|Shadows in Light
Author: anirilgalwen PM
He had left the Enemy in the Plane of Shadow. He had returned and started a new life. Who could destroy his happiness now? It would NOT be these mere orcs… Please R&R.Rated: Fiction T - English - Fantasy/Drama - Chapters: 19 - Words: 130,565 - Reviews: 8 - Favs: 1 - Updated: 02-13-10 - Published: 05-16-05 - Status: Complete - id: 2396586
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
The characters that belong to Bioware are the property of Bioware. The rest are mine including canon tweaks. Forgive me.
Prologue: Threats to Happiness
The tower in which Dernhelm stood, broken off five stories above the base, protruded above the land like a bone of some fallen creature now smashed into ruin. In the courtyard far below, the tumbled blocks of Castle Jhareg lay scattered like deadwood, their weathered faces moss-covered and cracked. It was amazing to see how quickly the forest had reclaimed this once evil place now that the power of it had been broken. In twenty years or so, without tending, the forest would rid itself of the taint of Castle Jhareg forever.
Given the dismal scene below it was surprising that it filled Dernhelm with such peace. As he peered down from the tower window high above, it occurred to him that the wreckage of this once powerful fiefdom was tempting him with the promise of a life away from the bustle and claustrophobia he felt in the city. Cut off and cursed by the world, no one would willingly come here; no one wanted to remember it. "This would be a perfect place to live," Dernhelm thought as he looked out at the land below. Here he had a chance to start a new life with his wife and family in peace, a chance to carve out the future he had always dreamed. In a place forgotten by the world, here he could build memories. He just wished the world would allow him that peace.
"Dernhelm the Great, settling down and starting a family; I still can't believe it," said a gruff voice behind him breaking him from his revelry. Turning from the window, a lean but muscular middle-aged man stood before him, a grin splitting his round, red-bearded chin from ear to ear.
Trying to hide his surprise for he hadn't heard the other enter – they always tried to catch each other unawares – Dernhelm stood with measured aplomb. "Believe it," Dernhelm said with a smile, raising his arms to stretch with a catlike grace, his expression incongruous with his weather-beaten and disheveled appearance. His thick, maroon dreadlocks were in disarray and his cloak was severely travel-stained. With a contented sigh, he unconsciously scratched his scruffy beard.
"Come here you old fart," his friend said, laughing at Dernhelm's coolness, drawing him into a great bear hug. "It's amazing we still find amusement from that game at our age."
Separating, Dernhelm held his friend at arm's length. "Game? What game are you talking about, Demas?" Dernhelm asked, feigning ignorance. They both shared a laugh.
"It's been too long," Dernhelm said, embracing his friend in another strong hug. "I am glad you answered my message."
"Naturally. If you consider something important, it usually is. Old Blackstaff is concerned about this as well. Had you not sent a message, he was planning on sending me here anyway; he says he feels something strange in his bones. Plus," he said with a toothy grin, "I couldn't pass up the chance to spend more time in this wild country of yours." As a ranger like Dernhelm, Demas spent most of his time outdoors, but little could compare to the wild country of the Savage Frontier. It had a rugged beauty to it that Dernhelm had never found the equal of in all his years of travel. Demas spent most of his time in the areas south of Waterdeep, where duty kept him, but throughout his long service in the employ of that great city, he took whatever opportunities he could to visit Dernhelm and spend his days traipsing through the woods and mountains there in the northern Sword Coast.
"It is beautiful isn't it?" Dernhelm said rhetorically, turning back to sit himself in the window well. He lost himself in the beauty of the landscape gracing the horizon, the sharp peaks and the quiet valleys. "This is a perfect place," Dernhelm repeated to himself.
"So, how is married life treating you? How is Aribeth? And… how is this baby I hear so much about?" Demas laughed with disbelief. "Imagine you, a baby!"
"It's amazing Demas. I never knew that I could be so happy. It's still sometimes hard to believe that we are even together, what with all the trouble we've been through; much like a daydream. She grows even more beautiful by the day if that were possible…" he said, losing himself in private thoughts. His private smile was positively radiant. He looked up after a moment, remembering where he was, his cheeks heating. "Sorry, I'm rambling."
"Ramble on, my good friend," Demas said, pulling up the lone chair in the small room to face Dernhelm. "After what you two have been through, I don't mind in the slightest… not listening to how happy you are."
