Sunday, January 19, 2020
The Hill Giant Chief - Nosnra's Saga - Part 8
"Harold! Harold!" Ivo called. "Where is our thief?" he asked the others.
"I saw him," said Gytha. "He was attacking that giant from behind. I saw him stab its legs." She pointed to the headless corpse, a vast body lying on its side, the ranger standing nearby leaning on his sword. The giant's head rolled several feet away, wedged beneath a kitchen storage shelf.
"Harold," said the ranger, shaking himself, still recovering from the rage that had overcome him. "Where is Harold?"
They all began to look about the room. It took only a few moments for Ivo to find the little thief, unconscious, a small crumpled form soaked in the giant's gore. Gytha ran to his side, and the ranger crowded in beside them.
"Is he all right?" asked Harald with a worried voice.
"All this blood, I don't see a wound but I can't tell if any of it is his own," said Gytha. "He does have a lump on his head."
"Ow!' the body spoke.
"Good, maybe he has had some sense knocked into him at last," Harald said relieved.
"What was this the third or fourth giant you have attacked since we have come to the steading, and that ogre. I thought you were a thief not an assassin."
"Shut-up," said Harold, "both of you. Gytha I don't mind seeing two of you but please tell that fat old human to get out of sight. I'm feeling sick enough already."
"Seeing double eh," said Ivo. "That is quite some lump you have there."
"Gracious Saint, this small one has your brave spirit," Gytha prayed. "Grant me your power and your healing strength." She laid her hand atop his brow and cupped his injured head with her other. A green pleasant light glowed across his wounded head, like the sun seen through a canopy of leaves.
"I suppose I will owe your order quite a tidy sum by the time we leave these lands," said the little thief. He stretched and rubbed the back of his head and yawned. "Can you do something about this mess?" he asked holding up his blood covered hands.
* * *
"Up the stairs," Derue told the orcs. "Anyone who doesn't want to come can stay behind."
"I go," said Boss. "Most stay, go get others. We all go when you come back."
"You come with me then, tell them to guard those cells. Anything happens to my brother and they will wish the giants had found them, understand."
"Yes," the orc nodded and then told the others what had been said.
* * *
"What a mess," said Harold. "Fire or no fire someone is going to come stumbling in here and we can't hide these giants the way we could hide that orc."
"Yes, they won't fit down that garbage chute," said Ivo.
"We need to get Talberth and Telenstil up from below," Gytha said glancing at the opening over the pit.
"Harald, if you please, can you pull them up?" asked Ivo.
"Sure, but they better come up this time. Those cursed bags and that thrice cursed chain could have waited till the last." The ranger unlaced the bags from the end of the line and tossed the rope back down again, then waited for the signal from below.
"Do you hear that?" asked Talberth.
"Yes, I believe that there is fighting up above," Telenstil put his hand to his ear, then took a small curved tube from his robe, an ear trumpet he directed up the chute. "It has gone quiet now. Wait... no, the shouting has stopped. We may have to find another way up."
"They may need us up there now," Talberth looked up the shaft and if he could he would have willed himself to its top.
"It is useless for now and I need to rest and meditate before I can cast such spells again," said Telenstil.
"Me too... What about Henri? Do you think he has the power to rise from this stinking pit?" asked Talberth.
"Perhaps, I am not sure that he intends to leave at all or if he would help us now if he could," Telenstil replied.
"You are unworthy, but my elder has instructed me to help you, and while you walk in the shadow, you are not yet in the dark, but you are perilously close," spoke up Henri.
The priest had come upon them unawares while the two wizards directed their thoughts up the chute to where their companions surely fought.
"Why you ar..." began Talberth.
"Hush," Telenstil commanded his ex-apprentice. "Henri, can you help us ascend the shaft? There is trouble above."
"I..." but before Henri could say more the rope came slithering down and dangled before them.
* * *
Derue climbed the steep stairs accompanied by the lone orc who had joined him. The other orcs milled about below, waiting for his return, though some had been sent to contact their kin who had rebelled long before and hid among the caverns beneath the steading. They passed through the giants' pantry and crept along the north-eastern wing of the empty kitchen. All seemed to be as it had been before, but Derue could not be sure. He had run and paid no attention his first time through the giants' kitchen thinking only of finding his brother. He peeked around the corner to where he had left the halfling near the garbage chute that lead down to the manticore pen and stepped back. Derue stretched out his arm and held back the orc, then cautiously peeked again. At least two vast bodies lay across the floor, the corpses of a pair of giants reclined in death. Over one bent and stiffening knee he could make out the old ranger just helping the elven mage up from the chute and onto his feet. To the right he saw the girl cleric talking with her head bent down, probably to that halfling, he thought.
"She will do, if my patron is not to be found," he said aloud.
"What?" asked the orc.
"Never mind. Keep your weapon sheathed and your mouth shut or my companions will cut your throat," Derue told the orc, then ran out to the others.
"Cleric! Cleric!" Derue called to Gytha.
Everyone turned, the ranger grabbed up his sword which he kept near to hand and the halfling stepped forward with a long dagger raised.
"Mercenary," she replied slowly.
"You're back." said Harold, "You and you're crazy brother. I was nearly killed," the halfling yelled at the man.
Derue ignored him and rushed over to Gytha. "My brother is injured, down in the giants' cells. He needs your help or he will die!"
"What is that you have with you?" asked Ivo catching sight of the orc.
Derue only paid attention to the cleric, he reached out and grabbed her arm, but froze when he felt a knife point push under the edge of his chain shirt and poke him just below where his kidneys lay.
"You left me here. I was almost killed," said Harold in a low and angry voice.
* * *
"Everyone calm down," said Telenstil. His voice was quiet but forceful. His appearance surprised Gytha as if he'd stepped from behind the illusion of one of Ivo's masking spells instead of merely ascending from the lower level with the aid of the rope and the old ranger's strength. "Harold, please put your knife away."
The halfling had a scowl across his face and his eyes were bright and angry. He was still covered in a thick coating of giant's blood, though he had cleaned his face and hands, his hair was matted and his clothes were dark and stiff. He didn't say a word, but withdrew his knife and spat upon the mercenary's feet.
"Derue, what is this? What has happened?" asked Telenstil.
"Where did you go? Why the Hells did you run off and leave me here..." Harold began, but Ivo put his hand on the halfling's arm.
"We don't have time for this," said Derue. "Edouard is injured. This orc slave behind me rebelled with his fellows and we took the cells."
"Where are the cells?" asked Telenstil.
"Near... down some stairs. Come quickly, he needs help before he can be moved."
"Down again, oh no," said Harold.
"I will go," said Gytha. "I cannot leave a wounded companion, no matter who."
Telenstil tapped the ranger on the shoulder. He had been standing with the rope in his hand eyeing both the mercenary and the orc.
"Harald, please send the rope down. We still have Talberth and Henri to bring up."
"Yes..." Harald said distractedly. "Yes, Telenstil," he turned and dropped the rope back down the chute.
"Gytha, you cannot go alone," Telenstil looked them over. "Derue, you must wait till we have Talberth up, then I will go with you and Gytha. No," Telenstil raised his hand and silenced Derue's objection before he voiced it. "As you can see we have encountered more giants." He looked to the thief. "Harold, please go take watch and make sure that we are not surprised."
"We must go now!" Derue was frantic with worry.
"We are in a precarious place here, we must... Derue, we must not be caught here if more giants come," Telenstil explained calmly to the frantic man.
"Edouard is dying down there..." Derue went on.
"I am sorry," said Telenstil, "We will help as soon as we can, but not yet. Go keep watch the way that you have come. Derue, this is the way it must be."
"If he dies..." Derue said, but left them and went to watch the stairs, taking the orc and saying no more.
"Harald?" Telenstil asked the ranger.
"Got someone... Give me... a hand," the ranger huffed.
"I'll help," said Gytha.
"I will do what I can as well," Telenstil picked up the slack of rope as did Gytha.
Harald released some of the weight, though he still supported the greater part.
"Good..." said Harald, "Now on two, pull back. One, Two..." they put their backs into it and drew up the rope. Gytha did not mind the work, but such labor had never, in his more than human years, been Telenstil's choice of actions. The elf breathed hard and when Talberth finally was helped from the chute, he dropped the rope and sat down on the stone floor.
"Telenstil are you alright?" asked Gytha
"Fiinnee..." he hissed.
"Telenstil," Talberth stumbled forward. "What is wrong?"
"Winded," Telenstil huffed. "Fine. Give me a moment." Telenstil inhaled slowly. He took several deep breaths before he tried to stand. "Well," he said. "That was an interesting experience. Gytha, we had best go to aid our injured companion."
"Be careful," said Ivo. "We don't want to lose you two."
"Ivo, can you take Harold's watch? Then have him trail us, but only to these stairs that Derue has mentioned," asked Telenstil.
"Certainly, Telenstil," the gnome replied and jogged off to where the halfling watched the outer hall.
"What is this?" asked Talberth. "Telenstil, where are you going?"
"Our scout Edouard is injured. We are going to his aid, but Talberth you must stay here and help Harald draw up our good priest Henri."
"Hah, Telenstil you must be joking!" Talberth exclaimed.
"I am not, and we had best be leaving," said Telenstil. "Talberth, you must stay here."
The mage could hear the seriousness in his old master's tone. The elf was never one to rule with a heavy hand, but he expected his commands to be obeyed. "I will, but this is madness," Talberth answered.
"Harald, are you drawing up Henri?" asked Telenstil, walking to the ranger's side.
