16. Days of Old
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A squat stone tower stood in a small dell against the facing of a steep hill. Because it was ivy covered and overgrown, a casual passer-by would not even have noticed the structure.
But the Companions of the Hall were not casual in their search. This was the Herald's Holdfast, possibly the solution to their entire search.
"Are you certain that this is the place?" Regis asked Drizzt as they peered over a small bluff. Truly the ancient tower appeared more a ruin. Not a thing stirred anywhere nearby, not even animals, as though an eerie, reverent hush surrounded the place.
"I am sure," Drizzt replied. "Feel the age of the tower. It has stood for many centuries. Many centuries."
"And how long has it been empty?" Bruenor asked, thus far disappointed in the place that had been described to him as the brightest promise to his goal.
"It is not empty," Drizzt replied. "Unless the information I received was in err."
Bruenor jumped to his feet and stormed over the bluff. "Probably right," he grumbled. "Some troll or scab yeti's inside the door watching us right now, I'll wager, drooling for us to come in! Let's be on with it, then! Sundabar's a day more away than when we left!"
The dwarf's three friends joined him on the remnants of the overgrown path that had once been a walkway to the tower's door. They approached the ancient stone door cautiously, with weapons drawn.
Moss-covered and worn to a smooth finish by the toll of time, apparently it hadn't been opened in many, many years.
"Use yer arms, boy," Bruenor told Wulfgar. "If any man can get this thing opened, it's yerself!"
Wulfgar leaned Aegis-fang against the wall and moved before the huge door. He set his feet as best he could and ran his hands across the stone in search of a good niche to push against.
But as soon as he applied the slightest pressure to the stone portal, it swung inward, silently and without effort.
A cool breeze wafted out of the still darkness within, carrying a blend of unfamiliar scents and an aura of great age. The friends sensed the place as otherworldly, belonging to a different time, perhaps, and it was not without a degree of trepidation that Drizzt led them in.
They stepped lightly, though their footfalls echoed in the quiet darkness. The daylight beyond the door offered little relief, as though some barrier remained between the inside of the tower and the world beyond.
"We should light a torch - " Regis began, but he stopped abruptly, frightened by the unintentional volume of his whisper.
"The door!" Wulfgar cried suddenly, noticing that the silent portal had begun to close behind them. He leaped to grab it before it shut completely, sinking them into absolute darkness, but even his great strength could not deny the magical force that moved it. It shut without a bang, just a hushed rush of air that resounded like a giant's sigh.
The lightless tomb they all envisioned as the huge door blocked out the final slit of sunlight did not come to pass, for as soon as the door closed, a blue glow lit up the room, the entrance hall to the Herald's Holdfast.
No words could they speak above the profound awe that enveloped them. They stood in view of the history of the race of Man within a bubble of timelessness that denied their own perspectives of age and belonging. In the blink of an eye they had been propelled into the position of removed observers, their own existence suspended in a different time and place, looking in on the passing of the human race as might a god. Intricate tapestries, their once-vivid colors faded and their distinct lines now blurred, swept the friends into a fantastic collage of images that displayed the tales of the race, each one retelling a story again and again; the same tale, it seemed, but subtly altered each time, to present different principles and varied outcomes.
Weapons and armor from every age lined the walls, beneath the standards and crests of a thousand longforgotten kingdoms. Bas-relief images of heroes and sages, some familiar but most unknown to any but the most studious of scholars, stared down at them from the rafters, their captured visages precise enough to emote the very character of the men they portrayed.
A second door, this one of wood, hung directly across the cylindrical chamber from the first, apparently leading into the hill behind the tower. Only when it began to swing open did the companions manage to break free of the spell of the place.
None went for their weapons, though, understanding that whoever, or whatever, inhabited this tower would be beyond such earthly strength.
An ancient man stepped into the room, older than anyone they had ever seen before. His face had retained its fullness, not hollowed with age, but his skin appeared almost wooden in texture, with lines that seemed more like cracks and a rough edge that defied time as stubbornly as an ancient tree. His walk was more a flow of quiet movement, a floating passing that transcended the definition of steps. He came in close to the friends and waited, his arms, obviously thin even under the folds of his long, satiny robe, peacefully dropped to his sides.
"Are you the herald of the tower?" Drizzt asked.
"Old Night, I am," the man replied in a voice singing with serenity. "Welcome, Companions of the Hall. The Lady Alustriel informed me of your coming, and of your quest."
Even consumed in the solemn respect of his surroundings, Wulfgar did not miss the reference to Alustriel. He glanced over at Drizzt, meeting the drow's eyes with a knowing smile.
Drizzt turned away and smiled, too.
"This is the Chamber of Man," Old Night proclaimed. "The largest in the Holdfast, except for the library, of course."