It didn't take Dernhelm long to accept the offer. "We take walks in the park, Demas!" Dernhelm said, enervated by the mere thought of his wife. Standing, he began to pace around the little room and gesticulate. "Can you believe it? Me getting the chance to take walks… for fun? And without wondering if someone is laying in wait for me! Practically every moment I have spent in a city in ages, I have been fighting for my life. And now… I even have my own house in Neverwinter! A house that I can call my own. A place where I am not the guest, where I don't have to pay by the night! I never believed that could happen. And a library! I have books, Demas! And time to read them…" he paused, and his face fell slightly. "Well, until of late. Until this trouble began."
For a moment his thoughts went to the threatening danger but once he started talking about his family, he couldn't stay upset for long. All trouble fell away from his face. "And the baby? It's what I always wondered about but never dreamed was possible! By Ao I am happy!"
Demas let out a deep, good-natured chuckle at his friend's excitement. It warmed his heart to see his friend happy. Dernhelm had had a difficult life, a life of adventuring placed upon him because of the needs of the moment, and many had assumed that adventuring would be the end of his life as well. It nearly had been on many occasion, Demas thought, which was why seeing his friend settling down was so important.
"How have the people of Neverwinter accepted Aribeth? I recall the last time, they wanted to lynch her. I know Nasher let her out of prison, and she certainly served her time, but I doubt many could forgive her."
"That's the thing that is truly amazing!" Dernhelm said, gesticulating so wildly that had the room had shelves, their contents would be on the floor. "I figured it would be a hard sell, short of impossibility, you know? I mean to come from enemy and prisoner to being even able to walk the streets without threat of harm is astonishing enough, but get this: Nasher held an open election to choose the new Knight General of the Neverwintan Guard… and they chose her!"
At this Demas' eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets. "They what? When did this happen? No news like this has reached Waterdeep."
"Five days ago. I was there when the vote was cast. It was a completely public election by a show of hands. Nearly everyone was there in Justice Square. Over ten thousand crammed into that small space. The event was so momentous what with her name on the ballot, everyone wanted to see her. The vote wasn't unanimous but she clearly held a wide majority."
Demas stood up and performed a small caper. "That's wonderful news. Praise Ao."
"What do you think was the cause of this change of heart? I was surprised when there wasn't a riot when Nasher actually freed her from prison… even though it has been fifteen years, but to go from that to this…"
"I think me marrying her might have something to do with it," Dernhelm said, pretending he wasn't stating the obvious by rolling his eyes and rubbing his neck. He looked about the room abashedly.
"No…" Demas replied, mockingly. "The Hero of Neverwinter, Waterdeep, and several other *ahem* little known events marrying a "fallen" paladin may cause some people to rethink what they really remember about the situation. Come to think of it, I bet over the years as tempers cooled they may have realized that their reaction to Fenthick may not have been entirely, shall we say… justified… you think? And that they may have been just a little responsible for her… *ahem* reaction? That could explain this apparent change of heart."
Dernhelm chuckled. His friend always had a way with words.
"You may be right. And it may also be that they realize there was never someone as effective or dedicated as her. Regardless, she is ecstatic. And if you thought she was determined before, you should see her now. Especially with recent orc attacks."
Demas paused, reflecting. "And the baby?"
"Two months along. You can't really notice it on Aribeth yet, but she has stopped wearing tight-fitting armor," Dernhelm grinned. "…Generally." His smile became a wicked grin. "...She has chosen to switch to chain mail."
Demas laughed. "A pregnant warrior-woman. Somehow I am still scared," he said, without a hint of sarcasm.
"So what's news from Waterdeep?" He asked, sitting back in the window well, yielding the floor to his friend.
"Adventurers are just now starting to trickle back into Undermountain. The dry spell after the battle with Mephistopheles was longer than expected. The good thing is, Durnan used the reward he received for his efforts and this slow period to make the Yawning Portal even better than ever. It has a third story now! Also-"
"Does the ale still taste like swill?" Dernhelm interjected.
"Dernhelm, this is Durnan you are talking about." He replied with shock. Then he grinned. "Of course."
"Also," Demas continued. "Argali the Smith is making a killing off of the weapons she confiscated from the drow and duergar that followed Mephistopheles."
"And what of you? What have you been up to?"
"Khelben has had me down around Sespech and the Vilhon Reach, checking up on some rumors."
"The Reach? Nothing ever happens down 'that-a-way'" Dernhelm replied. He turned away from the window to look at Demas with a raised eyebrow, his curiosity piqued.
