Ingigerd was taking too long to die.
Estrith looked down upon the ancient crone and wished she could take the bony old throat between her hands and be done with her here and now. They had moved the dying giantess into a barrack's room while the giants fought the blaze that consumed Nosnra's trophy hall. The chieftaness had ordered the slave pens emptied below and now crowds of half-starved orcs ran about and filled buckets with sodden oerth. All the steading's inhabitants now battled against the fire. They threw buckets and spadefulls of mud onto the blaze. As it spread Estrith had warriors take axe to walls and create a break, keeping the wood from becoming more fuel for the smoking flames. The steading groaned, there was a booming crash that rang throughout the hall. Estrith ran from the room to see what had occurred. Some part of the roof must have collapsed, she thought. It was time to begin removing things from the hall to a safe distance beyond the walls.
"Alditha!" Estrith called to a young maid.
"Yes," the young giantess replied meekly.
"Come with me," the chieftaness commanded.
"But I am to..." began Alditha.
"You are to come with me," Estrith said with finality.
"Yes," Alditha acquiesced.
They made their way down the smokey corridor and stopped before the door leading to the childrens' creche. Inside they could hear the sounds of playful games, shouts and laughter muffled by the thick wood. Estrith opened the door and the wave of noise washed over them like a flood. She had to shout at Gundrada, the matron of the nursery, to be heard over the rollicking group of giant young.
"Gundrada! GUNDRADA!" Estrith roared.
The children were cowed by the loud angry shout.
"Estrith, what is wrong?" Gundrada came dashing over, a look of concern tinged with fear on her face.
"It is time to move the children to a safer place. I will have someone sent to help you, but prepare them. We may have to leave the steading," Estrith told her.
"Leave!" Gundrada could not believe her ears.
"Yes. Do I need to tell you twice? Prepare the children," the chieftanness turned her back and strode from the room her duty completed.
* * *
"I'd rather not go back in there," Harold said and rubbed at his arm.
"The manticores are dead," Gytha told him. "Do not worry."
"What do you need me in there for then?" the little thief stood in the corridor and peered round the door into the cavernous room.
"The other gate is shut. We need you to find a way to open it," Gytha put her hand on Harold's arm, he flinched.
"Still hurts?" she asked.
"No." Harold put his left hand against his right upper arm where the manticores spikes had pierced. "No it feels fine now, but it's like the spikes are still there, sometimes, when I don't think about it."
"Hmmm... your wounds should be healed," Gytha looked at him. "But I see that you are serious about this pain. Harold, the Saint has healed your wounds out here," she gave his arm a pat. "You do not have the faith so the pain remains in here," she tapped his chest over his heart. "I suspect that when the time has passed that would have seen nature heal your wounds then the pain you feel will pass as well."
"Oh wonderful, you fill me with hope and joy when you tell me things like that," Harold complained.
"Harold," the ranger called. He came from the room beyond the destroyed bars and looked down at the halfing. "Come on, Telenstil has cleaned out those beasts good and proper. We need a way into their pen if we're going to escape from this dungeon."
"Stop pestering, the both of you," Harold glanced from the ranger to Gytha. "Let's see this gate that needs lifting."
Inside the room Ivo and Telenstil were in deep conversation pacing across the floor. The two scouts stood near to the southern gate and Edouard used his newly gained spear to prod the black charred bodies of the manticores through the bars which blocked off the two rooms. Henri sat crosslegged in a far corner of the room, his face to the wall, meditating, or simply ignoring all the others.
"Telenstil!" called Harold. The halfing ran over to the mage.
"Harold, good, we need your skill," said Telenstil. "Let us see what we can do with this gate."
"Raise it hopefully," mused Ivo.
They walked over to the southern wall and had the scouts stand back.
"Ye gods this place stinks," said Harold.
Ivo sniffed the air. "It is more than just burnt flesh. What was this? The giants' midden pit?"
"Perhaps," said Telenstil. "Look toward the center of the room."
They peered through the metal bars. "That is definitely a midden heap. The manticores have smeared it across their floor."
"I've never heard that they were over clean," said Ivo, "but this is a sorry state for any beast."
"Come then," said Harold. "I want to make this quick. Telenstil do you have some magic to take away this awful smell?"
"Here," said Ivo, "take this." He handed the thief a brightly colored handkerchief.
"Is it magic?" Harold held it carefully.
"No but I kept some herbs in it. Tie it around your nose and it will distract you from the other smells."
Harold took a cautious sniff and sneezed. "I don't know which is worse," then he caught the scent of the rotting garbage on the floor, "you're right, that room is worse." He tied the cloth around his face.
Harold walked over to the wall and began to search for handholds to pull himself up.
"You couldn't cast a spell and help me to the top?" he asked the mage.
"I could Harold, but I have had no time to rest and gather my strength to cast such spells again. What strength I have left I am conserving. Do you need my help?" Telenstil asked the thief.