"Nothing yet. I have received no signal," answered Harald.
"Give him five minutes, then leave the rope and follow us," said Telenstil. "Make sure it is a full five minutes."
"Why not wait?" asked Talberth.
"I have already made Derue wait, perhaps Edouard has died," said Telenstil. "I will take the risk and give them at least that five minutes."
"Telenstil, let's go." Gytha grabbed her pack and waited for the mage. She had found a metal rod that the giants used to sift the ashes in their fire grate and held it in both hands like a metal quarterstaff. The pair left their companions behind, Harald still waiting for the priest to signal from below. The little thief followed them, not trying to hide, just staying back and away from Derue and the orc.
"Come on, this way!" Derue called to them as soon as he saw the mage and cleric approach.
He stood at the northern edge of the huge room, around the corner where the hall turned east. Telenstil and Gytha began to run. They soon caught up with the orc, who trailed Derue by several paces. The room opened up and extended to the north again, but to the south there were a pair of doors. Derue slid through the righthand one. The huge wooden portal was open only a crack, but wide enough for any of them to pass through with ease. Inside they were in a pantry of giant size and at its back there was a set of stairs. Edouard and Derue had descended them before, though only Derue returned.
"Down here, this way," Derue called to them as he hopped from step to step, each wide and deep, cut for the tread of giant feet.
The orc did not hesitate, but Telenstil and Gytha descended carefully. Telenstil turned back and eyed the thief who followed him. Harold nodded back and crouched at the top the stairs, keeping watch on them as they dropped down and out of sight.
There was a gabble of rough voices below then they heard a human shout, Derue yelling for quiet. Gytha helped Telenstil down the last step. They paused to listen before entering the huge room itself.
Beyond the vaulting arch they could see a crowd of orcs sprawled out in groups about a cavernous room. Derue was surrounded by one group and faced another. Both groups looked ill-treated and half starved, but there was a demeanor to the orcs facing Derue that those behind him lacked, an air of resignation but also pride. They were a quiet lot while the orcs around Derue were boisterous and loud, these that parlayed with him were silent and only their leader spoke.
Telenstil counted several dozen of the beasts and perhaps twice as many in the other group. He walked slowly into the room with Gytha by his side. Derue caught sight of them and waved. He started toward them when they did not increase their pace.
"Hurry, this way," Derue shouted and lead them across the room to a large iron-bound wooden door. He banged loudly on its panel and shouted to those inside. Something gave a clang from within then a half-dozen orcs pulled the door open using an iron chain. A man stepped out, but Derue pushed him back and turned once more to signal franticly for Gytha to quicken her pace. "Will you hurry, we have wasted enough time already," he shouted.
"I'm coming, I'm coming," she replied, clearly annoyed with the mercenary's complaints. "Where is Edouard?"
"He's here," Derue pointed. He stood within a long hall lined with cells, a man stood beside him, swarthy and old, but calm, seeming to have mastered whatever fears or concerns he felt. Derue practically danced with nervous energy, his eyes darted from Gytha to the cell, back and forth till the cleric stepped inside.
Edouard lay unconscious, his eyes closed, his breathing faint and labored. Gytha knelt beside him and put her head on his chest. She heard the gurgle of liquid when he breathed, and put her hand lightly across his ribs. The bones were broken, she could feel the jagged ends where they had been snapped off and driven into his lungs. His face was badly bruised as well, but she suspected most of his injuries were inside.
"Heal him," Derue demanded.
Gytha paid him no mind, she would do what she could do. "Dear Saint," she began. "I have asked your help much today, but the need is great. This is a dark time and a dark place. Please lend me the strength to heal one who has fallen to this dark, who fights the evil you have fought with merely mortal strength. Please dear Saint, aid this fallen warrior who is near death." She placed one hand upon Edouard's head and the other on his chest. A deep green glow began but as it sank in it was replaced by gold, a shining gold that surrounded Edouard, his body lifted from the ground, his arms fell to his sides, suspended as well. His body shook and an angry line of red curved back and forth like a snake through the haze of gold. Gytha felt a great pain, her hands were on fire, it blazed at her, but she called upon the Saint and the golden glow increased. The red lashed out, it sprang from the cocoon of golden light and sought for Gytha's throat, but as it left Edouard it paled and faded into a dark steaming cloud, then blew away, up and up toward the high ceiling and disappeared.
"What was that?!" asked Ghibelline the elf. He had backed away when the cleric entered the cell and remained unnoticed while she cast her healing prayer over Edouard.
"Gytha! Are you all right?" Telenstil tried to go to the cleric's side but Derue roughly shoved him out of his way.
"Edouard!" he cried and ignored Gytha who staggered up, dazed, on unsteady feet.
"Brother," Edouard spoke. "Where am I? What has happened here?"
"You are in the giants' cells. I don't know how you came here, but you were badly injured," Derue told him.
"I feel fine," he said. Edouard felt his chest and jaw. "But I do remember great pain. It was like a dream. Derue! Where is my armor, my sword!" he grabbed his brother's arms so tightly that the links of Derue's own chain shirt bit into him like metal teeth.
Telenstil held Gytha up by the shoulders. She shook her head then steadied herself. Reaching out she gave the elf's shoulder a squeeze, then took the metal rod from where it rested against the wall. She leaned upon it and seemed to take strength from the black iron, recovering from her brief daze.
"Thank you," she said. "Come, let us step from here and let Derue and Edouard speak."
Telenstil lead her from the cell. "And you sir, who are you?" he asked the elf who followed them.
Gytha turned, a bit surprised. She had been aware that someone else had been in the cell, but had not taken note of whom or what he was. The elf looked worn and his injuries, old and new, showed plain.
"I am Ghibelline of Derelion," the elf said, then pointed toward the door behind them. "And this is Jalal-ud-Din of Zeif, Master Builder, and my friend."
Telenstil and Gytha both turned to look at the small old man. He placed his hands together and bowed deeply at the waist.
"I am Telenstil and this is Gytha, one of Saint Cuthbert's staunch followers," said Telenstil. "I have many questions for both of you, but this is not the place."
"Will you take us with you?" asked Ghibelline.
"Of course," said Telenstil. "I would not leave anyone in the hands of the giants."
"Gracious Elf," spoke up Jalal. "If that be true I must ask you for your help. There are others held captive, they have worked alongside me and one I hold dear to me as kin."
"We will see what can be done," said Telenstil. "For now there are others, my companions, who we must rejoin. Then we can speak and discuss how to help your friends."
As they spoke a commotion rose from the cell, then Derue backed out, his hands before him. Edouard followed, his pale face was red and he shouted and pushed at his brother.
"...done with it." Edouard yelled.
"Nothing, it was gone, Edouard, gone when I found you," Derue protested.
"No! It can't be," Edouard shouted. "I can't hear it anymore, what have you done with it?"
* * *
The wolves could not run; some were left behind, half-dead to fend for themselves. The giants plodded along the path, like the wolves they had been stripped of their stamina and strength. Only Nosnra still walked with his shoulders back. In his arms he carried the body of his friend, a mere souless husk, drained by the powers he had wielded in life. Only one more hill and a valley then they would be home.
* * *
"Ivo, he is not coming," said Harald. "I've given him the five minutes, and more."
"Then it is time for us to go," Ivo replied.
"Telenstil won't like it but I say we leave," chimed in Talberth.
"I could climb down..." the ranger began.
"No," said Ivo. "If the giants catch us here Talberth and I could not hold them back."
"Leave the rope," said Talberth. "As Telenstil instructed we've given him every chance."
"Let's collect our packs then and find the others," Harald gave a deep sigh and a final pull at the rope, then let it drop back against the wall of the chute.
* * *
Edouard gave a growl and grabbed Derue by the throat with both his hands. For a moment Gytha saw the red streak coursing through the scout's body, wrapping around him like a vine around a tree, then Edouard pulled the sword from over his brother's shoulder. Smoke rose from his hand and the smell and crackle of burning flesh pervaded the silence and stench of the room. With a scream Edouard threw the sword from his hand, it clanged from the stone wall. Derue jumped for it and turned to face his brother, the flames racing across the steel as soon as he put his hand to the hilt.
"Ineptire!" Derue yelled. "Where is your blade? Hah! You have lost it, you cannot claim mine!"
"No!!!" Edouard howled. He kept his injured hand clutched to his chest and backed away from the burning sword. Suddenly he whipped around and ran from the room, pushing past the others with a maniacal strength. "Kalfashow!" he screamed into the cleric's face. He knocked her back and she swung out her metal staff to trip him up, but he took the fall with a roll and was on his feet with only Jalal, the old Bakluni, standing in his way.
The old man backed up and tried to press himself against the wall out of the madman's way, but Edouard clubbed him to the ground with his bare hands, striking a sharp blow to Jalal's head with his open palm, then grabbing a thin arm and twirling him about. Ghibelline jumped forward to aid his friend but Edouard flung Jalal into the elf then slammed into the door. He hit with force enough to open it a crack and slid through, scraping shoulder-blades and ribs between the stone frame and the iron straps across the wood.
Derue screamed out his brother's name and dropped his sword, the flames disappeared the moment it left his hands then he cried out again. "Ardare!" he screamed, then fell to his knees and scrabbled across the stones to grab the hilt again.
"I see it!" Gytha shouted. "There is a red serpent inside of him, it is that cursed sword!"