"The Lantan gnomes have proposed a plan to build a waterway linking the Lake of Steam and the Reach… through the Nagawater."
"They what?" Dernhelm stood up quickly at the comment, only to begin a long string of muffled cursing as he cracked his head on the stone above the window.
Ignoring the expletives, Demas chuckled at his friend's misfortune. "Yeah. The gnomes proposed to the Sespechians a way to link the waters through their territory. They'd give Sespech control of the waterway… if they got a share of the profits on any trade that may happen to come through there. It was easy if you can believe a gnome, to join the passageway through the Nagawater. It was only a trench of about fifteen leagues." Demas emphasized each startling point.
Dernhelm was practically speechless. "My goodness," he said, his dreadlocks flopping about as he rubbed his head. "Fifteen leagues! Why that's even crazy for a gnome! And through the Nagawater… That means they have to have some way to deal with the nagas …" With each word his eyebrows crept higher into his hair, his eyes getting as big as saucers.
Demas remained silent and continued to stare at him as if waiting for something.
With sudden realization, Dernhelm gripped his friend by the shoulder as he realized the implications. "That would be a huge boon in trade, linking the Swords with the Heartlands… that's incredible."
"And just think…" Demas replied with poorly concealed mirth. "If trade can be done that way, the caravan raids by the Zhents will be useless, well… because no one will need to use their routes anymore. Once I was able to wrap my brain around the concept, I nearly fainted. The potential is huge."
"But I would imagine Chondath would have something to say about this. They certainly won't allow Sespech to get such a huge profit boon. They will undoubtedly wait until this… waterway is finished and try and take it. Sespech would be overwhelmed – I don't think Chondath will hold back as in times past. Not with this much profit potential on the table."
"That's what Khelben wanted me to check out. He realized the implications, and he also realized that every government in the area would want to make war upon Sespech to control it. It didn't make sense that Sespech would agree to this, knowing how their neighbors would react, if they weren't assured they could hold onto it. He couldn't see how they could defend it successfully as they haven't been able to defend themselves in times past and he was intrigued by how they planned to now. Especially because of how Waterdeep could profit off of such a waterway… but only if it was in stable and friendly hands."
"And how do the Sespechians plan to do it? What's their secret?"
"The gnomes have agreed to provide weapons for the defense of Sespech in exchange for a share in taxes to be imposed upon every ship that uses the waterway, uh,… the 'canal' I think they call it…"
"But weapons don't do Sespech any good because their population is decidedly small. What aren't you telling me?"
Dernhelm could see Demas had a smirk on his face as if he was concealing some tidbit of information. His friend always liked to keep him guessing as if he then had the upper hand.
"These new gnome weapons can kill a man wearing full plate at a range of fifty yards. Ones that even a weak old man could use!"
"Oh it's possible. They tested it on a dire tiger they managed to… liberate from a Chondathan patrol that got too close to the border. Dropped it in one shot."
"But how? Is it a type of crossbow?"
"No. It's a metal tube about this long," he held up his fingers about four feet apart. "It belches smoke like a dragon, makes noise like thunder, and launches a metal ball about this big," He held up the fingers of his right hand about half an inch apart. "The ball moves about ten times the speed of a crossbow bolt."
"The gnomes claim that with these new weapons – they supplied close to a thousand of them and they say more are on the way – the Sespechians will be able to hold off the Chondathans. And, get this, they are constructing a huge metal tube in a Sespechian kiln that is twenty feet long and can launch a ball of solid metal five inches across nearly four-thousand feet! The gnomes claim they have several in Lantan but they are too heavy to transport across the sea."
"By Ao," was all Dernhelm could reply, his face pale as he considered the implications. "But won't Chondath launch a preemptive attack before such a device ever gets built and before more weapons arrive?"
"It's somewhat of a closely guarded secret at the moment. Very few outside of a tight ring of people in Sespech know it, so keep this hush-hush if you get me."
Dernhelm didn't even ask how if it was such a closely guarded secret his friend would know about it. Besides being a decent ranger, he was almost unparalleled in remaining concealed and gaining access to guarded areas. Old Khelben "Blackstaff" Arunsun relied on him as one of his best information-gatherers. "How can Sespech pay for all this? I'd imagine they aren't cheap."
"The gnomes say that once the waterway, that is, the canal, gets built, the profits will be astronomical, and even their small share in taxes will make them wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice."
