"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 quite 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.