Outside the cells, the orcs watched Edouard as he ran about. He kept going back and forth, looking for his sword, making further and further sweeps of the room. One of the newcomers who had not seen Derue or his magic sword and obeyed the scout's commands struck out at the crazed man as he shoved by. Edouard slid past the blow, and into the orc's reach. One hand grabbed the orc's wrist, a strong thumb digging into the palm, his other hand, the calloused edge of it, struck across its throat. The sword dropped from the orc's numbed grasp, it grabbed its throat and let out a barking, strangled cough. Its companions yelled in fury and surrounded Edouard with their weapons drawn and ready.
* * *
He was more than just a whirling madman, Edouard's fists and feet lashed out at the orcs, hard as steel, deadly as any weapon they used against him. A sword jabbed toward him, he stepped aside and grabbed the outstretched arm then pivoted, adding his force to that of the orc's. The blade stabbed into an orc rushing Edouard from behind and with a twist the scout sent the orc he'd grabbed flying atop the one just stabbed. For a time Edouard's training took hold and proved stronger than the overwhelming need he felt to possess his sword once again. The voice which called to him, Kalfashow, was just a dim whisper at the back of his mind. There were a score of weapons set against him and three score fists ready to fight him barehanded, he had no chance, but he had been born and raised to fight, even when that fight would surely be his last.
They came at him, so many at once that they blocked each other out. Each wanted to use a weapon to fight the man, but if they had simply rushed in they could have borne him to the ground by their sheer weight and number. A morningstar whizzed by his head, but Edouard leaned back, supple as a willow bending beneath the wind. It passed just inches from his face and pulled the orc half around as it went by. Edouard used his foot, his torso still bent back, to strike beneath the armpit of the orc. The spiked ball flew free, smacking into the crowd, the orc's arm popped up and out of joint and the pig-faced monster flew back and yowled in pain. Edouard bent back even more, his torso horizontal to the ground and kicked up even higher. A second orc rushed forward to take its companions place and as it did Edouard drew back his leg, both at the hip and at the knee then lashed out again, hard as a mule, directly into the orc's throat. The sound was like a melon in a canvas bag being dropped against the ground, the orc collapsed, falling backwards, knocking down several who sought to close with the man but were bowled over into a writhing heap. Two clubs and a rusty blade sought Edouard's blood and life, the sword skimmed close, a club drummed against his side, but its force was spent when the wielder collided with another orc, and the last was stopped by Edouard's upthrust hand. He caught the orc forearm to forearm then hooked his other arm up behind the elbow. A quick merciless pull of his hooked arm driving the elbow forward and a push out of his forearm against that of the orc's and its bone snapped, the elbow came out of joint and the club hit only the ground as it fell from the useless fingers of the orc's broken arm. Edouard dropped into a crouch and spun with one leg extended, it caught the swordwielder behind the knees and sent the orc heels over head smacking hard against the floor. Then with a dancer's grace Edouard spun up rising from his crouch and with his gathered strength kicked with his right leg straight into the chest of another orc. Its breastbone cracked like lead shot against a stone wall, the crossbow it carried went off and left a gash which scored the outside of Edouard's leg leaving a bleeding trail. He shifted tactics then and brought the fight into the midst of the orcs crowded in the room. Edouard flung himself bodily into the mass, jumping high and crashing lengthwise against three orcs, knocking them down and creating a rolling, biting, clawing havoc as he fought through. He gouged eyes, broke fingers, smashed throats and noses flat with his forearm and edge of hand, cracked temples with vicious jabs of elbow, fell hard upon chest or spine or stomach with his knees. Close in the orcs weapons were more of a hindrance than a help, they could claw and bite, punch or grab desperately at the spinning fury which slashed at them, but Edouard was lightning fast, as dangerous with quick thrusts of fingers, or gripping hand as he was with the kicks and throws he used against them in the open. They would have overborn him in the end but he fought his way through the thinnest portion of the crowd.
An orc reeled back, its thumb pulled from its joint as it tried to grab the man and an elbow driven deep into its back where its kidneys lay, a blow struck as he passed by. Edouard spun as he cleared the room and kicked the reeling orc from behind, propelling it into the others, giving him a moment's lead, he ran down the dark corridor, he knew not where.
"You will get out of my way!" Derue yelled at the others.
"Derue, you are possessed," Gytha yelled back at him. "Throw away that sword. Fight it!"
"I will fight you if you do not move," Derue told her. He began to advance with his sword at the ready, the fire bright along its length. "Elf!" he commanded Ghibelline. "You have sworn an oath to me, strike her down."
"My debt to you is paid," Ghibelline said in a calm voice. "Your brother is healed. I will not raise a hand against this good cleric."
"Trust an elf and elf's word," Derue spat out. "I am leaving here. I should cut you down in any case, but stay out of my way and you will live!"
Telenstil did not reply to Derue but spoke quietly to the elf. "Take your friend into the cell, out of the way. We will deal with our companion."
Ghibelline carried Jalal into the cell; the old man was thin as a figure made of sticks held together with string. The elf could not say if he still breathed or if the madman had slain Jalal in his escape.
* * *
"Don't forget the chain," Talberth said to the ranger.
Harald grumbled, but wrapped it about his shoulders with care, more to balance it evenly than any worry he had about damaging the weighty links. As they left Ivo kept glancing back at the chute. He could not decide whether he was happy to be rid of the priest or sorry to abandon even so regrettable a companion in such a place as the giants' hall.
* * *
The hallway was huge, more like a road or some covered bridge of stone. Edouard ran fast, faster than the orcs who pursued him. After a hundred paces they let him go, he had maimed and injured many of them and the others had no great desire to fight the madman again. Ahead, the passage ended in a door and two ways, smaller than the hallway he'd just run down, they ran to his left and to his right. The door was heavy and old, wood bound with iron and set with metal arms to hold a timber, that kept it closed. The timber lay against the wall, and the door was open wide. Inside, it was a reeking pit of black. Edouard stood, he looked back the way he'd come then ahead peering into the lightless room. He turned to his left to look up the smaller passage then around again, facing the right-hand way. Something tickled his mind, a lazy finger of heat, a tongue of flame he could not see. It pulled him to the right. He stumbled forward and felt the flame increase then he began to run. His sword, it called to him from somewhere ahead, down the right-hand way.
* * *
"Pod-At, Taz-Pan, Zamp-La," Telenstil intoned and threw a dry pellet toward Derue. The scout brought up his sword, but the pellet became a white viscous blob. It hissed as it passed through the burning sword and thinned to a mist as it struck Derue. A wave of nausea nearly made him wretch. Derue felt as if he stood upon a ship that was caught rolling in a storm upon the deep. He swayed and the world went upside down. His sword fell from his grasp and he rolled after it. His fingers touched the hilt and sent the blade skittering further away. He could not stand, he tried and fell. Before he could rise again Gytha's metal staff struck him aside the head. Stars sparked behind his eyes and a dark wave came up and swallowed him.
"Bind his hands," Telenstil said to Gytha.
"What will we do with the sword?" she asked.
"I do not know. I hate to just leave it, but it is dangerous to touch or even possess." Telenstil eyed the blade lying cold and naked on the ground.
"Can you destroy it?" she asked.
"No, not even if I had my rest and the most powerful spells at my command. This was crafted with both evil and power," he nodded toward the sword. "It will take much power to destroy."
"Good cleric," a voice spoke. Ghibelline the elf came from the cell. "Can you see to my friend? He is injured."
"Certainly," Gytha said as she tied Derue's hands behind his back and tied his feet as well. "Does he wake?"
"No, he is senseless," Ghibelline replied.
"Here," Telenstil asked the elf, "help me bar the door."
Ghibelline left Gytha to attend Jalal and went with Telenstil to the huge door. A wooden beam could be dropped between metal brackets to keep the door from being pulled open, but now it lay propped up against the wall. Both elves wrestled with the beam. Ghibelline would have been the stronger of the pair, but starvation and torture had weakened him, he was only a thin shadow of his former self.
"You are of the high brethren," Ghibelline said to Telenstil.
"And you are of the woods, and for the woods, are you not?" Telenstil replied.
"Yes." he answered. The two swayed back and forth with the beam, they managed to place one end against a bracket and struggled to raise the other side, but could not.
"We will need Gytha's help," said Telenstil. "
She is of the lands below, you are far from home," said Ghibelline.
"You seem to have strayed far as well," Telenstil replied.
"Yes, these hills are not my home, but I came to find someone. They may have been taken by these giants," Ghibelline answered. "They were not here. I was taken instead. I did not think I would be struggling to lock myself inside these cells."
"We have companions coming," said Telenstil, "and those orcs outside may object to us leading away our scout as a prisoner. They seem to have taken a liking to him."
"He seems just their sort," said Ghibelline.
"Harold," Ivo called quietly to the halfling. "Harold."
"Shhh!" Harold hissed back. He ran from the stairwell to the pantry door where Ivo, Harald and Talberth padded slowly in. "I'm glad you've come, there is something going on below. I can hear the shouting."
"They are in trouble," the ranger shook his head. "Come on, we better go help."
"We don't know what is happening down there!" Talberth exclaimed with in an unexpected squeak.
"Then we had better find out," Harald shrugged the chain from his shoulders and let its length come crashing down.
"Watch that!" shouted Talberth.
"It'll be alright, come on!" Harald cried to them.
"Talberth, prepare a spell," Ivo told him.
"I can do better," answered Talberth taking a wand from a sheath he wore on his arm. "I have magic enough left in this to give anyone or thing we might meet below quite a shock."
They ran to the steps, both Ivo and Harold looked askance at the deep treads the giants used for stairs.
"Follow us as quick as you can," said Talberth.