"So the gnomes are that confident? But what about the nagas? I assume they can't be pleased with this plan."
"That's the other thing. Although I haven't seen it, I have heard that the gnomes used these very weapons to exterminate the naga threat once and for all."
Dernhelm sat back in his window seat in disbelief. "And I though the world was changing enough in my neck of the woods."
Demas chuckled. "So when is this meeting going to begin? When are the scouts to arrive?"
Dernhelm smiled secretly. Now he was holding the tidbits of information, he had the upper hand. It was childish but they both laughed at it nevertheless. Seeing Dernhelm grin, Demas just rolled his eyes. Then he chuckled.
"Oh great master, reveal this tidbit of knowledge. Oh whenst is the meeting to begin?" Demas said with a supplicating gesture, bending low to the ground.
Dernhelm chuckled. "Now. Everyone is here. The twins arrived half an hour ago. You are the last."
"What have they told you?" Demas said, his curiosity piqued.
"They haven't told me anything. I wanted you to hear it firsthand; there's no point in repeating everything. Plus," He smiled. "I just wanted a bit of a reprieve before we get started. I have a feeling we won't get another one after we do. And we haven't talked in ages. Heck," he stretched. "If we had more time, we'd have a smoke and an ale."
"That would have been nice," Demas said, sighing. "Ah well, let's get this started."
"Indeed," replied Dernhelm. Standing, he placed a comforting hand on his friend's shoulder, and they descended from the tower to the meeting room far below.
The meeting room at the base of the tower was a large circular chamber, the remains of the old guardhouse at the front gate of the main tower of Castle Jhareg. It suited their purposes for the meeting solely because it was the last room large enough to accommodate them that was still standing. In the center of the room, a small fire pit held a cheerily burning fire, the smoke of which curled up and filtered out through a crack in the ceiling. The outflow, however, wasn't large enough, leaving the room smoke-filled and somewhat irritating to the eyes. His scouts were arranged on odds-and-ends of furniture in a semicircle about the fire pit, their faces toward the hearth in an effort to ward off the northern Sword Coast chill.
To his left, a tall, muscular half-orc lay dozing, seated on the floor with his back against the wall, a giant double-axe balanced across his knees. To his right, a human barbarian lounged, his long legs dangling over the arm of an old oak chair. Barac was covered in furs and hides, his long black hair untied and arrayed about the wolf-fur edging to his cloak top. A long fur coat was hanging on a peg on the wall behind his chair. Even at leisure he was still covered with an impressive display of weapons – long knives, a short sword, and a small mace – and the collection leaning against the wall behind the chair was equally impressive. On the opposite side of the fire, partially obscured by the smoke that filled the room sat a small human female, a grizzled dwarf, and the wood elf twins Davorin and Aniril, his two scouts from the Neverwinter Wood.
As he entered the room, he felt rather than saw Demas sidle over toward the half-orc that was dozing, and turned to see his friend bending over him. No one so much as breathed as Demas leaned down next to the half-orc's ear and in a surprisingly loud voice shouted, "Daelan! Orcs!"
The half-orc jerked so hard from his sound sleep that his head cracked the stone wall he had been leaning against with a solid thump. With an oath he jumped to his feet bringing his double axe swinging even as Demas nimbly jumped out of the way. Dernhelm and the scouts were howling with laughter. Daelan, finally understanding what had happened and who had done it as he shook sleep from his eyes, dropped his axe on the floor and gathered Demas in a gigantic embrace. Demas nearly gasped for breath.
"It's been too long Demas you old goat," Daelan said with a booming laugh. He practically twirled Demas off his feet, and he had to release his embrace so that the other could speak.
"It has indeed, it has indeed," Demas replied after he had caught his breath.
"How goes things?"
"Good. Business is booming as always down south. Never a dull moment. Too many people to kill." he shared a wicked grin with Daelan.
Dernhelm couldn't help but laugh at the wide, toothy smile on Daelan's olive-colored, piggish face.
His gaiety was short-lived, however, as he felt the weight of leadership settle about his shoulders. When he knew he had business to attend to, it was hard for him to think of anything else. Used to his idiosyncrasies, as he walked around the fire, everyone got quiet.
"To catch you all up to speed on what we know at the moment before we get involved with new information," he paused, making sure he had everyone's attention. "The attacks have intensified. We have been forced to evacuate most of the outlying towns to the city proper to reduce the burden on the Neverwinter Guard." No one seemed surprised.
