saluted the groups, adjusted his helmet and dropped suddenly from the tier, crashing down into the crowd that had assembled on the tier below him. Without losing his momentum, Bruenor continued his roll to the ledge, dropping along with several unfortunate gray dwarves, onto another group on the floor.

Bruenor was up in a flash, chopping his way through. The surprised duergar in the crowd climbed over each other to get out of the way of the wild dwarf and his deadly axe, and in seconds, Bruenor was sprinting unhindered across the floor.

Bruenor stopped and looked all around. Where could he go now? Dozens of duergar stood between him and any of the exits from the undercity, and they grew more organized with every second.

One soldier charged him, only to be chopped down in a single blow. "Come on, then!" Bruenor shouted defiantly, figuring to take a fair share and more of the duergar down with him. "Come on, as many as will! Know the rage of the true king o' Mithril Hall!"

A crossbow quarrel clanked into his shield, taking a bit of the bluster out of his boastings. More on instinct than conscious thought, the dwarf darted suddenly for the single unguarded path - the roaring furnaces. He dropped the mithril axe into his belt loop and never slowed. Fire hadn't harmed him on the back of the falling dragon, and the warmth of the ashes he'd rubbed on his face never seemed to touch his skin.

And once again, standing in the center of the open furnace, Bruenor found himself impervious to the flames. He didn't have time to ponder this mystery and could only guess the protection from fire to be a property of the magical armor he had donned when he had first entered Mithril Hall.

But in truth, it was Drizzt's lost scimitar, neatly strapped under Bruenor's pack and almost forgotten by the dwarf, that had once again saved him.

The fire hissed in protest and started to burn low when the magical blade came in. But it roared back to life as Bruenor quickly started up the chimney. He heard the shouts of the astonished duergar behind him, along with cries to get the fire out. Then one voice rose above the others in a commanding tone. "Smoke 'im!" it cried.

Rags were wetted and thrown into the blaze, and great bursts of billowing gray smoke closed in around Bruenor. Soot filled his eyes and he could find no breath, still he had no choice but to continue his ascent. Blindly he searched for cracks into which he could wedge his stubby fingers and pulled himself along with all of his strength.

He knew that he would surely die if he inhaled, but he had no breath left, and his lungs cried out in pain.

Unexpectedly he found a hole in the wall and nearly fell in from his momentum. A side tunnel? he wondered, astonished. He then remembered that all of the chimneys of the undercity had been interconnected to aid in their cleaning.

Bruenor pulled himself away from the rush of smoke and curled up inside the new passage. He tried to wipe the soot from his eyes as his lungs mercifully took in a deep draft, but he only aggravated the sting with his soot-covered sleeve. He couldn't see the blood flowing over his hands, but could guess at the extent of his wounds from the sharp ache along his fingernails.

As exhausted as he was, he knew that he could afford no delays. He crawled along the little tunnel, hoping that the furnace below the next chimney he came to was not in use.

The floor dropped away in front of him, and Bruenor almost tumbled down another shaft. No smoke, he noted, and with a wall as broken and climbable as the first. He tightened down all of his equipment, adjusted his helmet one more time, and inched out, blindly seeking a handhold and ignoring the aches in his shoulders and fingers. Soon he was moving steadily again.

But seconds seemed like minutes, and minutes like hours, to the weary dwarf, and he found himself resting as much as climbing, his breaths coming in heavy labored gasps. During one such rest, Bruenor thought he heard a shuffle above him. He paused to consider the sound. These shafts should not connect to any higher side passages, or to the overcity, he thought. Their ascent is straight to the open air of the surface. Bruenor strained to look upward through his soot-filled eyes. He knew that he had heard a sound.

The riddle was solved suddenly, as a monstrous form shuffled down the shaft beside Bruenor's precarious perch and great, hairy legs began flailing at him. The dwarf knew his peril at once.

A giant spider.

Venom-dripping pincers tore a gash into Bruenor's forearm. He ignored the pain and the possible implications of the wound and reacted with matched fury. He drove himself up the shaft, butting his head into the bulbous body of the wretched thing, and pushed off from the walls with all his strength.

The spider locked its deadly pincers onto a heavy boot and flailed with as many legs as it could spare while holding its position.

Only one course of attack seemed feasible to the desperate dwarf: dislodge the spider. He grasped at the hairy legs, twisting himself to snap them as he caught them, or at least to pull them from their hold on the wall. His arm burned with the sting of poison, and his foot, though his boot had repelled the pincers, was twisted and probably broken.

But he had no time to think of the pain. With a growl, he grabbed another leg and snapped it apart.

Then they were falling.

The spider - stupid thing - curled up as best it could and released its hold on the dwarf. Bruenor felt the rush of air and the closeness of the wall as they sped along. He could only hope that the shaft was straight enough to keep them clear of any sharp edges. He climbed as far over the spider as he could, putting the bulk of its body between himself and the coming impact.

They landed in a great splat. The air blasted from Bruenor's lungs, but with the wet explosion of the spider beneath him, he sustained no serious wounds. He still could not see, but he realized that he must again be on the floor level of the undercity, though luckily - for he heard no cries of alarm - in a less busy section. Dazed but undaunted, the stubborn dwarf picked himself up and wiped the spider fluid from his hands.

"Sure to be a mother's mother of a rainstorm tomorrow," he muttered, remembering an old dwarven superstition against killing spiders. And he started back up the shaft, dismissing the pain in his hands, the ache in his ribs and foot, and the poisoned burn of his forearm.

And any thoughts of more spiders lurking up ahead.

He climbed for hours, stubbornly putting one hand over the other and pulling himself up. The insidious spider venom swept through him with waves of nausea and sapped the strength from his arms. But Bruenor was tougher than mountain stone. He might die from his wound, but he was determined that it would happen outside, in the free air, under the stars or the sun.

He would escape Mithril Hall.

A cold blast of wind shook the exhaustion from him. He looked up hopefully but still could not see - perhaps it was nighttime outside. He studied the whistle of the wind for a moment and knew that he was only yards from his goal. A burst of adrenaline carried him to the chimney's exit - and the iron grate that blocked it.

"Damn ye by Moradin's hammer!" Bruenor spat. He leaped from the walls and grasped the bars of the grate with his bloodied fingers. The bars bent under his weight but held fast.

"Wulfgar could break it," Bruenor said, half in exhausted delirium. "Lend me yer strength, me big friend," he called out to the darkness as he began tugging and twisting.

Hundreds of miles away, caught up in nightmares of his lost mentor, Bruenor, Wulfgar tossed uneasily in his bunk on the Sea Sprite. Perhaps the spirit of the young barbarian did come to Bruenor's aid at that desperate moment, but more likely the dwarf's unyielding stubbornness proved stronger than the iron. A bar of the grate bent low enough to slip out of the stone wall, and Bruenor held it free.

Hanging by one hand, Bruenor dropped the bar into the emptiness below him. With a wicked smile he hoped that some duergar scum might, at that instant, be at the bottom of the chimney, inspecting the dead spider and looking upward to find the cause.

Bruenor pulled himself halfway through the small hole he had opened, but had not the strength to squeeze his hips and belt through. Thoroughly drained, he accepted the perch, though his legs were dangling freely over a thousand-foot drop.

He put his head on the iron bars and knew no more.
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