The ranger was already dropping down the steps with reckless speed.
* * *
Gytha stepped from the cell. She left Jalal sleeping, healed of his wounds, but weak and tired. She felt weary herself, being a vehicle for the Saint's grace and power enriched her spirit but took its toll on her strength.
"Gytha," called Telenstil, "please give us a hand."
The two elves struggled with the heavy beam. Gytha set aside her metal staff and ran to them. With her help they set the bar in place.
"Phew!" said Gytha letting out a small huff of breath.
"I concur," said Telenstil.
"And I," added Ghibelline. "How is my friend?" he asked Gytha.
"Asleep, but I believe he will be fine," said Gytha. "That was a nasty blow he took, and he is frail."
"The giants use up their slaves, at least Nosnra does," Ghibelline told them. "The dwarves last the longest."
"We saw no dwarves," said Gytha.
"No, they are kept at the forge. It lies somewhere among these passages," explained Ghibelline. "It is near their chamber of pain. I have been there many times. There are a pair of huge giants at the forge, the kind that are kin to fire. They look like creatures of that plane, burnt skin and hair like the embers in their forge."
"That," said Telenstil, breaking into the elf's rambling speech, "that is very strange. Fire Giants you say, hmmm..."
"Yes, I have heard them talk, but I do not understand their words, it is not like the speech of Nosnra or his kind," said Ghibelline, "but Jalal might be able to tell you more. He has become close friends with one of the dwarves who they hold at the forge. They use them for the finer work that the orcs cannot do, the giants of stone find them useful as well and make sure that Nosnra does not kill them out of hand, but still they work them close to death."
"Giants have little feeling for those smaller than themselves," said Telenstil.
"Those are kind words to describe such evil monsters," said Gytha.
"No, there are giants of all kinds, some are cruel and some are not," said Telenstil. "I have met worse than Nosnra, both giants and those of our size."
"You are right," said Gytha. "The Saint teaches that the body is but a shell, it is the spirit inside that matters."
"Wise words," said Ghibelline.
Meatstealer turned to Boss and prepared to go to the human's aid, but Boss held him back. "Let them kill him. Maybe they can cut down the other one as well," Boss said in the gruff orcish tongue.
"They'll cut him to..." Meatstealer began but stopped as he saw the human down one then another of the rebel orcs with bare feet and hands. "Maybe this one doesn't need help."
Boss shook his head. "He has Gruumsh's own strength. Ah they have him now."
They could not see what happened. The rebel orcs closed in and blocked off their view.
"I don't know," Meatstealer said. He could hear the shouts and cries of pain coming from orcish throats but not cheers or laughter to say that they had slain the madman or captured him for slow death by torture.
The crowd swayed, the rebel orcs seemed to draw in like sand falling down an hourglass, funneling to one point. There was a final shout and the rebel orcs set off the way they had come leaving their dead and wounded behind.
* * *
There was a smell, sharp but choking, then the feel of heat, a great simmering wave that became a smothering blanket, stifling, a physical presence in the air. Edouard nearly gasped, but the call from Kalfashow was too great. It washed over him and put all his other thoughts and senses aside. He had turned off from the passage he'd been following down a slanting tunnel. Somewhere ahead was the source of the great heat and the burning smell, but he could see nothing but the stone walls and the haze of torchlight far away.
The tunnel made a turn. The way went to his left, but only for a dozen feet. A sharp wedge of stone split the passage right from left, broadening out in both directions till the way was wide enough for a wagon to pass. To the left the wide stone tunnel was lined with weapons, heaped with shields and armor, piled with bits and pieces of metal waiting to be fixed or melted down. Bags of coal and cuts of wood were mixed within, a rough storage nook, though large enough to fit a peasant's house between the walls and roof.
Edouard paused, he glanced at a row of swords hung high upon a wall, but his head turned to the other way. The call came from the right, not from the storage nook. His blade was not hidden among the weapons there or buried beneath a sack of coal. The right-hand way was broad and slanting down. It was from here that his sword called to him, and from here that the heat pulsed out. It had become so great that he was cooler inside than without, the thickness of the air made his eyes tear, a cloud of smoke, black as a rain-filled cloud, hung against the ceiling. As he crept forward he could see the source of the heat and smoke, a massive forge, its edges taller than a man, a huge bellows set above it, unmoving, waiting to breathe life into the coals and make the red sparks dance. The walls were hung with weapons, helms and bits of armor, all formed for giants. Edouard felt like a child stepping into his father's armory. The room seemed empty, but there were wings which went off to either side, Edouard could not see what they contained from where he stood crouching in the outer hall. The call came to him again. It sang with great allure, he could not resist.
* * *
"I would like to just sit here, but we need to move the table over," said Telenstil. "There is a viewport set up there in the door and I want to watch for our companions' arrival."
"As long as it isn't just something to keep us busy," laughed Gytha.
"I know that when I get a chance I will lay down for several days," said Ghibelline.
"I thought you elves never slept," said Gytha.
"Hah!" it was Ghibelline's turn to laugh. "That is a fable. We need our rest, though there is truth in the tale. We sleep, though you could say that we elves sleep with our eyes open, even when they are closed."
The table was made for the bugbear guards. It was large but not giant-sized, sturdy but crude. It screeched across the stones as they dragged it and pushed it up against the door. Telenstil climbed up, there was a small cover set between metal runners that blocked the viewport. He slid it aside and peered out into the room beyond.
He heard their laughter before he saw them. Deep, booming and touched with cruel mockery. A flush of anger colored Edouard's sweating brow, but he stood, powerless before the giants, a dark pair with red hair and beards and teeth like dinner plates, yellowed and stained. Both were huge, much bigger than Nosnra's kind, but one held Edouard's unsheathed blade across his hand and laughed as the human rushed forward to retrieve it. The call from Kalfashow was all that Edouard could hear, when he saw it he was aware of nothing else, the room faded from his sight, even the giant which held his sword. The hand that smacked him aside came as if from nowhere, it knocked him from his feet and sent him sprawling on the floor.
"Little one," the giant spoke, "you hear fire spirit. It sing pretty song yes?" the giant laughed. "It talk to me. Say you powerful, have strong spirit too, you make good slave. Be good and let you see fire sword, be bad and take fire away."
Edouard didn't reply but gathered himself and launched a leaping kick toward the giant's mocking face. The monster held out his hand and waved the sword back and forth, small as a toy in his huge palm. A scream, a screeching voice, threw Edouard into a spasm of pain, he dropped halfway through his attack, landing hard on the stones and curling into a tight ball, his knees hugged against his chest.
"Naughty little one," the giant chuckled. "You make fire spirit mad. It serve me, you obey, or fire spirit get mad again."
* * *
"Look at all those orcs," said Talberth.
"Where are the others?" Harald looked left than right, trying to pick out Telenstil or Gytha from the crowd. He would have been happy even to see the scout.
"I have my wand," Talberth held the carved magic stick nervously in his hand. "These orcs wouldn't survive the lightning I could unleash."
"Our friends could be among them," Harald reminded him. "The scout said these orc's rebelled against the giants didn't he?"
"Yes, but I'll never put trust in such beasts," Talberth said. "What should we do? Where are the others?"
"Here comes Harold and Ivo, let's wait for them, then just march out there. If the orcs attack we will fight them off," the ranger said. He held his sword, a claymore almost as long as he was tall, and peered back up the stairs, waiting for the gnome and halfling to appear.
* * *
"What do you see?" asked Gytha.
"Orcs. I do not see Edouard," said Telenstil. "They are milling about, some are dragging things, ahh... bodies, several bodies, some are still thrashing. There seem to be many less than when we went through before. No... I see them now. A large group is coming from a opening on my left..."
"That would be south," said Ghibelline.
"Yes. Your direction sense is good," Telenstil said, surprised.
"Jalal knows these tunnels well and he has told me what he knows," Ghibelline explained. "We hoped to escape, somehow. I should see to him. Do you need me here?"
"Please go see to your friend, but come if we call..." Telenstil began. "Wait! There is a new commotion. Gytha, I see Harald, he stands at least a head taller than any of the orcs. Quick let us move the table and unbar the door, they may need our help."
* * *
"Just keep walking," Talberth said to the others.
All around them stood orcs, most in small groups near the walls, but they could not be avoided. Harald took them to the center of the huge room, glancing left then right, searching for some sign of their companions. Across from the stairs there were two doors, a passage opened between them, on the right-hand, up by the far wall, there was another door, but lower down there was a wide opening. As they watched, it began to disgorge more orcs, a rough and angry band. Shouts rang out and hands pointed toward the four companions. The orcs which milled about the room did not join in, but instead backed away, moving closer to the walls and the dark corners. The orcs who charged and shouted, most with crude weapons in their hands, came on at a run, Talberth stepped forward to meet them.
The mage held an arcane wand, small symbols had been carved into the dark wood and the grooves filled with a liquid silver. The writing spiraled along the wand and ended in a silver cap that held a diamond cut to a long sharp point. Talberth whispered a word and the power was unleashed, a symbol became dull and empty wood, the silver metal flowed away and disappeared. The diamond glowed and from its tip there came a bluish light, and as it left the wand it grew. A lightning bolt, it left the wand with a thunderclap of noise, and swept across the running orcs. In between the blink of an eye it struck, three orcs in the lead were touched first but it was past them and amongst the others before a step could be taken or a shout escape their lips. Three dozen or more of their band were touched by the single bolt, the flash blinded many for a few moments leaving a purple blur staining their eyes. The noise of the bolts passage drowned out the screams, but the spectacle was grim. Those touched spasmed in pain, jaws and teeth broke, clamping shut as the energy coursed through, spines snapped as the orcs' bodies were contorted, hair burst into flame and their flesh smoked and stank as greasy rags and skin were flash-cooked by the stroke. Talberth was surprised at the result, he stood open mouthed. These orcs were weak and frail, packed together, crowded in the passage the magic bolt could not have wrought greater havoc.