"The attacks follow the same trend we have observed to date: the orcs are very organized engaging in uncharacteristic but very efficient hit-and-run tactics. The Guard rarely gets to a village while the orcs are still at the scene, which is why we called for a general evacuation. The orcs scatter when they are engaged and we've lost few guardsmen – they all but fall before us – however the attacks are increasing in number. At this point, as long as we evacuate the villages, which I might add is progressing slowly, we are not in any danger of serious loss of life and Neverwinter is under no immediate threat."
Inside, Dernhelm felt sick at discussing even some loss of life as no consequence because he grieved deeply at pain and suffering and the inability for men to live freely without danger, but he had to consider the big picture. In the grand scheme of things, they were doing everything they could to protect as many as possible. The people were understandably reluctant to leave home and field for a city that promised little or no work, and the potential that the danger would last indefinitely. Looting of empty homes was also a fear, but Dernhelm couldn't allow the Guard to be on evacuation and protector duty as well as street patrol. That is why this meeting was so crucial.
So far, they had not been able to pin down the source of the orcs – their staging area – as the orcs appeared to be dispersed in groups all along the western edge of the Wood. The orcs were to this point, one step ahead of them. This made Dernhelm decidedly angry. The loss of life and even a short setback in finding the source of the attackers – the attacks had been happening for the last three months – ensured that when Dernhelm found them, they would wish they had a deep hole in which to hide. Hopefully this meeting would shed light on the source of the orcs and then the Guard… and he… could go out and eliminate them.
He turned to look at his scouts each in turn. "It's up to you to tell me whether I should rest easy knowing that it will be only a short time in routing them out of the Wood," he paused. "Or not." Dernhelm had a reputation for being dour but he learned through his long career to take nothing for granted and treat every problem seriously. This one was shaping up to follow the pattern of orc attacks that happened every decade or so: the mountain orcholes got too crowded and a strong orc would rise to power and whip up the tribes with hopes of loot and glory. Sometimes those attacks petered out like a candle, but others grew so large, like Obould, it took armies to check the bonfire. He had to be careful not to misjudge this as one of the former times and be caught with his pants down.
"So what have you learned? Why are the orcs attacking and why are they so organized? Is this simply 'orc gets too big for his britches and tries to unify the tribes under the banner of Loot the Humans'? Who is leading-"
"They're building battering rams," Aniril blurted out.
"What did you say?"
"The orcs are building battering rams," Aniril repeated with a grimace as if he'd just eaten a mouthful of sour grapes.
Dernhelm walked around the fire to stand between Aniril and the pit so that he could give Aniril all of his attention. His twin brother Davorin gave a similar face but remained silent; he had lost his tongue during a long imprisonment with the Zhentarim in Darkhold. Davorin rarely showed any emotion, feeling that by doing so would draw attention to himself and his disfiguring condition. The Zhents were none too kind to him and his face and body bore a testament to their startling cruelty. Aniril on the other hand still bore the unblemished fair skin of the elves and was decidedly outspoken, often making up for his brother's silence.
"Start at the beginning and leave nothing out," Dernhelm said, as if the other would have anyway. That was not what he was expecting or wanting to hear. "Doesn't sound like the former times," he thought.
"We managed to track one of the orc raiding parties deep into the Wood after their attack on Rizzel's Landing. The Guard arrived and the orcs dispersed, but several remained in a group and made for the Wood. We followed them for a long way, into the foothills of the Crags near to the tree line. As they progressed, some of the scattered orcs rejoined them. It was slow going; they didn't behave like normal orcs. They sent out scouts and had a rearguard. They weren't hard to evade – they are still orcs – but it was weird seeing it. They came to a clearing in the woods, a wide patch where all the trees had been felled. A large group of orcs, several hundred I'd say, were gathered there, and they were continuing to fell trees. They seemed very organized… for orcs." He paused, glancing at his brother, and then he leaned forward conspiratorially.
"We could see them shaping the trees and attaching swing chains to them. They were definitely making battering rams."
At this, Davorin motioned to his brother with his hands, a sort of sign language the twins had developed since his impairment. Davorin made a moving motion with his hands and then held up to fingers.
"I was getting to that," said Aniril. "They are also making scaling ladders."
"Wonderful," Dernhelm said, sighing.
"What numbers should we expect?" he asked after a moment.
"We estimate that there are less than two thousand orcs in the Wood taking part in these attacks. After seeing them making the rams, we decided we had better find out how many we were up against."