He noticed Bruenor's disgruntled scowl. "The tradition of your race runs deep, good dwarf, and deeper yet does the elves'," he explained. "But crises in history are more often measured in generations than in centuries. The short-lived humans might have toppled a thousand kingdoms and built a thousand more in the few centuries that a single dwarven king would rule his people in peace."
"No patience!" Bruenor huffed, apparently appeased.
"Agreed," laughed Old Night. "But come now, let us dine. We have much to do this night."
He led them through the doorway and down a similarly lit hallway. Doors on either side of them identified the various chambers as they passed - one for each of the goodly races, and even a few for the history of orcs and goblins and the giantkind.
The friends and Old Night supped at a huge, round table, its ancient wood as hard as mountain stone. Runes were inscribed all around its edge, many in tongues long lost to the world, that even Old Night could not remember. The food, like everything else, gave the impression of a distant past. Far from stale, though, it was delicious, with a flavor somewhat different from anything the friends had ever eaten before. The drink, a crystalline wine, possessed a rich bouquet surpassing even the legendary elixirs of the elves.
Old Night entertained them as they ate, retelling grand tales of ancient heroes, and of events that had shaped the Realms into their present state. The companions were an attentive audience, though in all probability substantial clues about Mithril Hall loomed only a door or two away.
When the meal was finished, Old Night rose from his chair and looked around at them with a weird, curious intensity. "The day will come, a millennium from now, perhaps, when I shall entertain again. On that day, I am sure, one of the tales I tell will concern the Companions of the Hall and their glorious quest."
The friends could not reply to the honor that the ancient man had paid them. Even Drizzt, even-keeled and unshakable, sat unblinking for a long, long moment.
"Come," Old Night instructed, "let your road begin anew." He led them through another door, the door to the greatest library in all the North.
Volumes thick and thin covered the walls and lay about in high piles on the many tables positioned throughout the large room. Old Night indicated one particular table, a smaller one off to the side, with a solitary book opened upon it.
"I have done much of your research for you," Old Night explained. "And in all the volumes concerning dwarves, this was the only one I could find that held any reference to Mithril Hall."
Bruenor moved to the book, grasping its edges with trembling hands. It was written in High Dwarven, the language of Dumathoin, Keeper of Secrets Under the Mountain, a script nearly lost in the Realms. But Bruenor could read it. He surveyed the page quickly, then read aloud the passages of concern.
"King Elmor and his people profited mightily from the labors of Garumn and the kin of Clan Battlehammer, but the dwarves of the secret mines did not refute Elmor's gains. Settlestone proved a valuable and trustworthy ally whence Garumn could begin the secret trail to market of the mithril works." Bruenor looked up at his friends, a gleam of revelation in his eye.
"Settlestone," he whispered. "I know that name." He dove back into the book.
"You shall find little else," Old Night said. "For the words of Mithril Hall are lost to the ages. The book merely states that the flow of mithril soon ceased, to the ultimate demise of Settlestone!"
Bruenor wasn't listening. He had to read it for himself, to devour every word penned about his lost heritage, no matter the significance.
"What of this Settlestone?" Wulfgar asked Old Night. "A clue?"
"Perhaps," the old herald replied. "Thus far I have found no reference to the place other than this book, but I am inclined to believe from the work that Settlestone was rather unusual for a dwarven town."
"Above the ground!" Bruenor suddenly cut in.
"Yes," agreed Old Night. "A dwarven community housed in structures above the ground. Rare these days and unheard of back in the time of Mithril Hall. Only two possibilities, to my knowledge."
Regis let out a cry of victory.
"Your enthusiasm may be premature," remarked Old Night. "Even if we discern where Settlestone once lay, the trail to Mithril Hall merely begins there."
Bruenor flipped through a few pages of the book, then replaced it on the table. "So close!" he growled, slamming his fist down on the petrified wood. "And I should know!"
Drizzt moved over to him and pulled a vial out from under his cloak. "A potion," he explained to Bruenor's puzzled look, "that will make you walk again in the days of Mithril Hall."
"A mighty spell," warned Old Night. "And not to be controlled. Consider its use carefully, good dwarf."
Bruenor was already moving, teetering on the verge of a discovery he had to find. He quaffed the liquid in one gulp, then steadied himself on the edge of the table against its potent kick. Sweat beaded on his wrinkled brow and he twitched involuntarily as the potion sent his mind drifting back across the centuries.
Regis and Wulfgar moved over to him, the big man clasping his shoulders and easing him into a seat.
Bruenor's eyes were wide open, but he saw nothing in the room before him. Sweat lathered him now, and the twitch had become a tremble.
"Bruenor," Drizzt called softly, wondering if he had done right in presenting the dwarf with such a tempting opportunity.
"No, me father!" Bruenor screamed. "Not here in the darkness! Come with me, then. What might I do without ye?"
"Bruenor," Drizzt called more emphatically.