"I don't think you will need to cast another spell," said Ivo, impressed by the carnage. The orcs which survived the charge turned and ran back down the hall, more than half their number lay dead, they ran for the security of their caves, most would rather surrender to the giants than face more of these human foes.
* * *
"What was that?!" Ghibelline asked excitedly.
"Talberth I should think," said Telenstil while he put his shoulder against the table leg and pushed.
"We'd better hurry," said Gytha. They dragged the table away and attacked the wooden beam but could only free it from one bracket at a time and as it cleared the first it came crashing down nearly crushing Telenstil's foot, he leapt away just in time.
"Thank goodness for the grace of elves," said Gytha.
"I was never strong," said Telenstil, "But I have always been quick."
"We elves have always been adept at avoiding falling wood," laughed Ghibelline.
* * *
The door swung open and Gytha came running out. Harold saw her first; the others were still mesmerized by the carnage that Talberth's lightning bolt had wrought. The little thief ran over to her and the orcs who had not fled cowered against the wall or in the corners, afraid of even the halfling, not knowing what terrible powers he might possess.
"Harold," Gytha called, "am I glad to see you."
"Gytha, what happened? We heard a commotion."
"Those scouts, the swords that Henri handed out, they were cursed," she told him.
"That figures," Harold agreed. "That's how our luck has been going."
Telenstil left the cells as well but did not run. He looked slowly from side to side but walked straight toward his companions, stopping beside Gytha and putting his hand down to pat the halfling's shoulder.
"A timely arrival my friend," he said to Harold.
"We could have simply come with you. That Henri never showed," Harold said.
"I had hoped he would. I hate to leave any of our group among these monsters," Telenstil shook his head and glanced again at their surroundings.
The room was a dank cave, though torches were set all along the walls throwing off a smokey light. The ceiling was high and dim, and where Telenstil stood, part way to the center of the room, the torchlight barely reached. The orcs had begun to slink away, some crept off up the stairs, others disappeared down the small passage by the cells. The large passageway was clogged with the bodies of the dead. None of the orcs would go that way. Telenstil lead them back to the cells, they were a quiet group, unhappy to find themselves back underground again.
"Telenstil, these orcs will alert the giants," said Harald as they crossed the threshold of the door. "We had best leave, and quick."
"I agree," Telenstil replied, "but we have lost Edouard, again, and now Henri has abandoned us, and Derue, our scout has been cursed by that magic sword he found."
"More reason for us to go now," spoke up Harold. "Who is this?" he asked as he spotted Ghibelline.
"I am Ghibelline," the elf answered. "You are the friends of Master Telenstil and the good lady cleric, I take it."
"How is Jalal?" Gytha asked him.
"He is awake, but weak. Telenstil, he wishes to speak with you," said Ghibelline.
"Who is this Jalal?" asked Harold. "Telenstil have you enlisted an army to join us?"
"No," said Telenstil, "we have just found some of the captives the giants had kept. Gytha, come with me, we will have to move Jalal. You too, Ghibelline."
"Is that Derue back there?" Harold asked as Telenstil and the others went into the cell where Jalal lay.
"Yes, do not untie him," Telenstil warned.
"Don't worry about that," said Harold to himself. "Well this is fine don't you think," he said to the ranger.
"Eh," Harald shrugged. "It could be worse." He leaned against the open door and kept watch, eyeing the last of the orcs as they crept away. A small group had not left. They stood near the arch of the stairwell and cast long glances toward the cells.
Friday, January 17, 2020
The Hill Giant Chief - Nosnra's Saga - Part 7
Harold lifted the ogre's blade. It was made for a human hand, a short sword or a long broad dagger, not what the halfling would choose to wield, but his own knife was gone. The sword's sheath was still on the ogre's belt, now lying down below where the monster's body had landed hard upon the stones. He had to keep the blade in his hand or leave it lying on the ground. He wanted to have both hands free, yet standing alone in the giant's kitchen he felt more secure with the hide-wrapped hilt grasped tightly in his hand.
"Little good you will do me against a giant or even another ogre," Harold told the blade. He paced the length of the large room, down its south-eastern arm, beneath the towering tabletops and out to the archway that opened on a long corridor and looked out across to a huge set of double doors. He peered down the corridor, looking south then north, but there was nothing but the tangy smell of smoke, distant noises like the creaking of old bones, and the dim glow of torchlight, the flames burning from sconces far off to either side. Back he went and then to the north and east, more tables, chairs, sinks and shelves, the room bent sharply to the north, a dead end, the kitchen larder. There was a doorway to the south, the way that Edouard went and Derue followed. Harold would not go that way alone, not if he had any other choice. From the chute he heard a banging sound. Harold ran over only to see the ranger Harald climbing up over the wooden lip.
"Harald! Brandobaris be praised!" the halfling cried. "Now don't you go running off."
"Harold, what has been going on?" the ranger answered. He smiled to see his friend, but quickly bent and began pulling up the rope. "Gytha!" he called down the chute. "Just hold on, I will pull you up!"
"Harald!" Gytha yelled from twenty feet down the chute. "You nearly shook me from the rope. Give some warning before you do something like that again."
"Sorry Gytha," Harald said sheepishly. The red-haired cleric let Harald pull her up the rest of the way as recompense. She grabbed the wooden lip and swung over the edge, tumbling ungainly to the floor.
"Are you all right?" the halfling asked.
"I'm fine," Gytha answered a bit quickly. "Just lost my balance there. That is quite a climb, even with assistance. How are you doing?"
"Better now that you two are up here. That crazy pair of scouts ran off," said Harold.
"Where did they go?" she asked.
"Around the corner," Harold pointed to the north.
Harald the ranger began pulling on the rope to signal for another climber to ascend, but they had let it go slack while he hauled Gytha up and no one below felt the jerking of the line.
"Harold," said Gytha, "do you have another pouch to drop?"
"I'll cut some of this sacking away and use it instead. I notice that you left my other pouch behind," Harold complained. He used the ogre's knife to stab a sack of grain, the large kernels poured out and piled on the floor. He'd cut low with a malicious intent, to add one more petty trouble to the woe that they had brought to the steading already.
"You nearly blinded me, man! What magic was that?" Ivo cried.
"None that need concern you, gnome," Henri replied contemptuously. "I came here to find some privacy, do not complain when your interruption might have cost you your sight."
"I came to tell you we were off, my mistake," said Ivo, "One which I will not make again." He left the room and Henri before he said or did more.
"Did you find our cleric?" asked Telenstil.
"My bad luck, I did," Ivo replied. "I told him we were leaving, maybe our luck will change and the arrogant so and so will stay behind."
"Don't count on it," Talberth agreed. He did not like the Pholtite priest or his hirelings, the mercenary pair. "What is taking them so long?"
"Talberth, please check the rope," requested Telenstil The young mage gave it a tug and was almost jerked from his feet by the reply. He pulled back and with a shout rose into the air then fell back and landed on the piled muck.
"Yuchhh!" he said and flicked brown viscous droplets from his hands. The rope continued to rise, then stopped and then the slack fell loose again.
"I see we have a small communication problem," said Telenstil.
Talberth pushed himself to his feet, his robe covered across the back with slime and rotting chunks of greens. He drew out a small handkerchief and tried to clean his hands, then tossed the fouled bit of cloth away.
"This is disgusting!" he complained to Telenstil
"Here," said Telenstil. The elven mage cast a simple spell and with a whistling breath and a circle in the air with his outstretched hand sent the mire flying from Talberth's clothes. "Now we had best have Harald draw another of us up. Ivo can you hold two packs while Harald pulls?"
"Give me two of the small ones. We don't want to overstrain our friend up there," laughed Ivo. "And thanks. I want to be away from that pompous popinjay before I test a bit of magic on him."
Telenstil went over and grabbed the rope. He tugged it with care this time and after two or three attempts reestablished contact with those above. They looped the rope around Ivo's waist then gave the line another pull. The old gnome laughed as he rose up the chute like a bale of hay being drawn up into a loft above a stableyard.
* * *
"Who you be, human?" an orc asked Derue. Its face bled from long deep cuts one of the apes had opened across its face.
"I am Killer of Giants, as you can see," he told the orc and spoke loud enough for the others to hear.
The crowd of orcs began to murmur. The one who had spoken stepped back and immediately began to shout down those around him.
Derue sheathed his blade. He breathed hard from the fight just ended, but felt in his heart that Edouard must be near. His brother must surely be injured. There was no time to wait for these orcs to decide if he was friend or foe. "Do You Challenge Me!" he yelled at them and drew his sword. The flames sprang out and ran along its length.
A hush fell on the crowd, the orcs were wild with rage at their captors and joyful at their victory, but they were unprepared to face Derue and the burning sword which had struck down the giant Keeper. Many orcs had died beneath that giant's massive foot, their lives crushed out upon the stones. None had thought to see him dead, not in their wildest dreams. They respected strength and felt a kinship of size, if not of kind, with the human, and none wished to face his magic, fiery sword. The crowd backed away when Derue came near, only the one who had stepped up to him before approached him now.
