A swirl of smoke rose up from the steading. Inside the thick, dark cloud sparks danced, the fragments of cloth and hide lifted up by the heat burning to charred fragments and falling down like a black snow across the fields. The light rain that fell ran into the gullies and fed down into the stream below the hill. The waters were stained and filled with soot washed from the grass and weeds.
At the steading a wall crashed in with a roar, a red eye winked up at the clouds which hid the stars, but the rain closed it with a lid of steam and smoke. In the sudden flash of the wooden beams, dried out by the heat and now burning deep orange-red to the heart of each trunk, the giants, their allies and their slaves could be seen fighting to save their home and kill the fire which consumed it. Scores of orcs wielded shovels or even lengths of wood, scooping wet dirt upon the fire. They worked so close to the flames that their skin was blistered and their bodies painted black with dirt and ash. Beside them were ogres and, careless of where they trod, the giants went back and forth, some with shovels of their own throwing heaps of oerth and others with buckets the size of tubs or kegs, big enough to hold a man, filled with water from the well. Many orcs died that night, lobbed into the flames by a giant lifting both oerth and orc, or crushed beneath a careless foot. The keep itself was half empty, the great hall deserted, the barracks abandoned now, but nearer to the fire there was a frantic haste to rescue possessions from the chambers of the chieftainess and lead the young and babes safely from their rooms.
Only the giants' kitchen showed signs of life. A smattering of orcs, most in ones and twos ran loose. Some fled into the great hall, but it was thick with smoke and the northern wall was ablaze, dark clouds billowing through cracks where the logs had split. From here they made their way down the long hall and out into the entrance way, only to be swept up into the frenzied retreat. Ogres and giantesses threw piles of cloth, handfuls of possessions, or sacks almost as big as the orcs themselves, into their arms. These orcs who had rebelled against their masters, slain the keeper and his bestial pets, were made to haul and carry what they could from the burning rooms. Once outside they threw down their burdens by the growing heap and, unnoticed, slipped away. The kitchen grew quiet again, the frantic haste inside the eastern most part of the hall still unburnt began to lessen, and finally, from the stairs inside the giants' pantry, a small group crept out.
* * *
"I'm not taking that chain," said Harald.
"It might be important," Ivo told him.
The ranger shook his head in disgust. He was tired, perhaps more than any of his companions. Though he was a man stronger than most any other, he had done much this night to drain his strength and now his muscles burned and ached. He wanted rest, even without sleep he wanted just to wrap himself in a warm fur and stretch himself out on the ground. Instead he carried a heavy pack, and his weapon, which he bore with a loving pride and joy, was a heavy blade as well as cumbersome. The chain weighed as much as a man. It lay there looking twice as heavy with its thick black links coiled one on the other in a heap.
They stood within the giants' pantry, not so exposed as they had been in the great chamber below, but a perilous place where enemies could rise up from the stairs or come walking through the door. The little thief expected such. He stood by the half open pantry door and kept watch, but his ears listened for the tread of feet on the stairs or a shout from his other companions that enemies had caught up with them again.
* * *
"The air is thick," said Ghibelline.
"Yes," replied Ivo. "It is worse now, the fire must be spreading. It was not this bad downstairs."
"Could be that they are putting out the blaze," said Harald. "Fire smokes the worse when it is being killed." The ranger felt his muscles pull as he lifted the chain from the floor and wrapped it across his shoulders and behind his neck. "You owe me for this wizard," he said to Talberth.
"It will prove its worth. I have no doubt," Talberth told him smugly.
"What is the best way out of here?" Gytha asked Telenstil.
The elf had taken out his small map again and poured over it thoughtfully.
"We are not going to trust that map again are we?" asked Talberth.
"It has its inaccuracies, Talberth," said Telenstil. "But it has also proven true in some regards. There should be a hall beyond these doors and at its end a large room that has access to a wide yard, and beyond that a gate."
"What about the kitchen?" asked Gytha. "Those chimneys, they are wide enough to drag up a horse. We could climb them. The rope should still be hanging down that shaft we climbed before."
"Not more climbing," said Harald.
"I like it better than walking into a room full of giants," Gytha replied.
"Well let's do something," Talberth said impatiently, growing tired of all the talk, and nervous, standing in the giants' pantry.
"We will try the door and the gate to the yard," Telenstil said firmly. "We can always come back, but you are right, we had best make our escape now while we have the strength and some magical resources still left to us."
Harold heard what was said and drifted outside the door, checking the corner of the kitchen where the exit to the passage lay. The massive portal was shut, it stood next to the half-open entrance to the pantry but the halfling could not reach the latch, let alone budge the huge wooden door. "Here," Harold called to the others as they began to assemble setting packs on their shoulders and making sure their weapons were at hand. "I need one of you tall ones to check this lock or help me up so I can check it."
"Ok," the ranger answered, but Talberth stepped forward instead.
"You keep hold of that chain," said Talberth. "I can help open a door or even lift up our thief."
"How about you carry the chain?" the ranger answered back.
Talberth ignored him and went to help the thief. The others stayed just inside the pantry, both Ivo and Telenstil now peering out, while Talberth and Harold examined the door which opened onto the hall. The little thief was pressed against the wood, a small crystal cup held up to his ear.
"Do you hear anything?" asked Talberth.
"Shhh!" Harold hissed then listened for a moment longer. "Nothing but you, me, and that gaggle in the pantry."
Talberth reached up. The latch was higher than his head, but not out of reach. It was a simple affair, just a metal bar with a handle that fell in place between a bracket set on the frame. When Talberth pushed it up, the door was released, the hinges gave a long groaning creak and it swung a bit toward them, opening into the kitchen.