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Durin was sitting with Norik and several other Guard officers in the Ninth Hall, the biggest one on the Second Level. It was morning, and during the night they conquered some more caves of the Second Level. He received the information that the progress on the Fifth Level also went well, and two scouts were just sent into the tunnel ascending towards the Third Level, to check that there were no more nasty surprises.
Then Ragir appeared in the Hall. Two days ago, Durin sent him and a few more experienced scouts into the Main Tunnel leading towards the west. Having entered, Ragir looked around, and then immediately headed towards the King and the officers when he spotted them.
"Ragir! Come, sit down!" the King called him. There were several folding chairs around the table, and two were free. "Did everything go well? What did you discover?" he asked when the scout settled.
"Your Highness, yes, everything was well", Ragir nodded. "Considering that we had to be very careful in case of running into orcs we progressed very slowly and we weren't able to inspect more than ten miles in length. We passed by several branch-tunnels leading towards the mines and did a quick inspection of them but everything was quiet down there, so we continued. We also passed by the branch-tunnel ascending towards the Third Level and the one towards the Seventh Level but we saw no orcs there either. After that last branch we went a little more ahead and then we had to return."
Durin nodded. He knew they wouldn't be able to explore much; ten miles was a great success. The Main Tunnel – the Main Road, as it had been called in the ancient times – was the biggest and widest tunnel, connecting the western and eastern entrance into Khazad-dûm. It was not a perfect straight line, but was slightly descending from both entrances; the lowest point of that gentle arc was in the middle, beneath the very top of the mountain. From the Main Road, many tunnels branched down, towards the mines of Zirakzigil and even further, towards the depths beneath Barazinbar where deposits of truesilver lay. Two tunnels branched upwards – to the Third and Seventh Level – those mentioned by Ragir.
"But although everything was empty we did discover something interesting Your Highness," continued the scout. "In the Main Tunnel we found signs of passing of some bigger group. Of course no footprints can be left on the rocky ground but we found other signs, fresh ones. Garbage and several burned out candles and torches. And we were able to deduce that the group had been moving westwards."
Durin looked at him pensively, and it was obvious that the others were pondering the news too.
"Probably females and cubs in escape," Norik commented, and Durin nodded. The same thought crossed his mind too, because so far, they hadn't seen one single female or cub in any cave.
"Although you say that everything seems quiet, I think that we shouldn't relax and conclude that all the mines are completely empty," responded the King. He learned his lesson and knew that he shouldn't be too laid back or self-confident. "However, as we have already conquered a good part of the terrain, I believe that we can spare..." he paused and did a quick calculation. "...three to five hundred soldiers and send them to start clearing the mines – in case some orcs remained there. Do you agree with that number, Norik?"
The officer nodded, and Durin turned to the scout again.
"Any point in going after the fugitives? What do you think, how far ahead are they?"
Ragir seemed to be thinking for a moment or two, and then he shook his head.
"I am afraid not Your Highness. Judging by the condition of the tracks and remains I'd say they have at least one whole day of advantage, and more probably two."
"They surely started their escape soon after we arrived," one of the officers remarked.
"If that is so, there is probably nothing we can do about them. As for the mines, let four hundred soldiers start the clearing," said Durin, and then remembered one more thing they should talk about. "What do you think, what is the probability that the orcs do the same to us as we did to them in the beginning? That is, could fugitives, or those who are maybe hiding in the mines, start the fire somewhere, so that they chase away our fighters with smoke? Or could those in the caves that we still have to conquer do that? It could be a problem."
"As for the fugitives, I think it is highly unlikely," said Norik pensively. "To make a big fire, which would produce a lot of smoke, they would need a lot of woods. I don't think that females escaping with cubs would carry a big load. They probably have only the basic provisions."
"And if the rest of orc troops really have enough woods for something like that, we will simply fall back behind the nearest vertical shaft and we'll wait for the smoke to go out," added another officer. "Yes, it would mean that we won't progress as fast as we would like to, but we have time, after all. We'll simply wait until they run out of their wood supply, and once the smoke dissipates, we'll attack."
Durin nodded. Actually, he thought the same, but he wanted to hear other opinions and see if his judgement was good.
Then the scouts from the tunnel towards the Third Level returned; from what they could see, they could conclude that there were no traps.