"Killer of Giants," the orc said to him with respect but in broken common. "Leaders are dead, I follow you. They," he waved his arm at the gathered orcs, "follow me. What we do now?"
"My brother, another human like me, he was just taken, he is alive. Where would he be?" Derue asked the orc.
"We want to leave," the orc ignored his question or did not understand it. "You take us from this place."
A burst of red fury went through Derue, he backhanded the orc hard with his left hand. The meaty smack drew a babble of cries from the orcs. The orc touched the side of his mouth and spat out a gob of blood, he bowed his head and then held out both his hands, palms up, to Derue. "You obey!" Derue told him and put the edge of his blade to the orc's throat, close enough to singe the hair on its pig-like snout and head.
"I obey," the orc replied.
"My brother, where would they have taken him," said Derue, not asking a question but making a demand.
"There," the orc pointed to the eastern wall and a huge iron-bound wooden door.
"Open it," commanded Derue.
The orc nodded and without turning, Derue's blade still near his neck, its heat making his face burn worse than the slap, shouted to the other orcs in their own tongue. A dozen of them ran to the door and grabbed a metal chain. They hauled and, straining, pulled the door open with a rasping creak.
"Now what?" the orc asked looking up at Derue.
The mercenary lowered his sword and ran to the open door. The orcs had dropped the chain and milled about. Derue pushed them aside and jumped into the room. He felt the steel spikes from a morningstar leave gashes along his head as it whirled by. The spiked metal ball took a chunk from the wooden door, sending splinters flying.
His sword went up and caught the chain of the morningstar. The links wrapped around its edge, the bugbear pulled, but the fiery steel cut the iron clean through. Derue was dragged forward and as the spiked ball dropped to the floor, he lunged and drove the point deep into the bugbear's gut. He followed up his thrust with an uphand slash as the bugbear backed away and drew a line of blood and fire across its chest. His sword skittered across the bugbear's ribs and set its fur ablaze.
The room beyond the iron-bound door was a long dank hall, only a table and chairs were inside, but along its southern face were steel bars blocking off holding cells. Near to the door there was a large brass gong, a second bugbear used the wooden haft of his morningstar to hammer it. The noise was harsh and loud. The wounded bugbear stumbled back, colliding with the other as it rang the alarm. They crashed together into the gong making it sound out with a dull boom. They fell to the ground; both swinging wildly and the gong broke free from the chain holding it in place and landed atop the pair. It took them a moment to push the brass plate aside, but Derue pounced and put his sword through the wounded bugbear's chest.
The other bugbear had barely pushed the gong aside and struggled to free himself from the dead weight of his fellow guard when the other orcs came rushing in. Three spear-points stabbed the insectoid-bear crossbreed's arms and legs pinning it like a frog on a dissecting tray. Derue moved in closer and brushed the edge of the burning blade across its throat. It thrashed and bled out its life in a flood of red.
He wasted no more time. Derue turned to the cell doors, each a rough-hewn block carved from the bedrock below the steading. The only light was that thrown from the torches set in the walls of the long room. The first cell was well lit, just opposite a torch.
As Derue approached the bars a howling man threw himself at them with a clang. Filthy, thin and sore-filled arms reached out. The man had long unkempt hair and beard, jagged broken teeth, rags for clothes and a mad light shining in his eyes. He screamed incoherently, spat and hissed at Derue, a handful of long and blackened nails whisked past his face and without a second thought Derue put his sword out and into the madman's chest. The light faded from the man's eyes. A gasping voice called out a name that Derue could not hear, and then he slid down the bars. Derue withdrew his sword and the body clumped against the ground inanimate. Its life released and the broken mind at rest.
The next cell Derue approached with care, but behind him the orcs ran back and forth. They had retrieved a set of keys from the bodies of the dead bugbears and rushed to release a cell holding a quintet of their imprisoned comrades. Derue ignored them. He approached the bars and peered inside from a safe distance. This cell was only half-lit by the torch near the entrance door, half was still in gloom. A body lay face to the wall within the beam of light.
"Edouard!" Derue called to it, but there was no reply and the body did not stir. "Edouard!"
"Blessed be the gods! Have you come to free us?" a voice called out of the gloom.
"Who are you?" Derue answered back, the voice did not sound like his brother's.
"I am Jalal-ud-din of Zeif," the man said stepping into the light. He was thin and ragged, but clothed in a dignity that maltreatment and little food could not strip away. "Ah!" he said looking closely at Derue. "The wounded one here, is he your kin?"
"Edouard!" Derue cried. "Is he badly hurt? Let me see him?" he rushed to the bars and tried to pull open the cell door but it was locked. The orcs had the keys. He could call to them but he could not wait. With two hands Derue brought his sword down on the lock, the metal sheared away in a shower of sparks and flame. Jalal jumped back holding his hands before his face as the sword came down, sparks singing his hair and arms while small curls of smoke rose from the damp and dirty straw that layered the floor.
Derue pulled the cell door aside. It swung outward with a squeal and a shower of rust rained from its bars. He rushed inside and bent down to his brother's still form. Edouard lived, his chest rose and fell, but with a gurgling irregular heave. There were bruises all about his face, his nose was broken, bent to the side and swollen. His eyes were the same, black and puffy with a crust of blood where the swelling had burst.
"He is badly injured," Jalal spoke up quietly.
"We must get him away from here," Derue said without looking up at Jalal. "Come help me carry him."
"No, don't move him! His ribs are broken. I think he might bleed inside. He might die if we move him. At the very least he will suffer greatly," Jalal replied.
Derue could hear the concern in the man's voice and settled his brother's head back down atop the dirty straw. "Are you a healer?" he asked.
"I am a builder, but I have seen many men injured over the years," said Jalal.
"You will stay here with my brother and protect him with your life, I will go find help," Derue rose.
"There is an elven warrior in the next cell. He can help me protect your brother while you are gone, please," Jalal asked.
"Alright, but I have no time to waste. I will release him," said Derue, "blockade the outer door when I have gone and do not open it for anyone but me."
"It will be done. You have my thanks," said Jalal.
"Make sure my brother lives," warned Derue.
Outside the cell the orcs were loud and joyful. They had found the bugbears' keg of ale. It had made the two guards groggy. They'd missed the sounds of fighting from outside and woke only when the orcs had pulled open the heavy door.
"You!" Derue yelled at the orc who had spoken for the others. "Open this other cell!" he pointed toward the third one from the door.
The orc stopped his drinking in mid-glug. He handed the half-empty keg to the orc beside him and wiped his mouth with the back of his grimy hand. A defiant look crossed his face, but only for a moment. One glance into Derue's eyes and another at the burning sword which had slain both ogres and the giant keeper, was more than enough for the orc to think better of crossing either the man or his blade.
"Meatstealer!" the orc called to another. "Open the cell! Now!"
"Yes boss!" the orc answered back. Meatstealer wore the ring at his belt. They shook in his hands and scraped across the lock as he tried to open the cell door.
"You drunken sot," the boss pushed him out of the way and tore the keys from his shaking grasp. "Here now." he said and the key went home, then with a turn clicked it open and the door swung free. "What have we here?" the boss gave a laugh as he looked into the cell. "A pointy-ear'd tree lover! Looks like we..."
"I'll take those keys," said Derue. "And you and the others gather up the weapons and wait for me outside."
"We just want some fun," the orc said disconsolately like a child who has been told to come in from play.
"Get out! Leave now. I will be leading you or I will leave you behind," Derue yelled at them.
None wished to be left behind. They scrambled to leave the room, but did not forget to bring the keg along.
"Who is it?" Harold asked as the ranger pulled the rope up the chute as quickly as he dared.
"I can't tell, they are still too far down," Gytha replied.
Harald didn't say anything. He just gave a grunt as he raised arm length after arm length of rope.
Ivo bumped across the wall, he used his feet to buffer himself from the jarring contact, but there was nothing else he could do. It was a long ride up and he had no more control over his ascent than a sack of grain being hauled up to a storage loft. The gnomes of the Kron Hills had delved deep into the Oerth and in his youth Ivo had explored the shafts and the caverns that his kind had found. It had been years since he had gone caving but he remembered the old ways, at least enough of them to be safely pulled up a rope, and if he was old himself, he was tough as seasoned wood. There was a dim light showing above him, a small square that grew and grew. He saw a huge form bent over the edge and recognized the ranger Harald drawing up the rope.
"Here take my hand!" Ivo called.
The ranger held onto the rope with one hand then reached down and grabbed hold of the gnome's arm. When he had a firm grip he let the line drop and with both hands lifted Ivo up and over the wooden lip of the garbage chute.
"The Saint be praised!" said Gytha. "I'm glad to see you safely with us here Master Ivo."
"I'm glad to be out of that pit," Ivo replied. "What has been going on, oh and Harold, I think this is yours," he handed the halfling the pouch which had been dropped down the shaft.
"It takes someone of proper stature to notice the finer things," the halfling said, taking the empty pouch and slipping it back in his belt.
"Where are we?" asked Ivo.
"In the giants' kitchen of all places," answered Harold.
"So Telenstil was correct, that is good to know," Ivo looked around. He saw the huge tables and shelves, noted the body of the orc on the floor, the blood, now congealing around it and the bloody tracks leading off to the north and around the corner. "This does not seem to be a good place to stay, too exposed."
"We still need to bring the others up," said Gytha. "Harald how is it coming?"
"I'm waiting for the signal, ah! There it is!" the ranger felt the line grow taught and the two sharp pulls telling him to draw it up again.
"Where did the scouts go?" asked Ivo.