"That doesn't make sense," Dernhelm replied, running his hand through his hair as he stared at a point on the wall over Aniril's head.
"That's what I said," Aniril agreed.
"That's less than half the number of Neverwinter Guardsmen and people we can drum up as militia," Dernhelm said. "Battering rams imply they are going to lay siege to the city itself, but there is no way they could hope to take it with a force less than half the number of defenders. They'd need at leastseven thousand and probably closer to ten."
"It gets better… or worse depending on how you look at it," Aniril continued. "They have also enlisted the help of some cave trolls and ogres, but that is not the strange part. We saw orc standards for the Bloodteeth and the Clenched Fists."
A sour feeling settled in the pit of Dernhelm's stomach. "But they are mortal enemies," Dernhelm reflected. "Which means something is powerful enough to enforce unity among the clans. This doesn't sound good."
Demas spoke up echoing Dernhelm's thoughts. "Sounds like what happened before the Horde Wars. But that still doesn't make sense that there are so few fighting orcs. Are you sure you tallied them correctly?"
"Yes we are. We went through the Wood twice. And as for this shaping up to be like the Horde Wars, don't get your hopes up."
"What do you mean?" Dernhelm asked, his curiosity piqued by a strange sound of sarcasm to Aniril's voice. "What else do you know?"
"We knew something about it didn't seem right, not with the numbers they had, and yet they still seemed like they were gearing up for a siege. We tracked scouts sending messages between leaders of the different groups, but some were heading up into the Crags away from the groups encamped in the Wood. We figured that the huge force we weren't seeing in the Wood may be up in the Crags, hordes waiting to come down and spill out like in days of old. We scouted out numerous orc dens, even the chief dens of some of the larger clans. If they all emptied, there may be fifteen hundred extra warriors but no more. So we waylaid one of the messengers. You'll never guess what we found."
Everyone waited. Aniril was also big on creating suspense. "The messenger was bearing missives from Mt. Hotenow."
This elicited a collective "What?" from all the scouts, including Dernhelm and Demas.
Mt. Hotenow, a dormant volcano, producing geothermal waters generated by a heat source deep beneath, it kept the Neverwinter River warm, regulating the city temperature and allowing crops to grow even in the frigid north of the Sword Coast. It was also considered haunted and taboo by every orc, ogre, troll, or goblin in the Crags. The area around the volcano was black and dying supposedly caused by some wasting evil that resided there, and few even traveled within sight of it. Even during the Horde Wars, the orcs preferred to die at the hands of Waterdhavian steel rather than set foot into it when they had been driven back into the Crags. For the orcs to be receiving missives from the volcano, for messengers to even come near it let alone travel to it, suggested something worse than even the largest of the orc uprisings. Something up there was strong enough to overcome age-old fears, something worse than orcs.
Dernhelm was used to dealing with "worse." His adventuring career had been fraught with dark and sinister plots making an average quest – or war for that matter – turn to something else entirely, but he was hoping that this was not one of those times. Not now that he finally had a wife and a baby on the way. Not when life was changing. He had been hoping it would be a simple, old-fashioned skirmish: stupid orcs in large numbers against cold, hard steel wielded with coordination and intelligence. He sighed.
"I take it you have found out who the leader is?" Aniril was very thorough.
"We had to… persuade the messenger we waylaid a great deal before he would tell us. He was just a little scrawny fellow but he fought like the dickens. When we finally got him to talk he began screaming that judgment was coming to us and all the usual sort of doom and gloom.
"The leader's name is Ugluk Maneater, supposedly an ogre mage of 'significant power.' He took up residence in the old Cave of Harnak close to ten months ago. Since then he has unified the tribes and brought them to the situation in which we now find ourselves."
"Did you scout around the volcano proper?"
"We got only into the fringes of the dead zone. We could feel an unnatural fear beginning to creep over us like a blanket and we assumed it was the ogre's magic. We didn't press any further for fear of announcing our presence. From what we could see from our vantage point, there was only one camp in the dead zone filled with a handful of wicked-looking trolls and ogres. They were encamped along the path leading down from the Cave."
"So, full told we are only dealing with about thirty-five hundred orcs, still less than the number of defenders of Neverwinter." He began to chew his lip as was his habit as he was thinking over a situation.
"I don't like it," Dernhelm casually remarked. It was a rhetorical statement – no one else liked it either – but this nuance was lost on the half-orc.