"He is not here," Old Night explained, familiar with the potion, for it was often used by long-lived races, particularly elves, when they sought memories of their distant past. Normally the imbibers returned to a more pleasant time, though. Old Night looked on with grave concern, for the potion had returned Bruenor to a wicked day in his past, a memory that his mind had blocked out, or at least blurred, to defend him against powerful emotions. Those emotions would now be laid bare, revealed to the dwarf's conscious mind in all their fury.
"Bring him to the Chamber of the Dwarves," Old Night instructed. "Let him bask in the images of his heroes. They will aid in remembering, and give him strength throughout his ordeal."
Wulfgar lifted Bruenor and bore him gently down the passage to the Chamber of the Dwarves, laying him in the center of the circular floor. The friends backed away, leaving the dwarf to his delusions.
Bruenor could only half-see the images around him now, caught between the worlds of the past and present. Images of Moradin, Dumathoin, and all his deities and heroes looked down upon him from their perches in the rafters, adding a small bit of comfort against the waves of tragedy. Dwarven-sized suits of armor and cunningly crafted axes and warhammers surrounded him, and he bathed in the presence of the highest glories of his proud race.
The images, though, could not dispell the horror he now knew again, the falling of his clan, of Mithril Hall, of his father.
"Daylight!" he cried, torn between relief and lament. "Alas for me father, and me father's father! But yea, our escape is at hand! Settlestone..." he faded from consciousness for a moment, overcome, "...shelter us. The loss, the loss! Shelter us!"
"The price is high," said Wulfgar, pained at the dwarf's torment.
"He is willing to pay," Drizzt replied.
"It will be a sorry payment if we learn nothing," said Regis. "There is no direction to his ramblings. Are we to sit by and hope against hope?"
"His memories have already brought him to Settlestone, with no mention of the trail behind him," Wulfgar observed.
Drizzt drew a scimitar and pulled the cowl of his cloak low over his face.
"What?" Regis started to ask, but the drow was already moving. He rushed to Bruenor's side and put his face close to the dwarf's sweat-lathered cheek.
"I am a friend," he whispered to Bruenor. "Come at the news of the falling of the hall! My allies await! Vengeance will be ours, mighty dwarf of Clan Battlehammer! Show us the way so that we might restore the glories of the hall!"
"Secret," Bruenor gasped, on the edge of consciousness.
Drizzt pressed harder. "Time is short! The darkness is falling!" he shouted. "The way, dwarf, we must know the way!"
Bruenor mumbled some inaudible sounds and all the friends gasped in the knowledge that the drow had broken through the final mental barrier that hindered Bruenor from finding the hall.
"Louder!" Drizzt insisted.
"Fourthpeak!" Bruenor screamed back. "Up the high run and into Keeper's Dale!"
Drizzt looked over to Old Night, who was nodding in recognition, then turned back to Bruenor. "Rest, mighty dwarf," he said comfortingly. "Your clan shall be avenged!"
"With the description the book gives of Settlestone, Fourthpeak can describe only one place," Old Night explained to Drizzt and Wulfgar when they got back to the library. Regis remained in the Chamber of the Dwarves to watch over Bruenor's fretful sleep.
The herald pulled a scroll tube down from a high shelf, and unrolled the ancient parchment it held: a map of the central northland, between Silverymoon and Mirabar.
"The only dwarven settlement in the time of Mithril Hall above ground, and close enough to a mountain range to give a reference to a numbered peak, would be here," he said, marking the southernmost peak on the southernmost spur of the Spine of the World, just north of Nesme and the Evermoors. "The deserted city of stone is simply called "the Ruins" now, and it was commonly known as Dwarvendarrows when the bearded race lived there. But the ramblings of your companion have convinced me that this is indeed the Settlestone that the book speaks of."
"Why, then, would the book not refer to it as Dwarvendarrow?" asked Wulfgar.
"Dwarves are a secretive race," Old Night explained with a knowing chuckle, "especially where treasure is concerned. Garumn of Mithril Hall was determined to keep the location of his trove hidden from the greed of the outside world. He and Elmor of Settlestone no doubt worked out an arrangement that included intricate codes and constructed names to reference their surroundings. Anything to throw prying mercenaries off the trail. Names that now appear in disjointed places throughout the tomes of dwarven history. Many scholars have probably even read of Mithril Hall, called by some other name that the readers assumed referred to another of the many ancient dwarven homelands now lost to the world."
The herald paused for a moment to digest everything that had occurred. "You should be away at once," he advised. "Carry the dwarf if you must, but get him to Settlestone before the effects of the potion wear away. Walking in his memories, Bruenor might be able to retrace his steps of two hundred years ago back up the mountains to Keeper's Dale, and to the gate of Mithril Hall."
Drizzt studied the map and the spot that Old Night had marked as the location of Settlestone. "Back to the west." he muttered, echoing Alustriel's suspicions. "Barely two days march from here."
Wulfgar moved in close to view the parchment and added, in a voice that held both anticipation and a measure of sadness, "Our road nears its end."
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