"Around the corner. I think they have found another way back down," said Harold.
"And they have both run off?" Ivo could not imagine why.
"I think it was that magic sword, at least for the first one." said Harold. "The other went after his brother. Small loss."
"I do not care for them, but we cannot abandon them either," said Gytha.
"At... the... very... least..." the ranger grunted out as he pulled up the rope.
"Save your breath," Harold told him. The thief felt better having three of his trustworthy companions with him, but, like Ivo, felt too exposed as well standing in the middle of the giants' kitchen.
* * *
"Talberth, what are you doing?" asked Telenstil.
"I'm tying this chain onto the rope," Talberth said. He laced the end of the line through several metal links making a large bundle of the black iron chain.
"You should go up next, they may need you up there," Telenstil told him.
"Do you want to go next?" Talberth asked him. "I don't want to leave this chain behind. I think we may need it."
"We may. Send it up," said Telenstil. "We can gather the packs and send them up next. We still need to get Henri up as well."
Talberth gave a noncommittal grunt, if the Pholtite stayed behind it would be a small loss to him. He gave the line two tugs and was happy to see the chain rising in the air.
"Who is it?" asked Harold.
"Can't... tell... stop... ask... ing," the ranger answered.
"Harold, why don't you take up watch at that corner," Ivo said pointing to the south, "and I will watch the other. We can be of little help here."
Harold nodded to the old gnome. "Sounds like a good idea, but if something comes I won't be able to do much more than shout."
"Just giving us the warning will be enough," said Gytha. "Master Ivo, is there anything that I can do?"
"Keep an eye on Harold, I have some magic I can use, but our thief has already done much more in regards to fighting than I had expected from him."
"I will, may the Saint watch over us as well," Gytha prayed.
"Elf, I will free you," Derue said, "but you must make me a promise first."
The cell was dark and damp, the walls bled a slow, clear liquid that stained them white and formed a crusty layer like tears dried on the face of a crying child. Against this was chained the body of an elf, fair but thin, filthy like all else within the cell. His body was a mass of scars, bruises that went from deep black to brown yellow at their ends, long cuts, some thick and white old scars, others fresh, sealed with clogs of drying blood. The elf's hair, once long, was cut short in ragged clumps, the ends of his ears had been sliced away.
"Who are you..." came a gravelly voice, his once light tones changed by strangling chains and ropes that had wrapped his neck.
"I am the brother of one you must swear to protect," said Derue. "But should I bother? Do you have the strength to lift a sword?"
"Free me. I will swear... I have the strength," the elf told him. He strained against his chains and with maniacal strength made them creak and dust fall from the bolts set deep into the wall.
"I am Derue. My brother is Edouard, he lies gravely wounded in the next cell," said Derue. "I free you. Swear to me that you will die before bringing my brother harm or leaving his side."
"I am Ghibelline, I swear by Corellon Larethian, father of my kind. I will not harm your brother or leave his side until my debt to you is paid," growled the elf.
Derue noticed the codicil that the elf attached to the oath and laughed. "Good, you show that your spirit and your mind are still intact and strong. I accept your pledge." Derue unlocked the chains and stood back as the elf fell from them to his knees. He turned and left him on the floor. "Be standing by my brother's side when I return. I will find you a weapon."
* * *
Outside the cells the orcs were milling about. The one who spoke for the others, the Boss, as the orc called Meatstealer referred to him, was waiting for Derue.
"What we do now?" the orc asked.
"Those stairs over there," Derue pointed to the west. "They lead up to the kitchens. There I have companions, and from there we can make our way out of the steading."
"Some o'the boys, they not want to leave," said the Boss.
"Then they can stay. Here give me two swords," Derue said to an orc standing idly near the door to the cells. It looked at him and seemed not to understand. "Stahl, swel stahl, getzt!" he ordered in a rough orcish tongue. It jumped and offered Derue its own blade, then grabbed another from the hands of a nearby orc and handed that to Derue as well.
"You speak orc?" the boss asked surprised.
"I know enough. Now, I am leaving these swords with those in the cells, no one is to bother them. I will kill anyone who does; and I will kill them slowly," Derue drew his sword once again and waved it back and forth before the Boss' eyes. "I command this fire. It will burn the bones of any who disobey my command, they will burn slow, I promise."
The orc gulped and nodded his head. Derue went back into the cells. He handed the swords to Jalal and to the elf Ghibelline, who stood strong, if worn, like a stag, bloodied but not brought down by the pursuing pack. Only Jalal spoke.
"Bring help soon," he said.
Derue nodded, but said no more, he just walked away and left them standing in the half-lit cell.
"That's it. Those are the last of the packs," Talberth said.
"I will go find Henri," Telenstil turned from the pile of gear gathered at the bottom of the shaft.
"Don't be long. They can no doubt use our help up there," replied Talberth anxiously.
"Go up when the rope is dropped back to us," Telenstil told him. "I will go when you have returned, with or without that priest."
Talberth folded his arms and gave his mentor a stern look. Telenstil shrugged, he saw no use in arguing with his former apprentice, Talberth could be a stubborn man.
The room was a disgusting refuse heap, but part of nature's process of decay. The smell was strong and rank, the scent of rotting flesh, the pungent tang of fermenting rinds and husks, death becoming life once more. Telenstil did not enjoy the sight or smell but he appreciated its presence, the balance of a pleasant day, a sunny field, the smell of a forest after the fall of rain. The dank he used to measure his enjoyment of these other things, the dark that balanced light. Light! A blinding flash erupted from an adjacent room. Telenstil turned the corner with care. Inside he saw a heap of empty chests, their edges charred, and amongst the smoking ruin, amid the sharp smell of air burnt by the pass of a lightning bolt, stood Henri, his arms raised to the vaulting roof.
"Henri!" Telenstil called firmly. "It is time to go."
The priest did not reply. Telenstil waited a moment then went back to Talberth, Henri would come or not, but he could do no more.
* * *
"The packs are going up," Talberth said to Telenstil when the elf returned. He was relieved both to see him come back so quickly as well as alone. "That priest!" Talberth thought to himself, he had enough of Henri's arrogance.
"Good, you follow them," said Telenstil.
"No, it's better if you go. If they need help up there you are the one who will be able to do the most," Talberth told him.
* * *
"It's that dratted chain!" Harald declared as he dragged it up and untied it from the rope.
"Talberth would not leave that behind," said Gytha.
"Then he should be the one who will have to carry it," said Harald. The ranger dropped it to the floor in disgust then tossed the line back down the shaft.
Gytha bent and examined the dark links. "It is heavy, but it may provide us with a way out. My poor old mare," her voice was sad and deep. "I shouldn't have brought her on this venture."
"Now we are on foot," Harald said. He waited for the signal from below and leaned against the chutes' wooden edge.
"Yes, that as well," Gytha let the metal link fall from her hand. "How far can we get on foot?"
"Not far," Harald agreed. "But I came here to fight Nosnra and his kind, I won't run."
"I am not talking of running," said Gytha slightly annoyed at the old ranger's words. "Do you doubt my courage?"
"Gytha, I know you. You are not afraid to fight, and die if need be, but you are young, you have something to return to, I have left nothing behind. I am not worried about returning," Harald told her.
"You are unusually grim Harald. Do you seek death?" asked Gytha.
"I seek revenge. We have done little to pay the giants back for what they have done," said Harald.
"There is more to this than Nosnra, you know that. The cold ones are behind it all. Talberth's magic chain may be our link to them," Gytha nudged the black iron with her foot.
"Then we would have to leave our mounts behind in any case," Harald answered back.
"I would rather have set them free. They would have had a chance," Gytha thought a moment. "It may take us more than one foray to satisfy Telenstil. He still searches for something that he has not named."
"Hah, that elf... there is the signal," Harald bent to the task and heaved at the line. "Heavy... load... again."
"At least it is not another chain," Gytha laughed. "In any case we need to withdraw. I need some rest. I know our wizards do as well."
The ranger merely grunted in agreement. His shoulders bobbed back and forth, the coil of rope grew behind him. He had it wrapped once about his waist in case he lost his grip, ready to brace himself against whatever weight was on the other end.
Gytha did not hear the little thief's approach. The halfling ran almost as silently as he walked. "Trouble coming!" he gave a hoarse, whispered shout, throwing his voice across the room. "Giants!" Harold hissed.
"Harald!" Gytha called to the ranger.
"Ivo!" Harald called back. "Get... Ivo!"
Gytha ran across the room. She wanted to yell to Ivo but not alert the approaching giants. She hissed at him in a frantic whisper when she was thirty feet away. A few quick strides more and the gnome turned to her. He had been facing the northeastern passage with his back to the others.
"Gytha, what is it?"
"Giants! Harold has seen some approaching," Gytha called to him.
"I have a spell prepared. Quickly, we need to all be near each other," Ivo said to her.
At the chute Harald dared not quicken his pace much more than he had already done. The rope was swinging like a pendulum, the faster he pulled the more it began to arc, any more and he would be banging whoever was coming up against the walls. If they fell from this height he did not believe they would survive. The little thief reached Harald's side and looked on, breathing hard, mostly from fear and excitement, every instinct told him to run and not to stop, but instead he faced the way he had come and drew his sword, waiting for the giants to appear.
Gytha returned and Ivo pelted after, the gnome ran, but his short legs made him slow compared to Gytha's lengthy stride. The cleric stood by the ranger's side, the halfling thief on her right, Ivo was near. He stopped and began to intone his spell. He crushed a sticky wad of acacias gum in his hand and reached out to touch the ranger's arm.