"You can say that again," declared Daelan in his deep baritone. He stood, hefted his huge double-axe angrily, and walked over to look out the western archway to the meeting room, lost in thought. Daelan always seemed dour, given to impatience and rash decision-making, though once you befriended him, it was evident that he was kind-hearted and noble.
He could not in any way, however, consider orcs without an intense and overwhelming hatred. It was they that constantly made war on his Uthgardt tribe and who were responsible for his existence that caused him to be an outcast in most of the free world. Seeing an orc would whip him into the frenzy of a barely contained avalanche.
Dernhelm looked after him for a moment, then returned to the task at hand.
"Even if this mage is powerful, he would need more ground troops. The Valsharess had nigh on five times that number. He can't expect to get past Eltoora and her apprentice magic users by himself."
"They must know or think they know something we don't," Demas said.
"Exactly," Dernhelm said distractedly, continuing to chew his lip. He turned to Aniril. "Based on the battering ram construction you saw being completed, what does your gut tell you about when they would be able to launch an offensive?"
"Nothing about this seems normal so how could I say? The number of battering rams they are shaping is several times what an army of their size would need. As if they are building rams for forces that don't exist." He sighed in consternation. His brother's fingers seemed to speak Aniril's thoughts, twirling in agitated gestures. "I wouldn't figure on more than two months, but who is to say. Little of this is happening like the history books."
Dernhelm sighed, his shoulders slumping a little. "It never does," he said, almost to himself.
He turned to his other scouts who had remained silent to this point. "Taleria," he addressed the female. "What news from Luskan?"
"Well, as you know, Luskan has been closed just like Neverwinter. High Lord Teamus and Archmage Arklem have ordered the surrounding settlements to take shelter inside. What you may not know is that they lost fifty men in the last attack."
Daelan had turned back to the room and was staring at Taleria with fury. Not at her, but at her pronouncement. Dernhelm was shocked. "Fifty! Against orcs?" She nodded. "How?" This was the largest number of casualties sustained in any one attack.
"There were about fifty orcs prepared for what looked like an assault on the druid encampment. Luskan's soldiers surprised the orcs and at one point actually had them surrounded from what I can piece together. This is something the Neverwintan Guard has not yet done. Instead of dropping their weapons and attempting to flee like we have seen, the orcs formed ranks and attacked the soldiers in a wedge formation. The soldiers were naturally surprised and many fell before they could react. A pitched battle then began; the soldiers numbered about a hundred."
"A hundred of those vicious Luskan brigands against fifty orcs! That should have been an orc slaughter."
"Indeed," Taleria replied.
"Instead we are talking one-to-one casualties," Demas noted.
"And you say the orcs were well-disciplined?" This from Dernhelm.
"The survivors said they put archers to the center surrounded by axe and pikemen. And they said they fought like devils. They likened it to a pod of cornered trolls."
Dernhelm really began to chew his lip now. Aribeth would be mad at him; she hated this "human" habit of his. "This is even worse than before. The orcs fleeing from our Guardsmen must have been playing us then, lulling us into our traditional feeling of battle superiority."
"Luskan's standing army numbers only about eighteen hundred soldiers counting militia conscripted from the sheltering peasants," Taleria continued.
"Have the orcs attacked the city?" Demas asked, concerned.
"No. The orcs have not even been seen from the walls. They seem content to focus on the outlying settlements as around Neverwinter. But this recent engagement has prompted the recalcitrant people who don't want to take city shelter to reconsider. The militia has all been recalled to the city proper and even the druids have taken shelter inside."
Dernhelm ran his hands through his hair, lost in thought. So the orcs have backbone too, he thought. They don't have the numbers to take the walls but also don't fight like orcs. They are making battering rams for a force beyond their number and have put aside taboos and clan blood feuds. Not good. And they are being led by an orc-mage of 'significant' power. Neverwinter seemed safe based on the numbers but Dernhelm was not willing to take any chances. And Luskan was in jeopardy should the orcs decide to besiege it. Granted Luskan hated the Neverwintans and they held no love for Dernhelm since he had all but cleansed the city of High Lords and wizards during the Plague War, but Dernhelm also couldn't sit back and let them die.
Barac appeared to be dozing but he opened his eyes as Dernhelm faced him.
"What news do you bring from the Spine of the World?"