"Then we can set off. Let the fresh soldiers come forward. We go to the Third Level," said the King and rose. He intended to lead, but in that moment a courier approached him.
"Your Highness, I have a message for you from Frur, the healer. He says that the general is awake and feeling a little better than last night," she said.
"Good. Thank you," replied Durin. Having heard the news, he changed his plan. There were more than enough officers nearby to lead the next attack, and he would lead some other battle. Now he'd go to see his general and friend.
However, it turned out the visit happened neither now, nor soon; it took him two hours to reach the hall in which Nardi was. Some of the tunnels were quite long, and more than once couriers and officers approached him carrying news and detained him. He had already thought that, by the time he reached Nardi, he would be sleeping again, just as yesterday.
However, this time he had better luck. When he finally arrived at the Fifth Hall on the First Level, he went to Frur first and the healer led him to Nardi's pallet. The sturdy dwarf was dozing, but he opened his eyes on the very first sound. The healer withdrew, and the King sat on the ground next to his general and observed him attentively. Nardi was pale and seemed exhausted; Frur told him that nausea often followed severe head injuries, and that he was allowed stay only for a short time. He also warned that it was normal if the patient spoke incoherently. Yet, Nardi's eyes seemed lucid, and his lips curved into a smile.
Durin blinked in confusion. How many... what?
"How many days? How long have you been here? About a day and a half," he tried to answer, although he wasn't sure what Nardi was asking. "How many halls have we conquered in the meantime? We conquered the whole First Level and most of the Second and now..."
"No, no, no," Nardi interrupted in a low voice. It seemed he had no strength to speak any louder than this, but the impatience in his voice was more than obvious. "I found out all that information earlier, from the healer. I didn't let him go until he told me, although he kept repeating that I shouldn't exhaust myself." He paused and closed his eyes, and Durin thought that the healer was absolutely right that Nardi would get tired quickly; of course, Nardi would never admit it. Then he opened his eyes, and despite his friend's current condition, Durin saw in those eyes the fire he had known so well. "How many orcs did you kill in the meantime? What is the current result?"
Durin stared at him. And kept staring. Of all possible questions... this.
But he knew from long ago that his general was a very special person. He smiled.
"I didn't count."
"Hm. Considering that I can't go back to battle immediately, I'll probably lose the bet," said Nardi, frowning.
Durin smiled again and leaned a little forward.
"Not that you are not allowed to fight immediately, but you are not allowed to go anywhere for a long time. So yes, I'll probably win. But never mind. I'll do the forfeit." He paused and got serious, and looked into Nardi's eyes. "Of course, you were right, and I was wrong. And you saved my life. Thank you."
Nardi didn't respond at once, and after a few moments he slightly nodded.
"Any time. I'd confront a Balrog for you, if necessary," he said in a low voice.
Fortunately, that is something you won't have to do, my friend. But... The rest of his thoughts Durin uttered out loud.
"I'd do the same for you," he said seriously.
Nardi smiled and nodded again, and then closed his eyes.
"I believe you'll be glad to know that I'm listening go your advice. I am not that reckless and over-confident anymore. We cautiously check if there are any traps before we start the battles," said Durin, but then realized that Nardi maybe hadn't heard him at all. He fell asleep again in an instant.
Get rest. And when you are healthy again, you'll walk through the free Khazad-dûm.
"They got us quicker than I thinked."
"There's more o'them then us. And they better equipped and armoured. What you expected?"
"I thinked we hold on longer and kill more o'them. And now there only fivehundred us here, and fourhundred on upper level. Cursed dwarfses, they gonna kill us all soon."
"But we can slow them a little. There's that one tunnel there, three caves further, where the rocks is weak and where we can move supports. So roof falls down on the heads of cursed dwarfses."
"Haaaa... good idea, good. But they gonna get us any way."
"Not me. You didn't noticed that some o'us already scampered into that tunnel there?"
A movement of the hand, showing direction.
"I payed no attention."
"You shoulda. That tunnel go into main tunnel and then to west. That is one where our women escaped. And some others. I go escape too."
"Heh...? I wanna escape too!"
"I don't care if you do or don't. Just tell those nitwits to bust supports."
"I gonna tell them. And then I go."
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