"Hells!" cursed Harold. Before the gnome could cast his spell a giant foot hove into view, followed by a leg and massive body, slate gray skin, grained like stone. The giant froze, taken by surprise at the strange sight, two humans, a halfling and gnome, just before the spell took hold. And in a span quicker than half an eyeblink they disappeared. Two more giants followed behind the first, one bumped into his stalled companion and had to put out his arm to steady himself.
"Windthorst," the giant said in a deep gravelly voice. "Why have you stopped?"
"Be still Wolgast, and you Wedel," Windthorst declared. He held up his hand, the back of his palm to the pair that followed him. "There are intruders here, perhaps the ones the others are looking for. You there!" he called down to where he had seen the little ones standing. "Show yourselves! I wish to parley with you," the giant spoke again, this time in the common tongue.
They had been seen, Ivo knew it, he also knew that these were not Nosnra's kin, but giants of stone. They delved into the oerth and cared little for anything not directly of their kind or related to their craft. Gnomes rarely bargained for these giants' skills and the giants in turn had no need of the craft of gnomes, so Ivo's kind and theirs normally dwelt separately in peace. Ivo willed his magic to be gone but first he walked away from the others and backed a bit further down the kitchen to the north.
"What is it you wish to say?" he asked, appearing before the giant like a puff of smoke when the lid is lifted from a boiling pot.
"Ah, noniz, where are your friends? You must be the ones who have disturbed our sleep tonight and sent our lesser cousins scurrying about," Windthorst said to Ivo.
"Stonelord," Ivo addressed the giant leader, a title which the giant kind bestowed only on their greatest chiefs. "My friends and I are beneath your notice, but we do have a quarrel with your lesser cousins, please do not let me keep you from your slumber."
"What did he say?" asked Wedel, who did not speak any of the smaller peoples tongues.
"Let's squash him," Wolgast said loudly.
* * *
Harold did not wait for another word, he stabbed the giant called Wolgast through the lower calf severing tendons and making Wolgast howl.
"Curses!" Ivo exclaimed, he had been prepared for the giants' treachery if not the halfling's unexpected attack, but he had begun to hope for a peaceful resolution. He saw the halfling appear behind the giant and Harold's sword stab into the giant's legs, then come ripping out again in a spray of blood. In his hand Ivo held some colored sand and with a backhand gesture and a word which only he could hear, the sand flashed forth. A rainbow spray arced out and up into the giants' eyes. Windthorst brought up his arm, he blocked most of the magic from his eyes, and Wolgast had his closed in shock and pain from Harold's attack, Ivo's magic did not affect him at all. Wedel, though, had been peering down at the gnome, he bent into the spray and was struck blind with the colors flashing in his face. The giant roared even as his companion Wolgast did the same.
Wedel lashed out and his flailing arm brushed Wolgast's chest. Below them Harold stabbed the wounded giant again, dancing between the stomping feet, his small body at deadly risk of being crushed.
Gytha grabbed a mallet used by the giants to hammer in the plugs in casks. She tossed it in the air and it appeared at the giants' side as she beseeched the Saint, breaking the enchantment of Ivo's spell. "Cuthbert aid me in this time of need. Give me strength my liege to smite these agents of evil mind," the cleric prayed. The hammer streaked toward the giant's head.
Wolgast was facing Wedel, trying to block his companion's arms when Gytha's bespelled mallet hit. The mystic force opened a pressure cut across his brows, Wolgast saw stars and felt the sting of blood dripping into his eyes, and from below, the warm sharp wounds of Harold's attacks bit into him as well. Three nutshells jangled in Ivo's hand, he cast them at the three giants. Windthorst still had his arms upraised but the force passed through them and entered into his dazed mind. Wolgast struggled with the blind Wedel and neither could resist the power of the spell which overcame them.
At first the situation did not appear to change, Windthorst still stood dazed, and Wolgast struggled with Wedel, but the two giants soon began to fight in earnest. Their hands closed, Wedel brought back his arm and smashed his fist into Wolgast's chest as if he would hammer it down, like a spike into a wall. The thump was loud and solid, it rocked the giant, but Wolgast struck back with better aim. His fist smashed in the giant's snubby nose then he used his other hand and struck Wedel's jaw. Bone splintered like a stone beneath a hammer. Wedel's lower mouth was driven to the side, further than his head would go. He reeled back and Wolgast began to hammer his companions head, he dragged his injured leg along, and leaned into each blow. Left then right, each punch sent Wedel reeling from one side to the other, but he did not fall. What kept him on his feet Harold could not even guess.
The halfling stood and watched, his bloodied sword dangling forgotten at his side. At the chute the ranger huffed away and finally the rope was nearly drawn completely up. "AHHHGGG!" Harald yelled. "Packs!" he screamed. While his friends fought for their lives he had been drawing up the packs like a mindless beast. With one hand he raised them above the wooden lip and tossed them aside as if they were light as feathers, then reached for his weapon. The massive sword, the claidheamohmor, Weland's blade, he had set aside while he drew up the rope. Now he grabbed it and lifted it high. "Miming!" he called its name.
There was a wild fury in Harald's attack unlike his normal calm. He charged the giants with his sword held level at shoulder height, the hilt in both hands and the blade behind his neck. When he reached Windthorst he swung Miming in a wide scything arc that thunked like an axe into a tree as it hit the giant's leg. Windthorst sagged, his leg slipped out from under him and he fell with a crash to the ground. Harald drew back his blade and stepped away from the toppling form. He'd left a bone deep slash that cut through the calf and peeled back the flesh with a butcher's stroke.
Nearby, Gytha smashed at Wolgast again, but the giant was oblivious to the small blows of the spiritual hammer she wielded against him. The giant beat his companion into a senseless pulp. Wedel was pinned with his back to the wall. Wolgast used one hand to hold Wedel up by his grey throat and with the other, now bruised and swollen, he pounded piston-like into Wedel's ruined face. Ivo reached within his vest and from a hidden pocket pulled out a sling. He needed no stone or bullet of lead or steel; he swung the leather strap as if it were loaded and as he did a nimbus of bluish light formed within the holding pouch. Ivo released the enchanted leather cord and the light streaked toward Wolgast but missed him by the breadth of a hand. It struck the wall nearby and hissed against the stone like bacon frying in a pan.
Below the fighting giants Harold had to throw himself aside. Windthorst nearly crushed him with a shoulder wider than an oxen's flank. It brought him to his senses and with the agility of a cat he was on his feet again. He ran up the downed giant's arm and used his small sword to cut the giant's throat. Windthorst tried to struggle but the halfling knew where to place the blade and opened up an artery that stopped the blood from feeding the giant's brain. The spray knocked Harold back and off the awkward perch he had upon the giant's heaving shoulder. The blade flew from his grasp, he struck his head in falling back, smacking it hard against the bony shoulder of the giant. Harold landed on the floor unconscious in a heap, sprayed by a thick grey-red blood that still shot out in jets to match the slowing beat of Windthorst's heart.
Wedel was dead, the bones of his massive face finally broken by the relentless blows of his companions fist. With his death Wolgast gave a massive sigh and put both hands upon Wedel's shoulders. Both giants sank down, Wedel sliding against the wall, a smear of blood painting the stone, following the trail of Wedel's head with a grey-red streak. Both Ivo and Gytha used their magicked weapons to strike the surviving giant before he could turn on them, and turn he did. Like a bear cornered by hounds, Wolgast spun and nearly fell on his badly wounded leg. Both Gytha's hammer and Ivo's magic bullet struck him, but the giant shrugged off the blows, then the ranger attacked as well.
Harald's two-hand sword went in like a spear. It drove through Wolgast's gut and out his back. The ranger was still half mad with fury and it lent a strength almost that of a giant to his blow. Wolgast was driven back and Harald drove his blade further in, he buried it to the quillon block, pressed it against the seeping wound held sealed by the steel trapped within the giant's gut. The point projected from Wolgast's back, it grated across his spine and gouged into the chest of Wedel's body lying dead against the wall. His leg collapsed, Wolgast fell backwards, driving Harald's sword deeper into Wedel's corpse. His hand smacked Harald aside, sending him rolling, and feebly plucked at the sword hilt with dissipating strength. The giant tried to rise; his good leg bent and pushed, but he could not make his wounded one answer his commands. Wolgast could not draw out the sword, could not rise with his wounded leg and the weight of Wedel trapped behind him. He sank back down and moaned, a trickle of blood poured from his lips. Harald was helped to his feet by Gytha who squeezed his arm and felt a deep sorrow at the sight of the wounded giant.
"Harald," she said, "end this quick."
The ranger grunted in reply. He shook himself; his back gave a loud pop as he stretched it. His wrath was gone. The giant still fumbled for the hilt and tried to push the ranger's hands away, but Wolgast was as weak as a human child for all his size. Harald grabbed the hilt with both his hands and tugged, the giant gave a deep painful moan and vomited out a barrels worth of blood. The blade was wedged tight, but Harald summoned all his strength, he braced a foot against the giant's thigh and pulled with all his might. The sword came free, it ground against the giant's spine and Wolgast tried to scream, but his voice was drowned in blood. The huge body slumped forward and Harald used his shoulder to push Wolgast on his side. The giant lived, but blood poured from his wound and came in gobs and torrents from his mouth as he coughed to free his lungs for air. Wolgast had one shoulder on the floor, his back was arched and his forehead was against the stones. Like the executioner of a king, Harald brought his sword down across the giant's neck as Gytha asked the Saint to allow the giant a quick death to end its pain.