"There have been several small orc raids on towns in the Dale and in the mountains bent on 'acquiring' livestock and victims and supplies." Barac's voice was as hard as stones grating on each other. "This is nothing out of the ordinary. We have tracked down several small bands and destroyed them to the man and they act like orcs always act: cowardly and afraid."
"That's good news," Daelan growled, a wicked smile playing across his lips at the mention of orc dead. Dernhelm said nothing but continued to chew his lip.
"If anything," Barac continued. "I'd say it has been too quiet for the orcs in the north as of late. With Obould Many-Arrows dead, I would have expected to hear more from his sons. He raised them all to be cunning and opportunistic. I would have expected the hills to run red until a successor emerged. Instead, the pond of normalcy remains unperturbed."
"Aye, much is the same in and around Mirabar," the dwarf put in before Dernhelm acknowledged him. Merron Mernon, a dwarf who used to reside among the surfacers of Mirabar, lived now as a trader of weapons. Several years ago he had joined the Harpers and Dernhelm and he had become fast friends. He still continued his weapons trade among the towns of the north from Mirabar to Longsaddle and periodically he would make larger ventures to Waterdeep in the south. His weapons trade was a boon to the Harpers providing them with access to information from all over. Currently, his men were on leave in Neverwinter.
"And what east of the Crags?"
"Longsaddle is quiet as before. The orcs have seemingly left it alone. They have not but seen an orc for nigh on ten years when last they began to cause trouble. It seems as if them orcs are only interested in this side."
Dernhelm rubbed his chin and began to pace around the room. Everyone fell silent. As Dernhelm reviewed the facts in his head and the addition kept coming up in error – silence in the north and east, anomalous orc behavior, threats to Luskan at the least and Neverwinter at the worst, and an ogre mage seemingly behind it all – he let out a long sigh as he committed himself to the decision about what must be done. He had gone this particular route many times before, and though he instinctively hated it, he knew that it was the best solution at the moment – for some reason, he was good at it.
"Demas," he began, regarding his friend a warm yet serious eye. "I need you to go back to Waterdeep immediately and tell Khelben what you have heard. I would that you could stay the night, but I do not even want to wait that long."
Demas began to object, to say that it couldn't be that bad as to need to leave immediately, but he had heard the same mysterious happenings himself and he wasn't about to take chances. Something about it all didn't sit right. He wished he could stay the night, not because of being tired from the road – he was used to that – but more because it was good to see his friend. Such were the penalties for the lives they had chosen, the burden of responsibility. He nodded.
Dernhelm relaxed visibly, comforted by Demas' friendship – not that he would have expected otherwise – and gave his friend a roguish grin. Turning to the others, he pointed first at Taleria.
"I need you to get back to Luskan and keep an eye on things. If the situation degenerates and they start this war, Luskan is the least defended and we need to know the orcs' movements so we can best come to Luskan's aid."
As much as they all disliked and distrusted the people of Luskan, none argued. None of them could deal with senseless loss of life.
"Barac, you are my eyes in ears in the Spine of the World. Keep an eye on the silence for me – there may be something ominous behind it," he paused, and then turned to Merron.
"I want you to make it back to Mirabar but you will get there by first going through Helm's Hold and Longsaddle. The Helmites need advance warning that this could turn ugly. Given what we have now seen I think they should abandon their mountain stronghold for the safety of Neverwinter.
"I don't think the orcs would attack them as it would give away their hand too early, and those hills are too broken to mount an effective assault. Still, convince them that we could use the extra manpower," he paused. The dwarf was on the side of good, but every man had his price. The dwarf would want compensation to make the journey – unlike his other scouts the dwarf had a caravan to look after and guards to feed – and he needed new weapons to keep up appearances of successful trade in Neverwinter. "I have some samples that the Mirabaran nobility might take a fancy to, and some lesser ones for the people of Helm and Longsaddle. Marrok has been busy."
Rubbing his hands together at the prospect of making money, he smiled. "I think such a trip could be managed," the dwarf said. Reclining, he drew out a pipe, lit it, and began to blow smoke rings to add to the general haziness of the little room.
"And what of us?" Aniril asked.
"You two and Daelan will accompany me back to Neverwinter so we can acquire supplies and some assistance, before we head into the Wood. I'll need you to give me detailed information on the enemies' forces."
"To do what?" Aniril replied.
"What we always do," Daelan growled from the doorway with a grin. He hefted his double-axe and flexed his muscles in excitement, that is, if avalanches can get excited. "We are going to pay a fatal visit to this ogre mage."