"No, no, I'll just hang from my toes," Harold complained.
"Really?" said Ivo. "This I want to see."
Harold grumbled but did not reply. The stones were old and damp but rough. Deep grooves separated block from block and Harold climbed these like a ladder. Quickly he ascended to the arch over the gate and found an opening above the bars. The thief secured himself with spikes which magically whirred into the space between the blocks, then took a stone enchanted to glow with light, one side painted black, from a thick pocket on his belt. The bars had come down a long narrow shaft, a metal plate ran across the top and each bar was slotted through a hole along its length. Harold saw the metal chains which were bolted tight, his small hand and arm fitted through the narrow gap between plate and wall, he reached up and touched the metal links. It took him a few minutes to take out the magic spikes and climb back down the wall. The two wizards watched him expectantly, they had been joined by Gytha and the old ranger. The two scouts had wandered off while the others waited for Harold to descend.
"It's fantastic the way he can climb those walls," said Gytha.
"I don't know. I've seen some fat little squirrels that can do the same," the ranger told her.
"What did you find Harold?" Telenstil asked.
"This gate is on a chain. It can be raised somehow, but I could not see very far up into the shaft," Harold pointed to the arch high above.
"Could it be in the other room?" asked Ivo looking toward the filthy pen where the manticore bodies lay.
"It could," said Harold. "It was impossible to tell."
"Telenstil, I will pray to the Saint for guidance," offered Gytha.
"Please do," said Telenstil. "Harald," he spoke to the ranger. "Can you go collect Talberth and that magic chain?"
"Sure, I'll go get him now," Harald replied and ran off.
Across the room the two scouts, Edouard and Derue, eyed the piled treasure that lay untouched. A coffer was overturned, its glistening contents spread out over the floor. One large gem, its facets throwing off a rainbow of light, was thrown further than the rest. Derue reached out to nudge it with his foot.
Gytha cleared her mind and removed a small pouch from her side. She took out a set of sticks, the barkless twigs of a hornwood tree, each cut a different length, and cast them on the ground. "By a heart that is true, Cuthbert grant me this boon and guide my way." The sticks struck the ground and fell into an arrows shape that pointed to a blank space on the eastern wall.
The gem rolled beneath Derue's foot, he dragged it away and reached down and picked it up. There was a flash, so brief that it was just a streak of white faded to purple in the scout's eyes. A thrumming sound began and a loud click. The sticks suddenly began to swivel and turned about, no longer pointing east but south. There was the sound of clinking chains and a hum from above the gate. The metal bars quickly rose up into their track. A manticore was dragged up with them then fell before the startled thief. Harold jumped back, the black, charred body suddenly animate, he threw his hands before his eyes and let out a scream.
* * *
"Ahhhh!!!" the halfling screamed. The southern gate rattled up into the wall, the bodies of the manticores lay beneath. One fell almost at the halfing's feet.
"Calm down, Harold," Gytha told the thief. "This manticore is dead."
Harold peered out between the fingers of his hand. "Are you sure?" he asked.
Gytha nudged it with her foot. "I'm sure," she said.
"What happened here?" Telenstil looked toward Gytha. "Did your spell somehow activate this door?"
"I don't believe so," said Gytha. "I have asked the Saint for this boon before and he merely points the way, not opens doors."
"It was that cursed treasure," said Harold. "Hey there!" he yelled to the scouts. "You touched that treasure didn't you!"
Edouard gave his brother a glare and Derue scowled at the halfing thief.
"It does not matter," Telenstil made a casual gesture with his hand as if wiping the incident away. "Gytha's Saint points to this room as our way out."
"It pointed to that wall as well," said Ivo.
"Yes," said Telenstil. "That is worth a look, but, though unappealing, this cage, it rings a bell." The elven mage pulled a map scroll from his pack. He unrolled it and examined it with care. "Yes." he said again. "Yes. I know where we are."
"Really?" Ivo was not entirely convinced. "Telenstil I think you put too much trust in that map."
"Ah yes, I know, the trophy room," the elf said whimsically. "I am sure this time. That trash on the floor, I believe we will find that its source is a passage back upstairs."
Telenstil and Ivo walked into the manticores' pen with Gytha and the reluctant thief following close behind.
"Gracious!" exclaimed Gytha. "This place smells worse than a village midden."
"It is," said Telenstil turning to the cleric, "the steading's midden."
The floor was layered with bones, rotting vegetables and dung. It smelled with a power that took the breath away and brought tears to their eyes. Harold kept Ivo's cloth in front of his mouth and nose but the others had no such protection from the stench.
"You elves are made of sterner stuff than I," the cleric gasped. "I'm going back for a torch."
"A fire would be a good idea. It will take some of this smell away," Ivo agreed.
"If I am right the smell of fire might bring unwanted attention from above," said Telenstil.
Harold laughed, muffled by the cloth he held. "The stairs are blocked by a burning room and you're worried that a torch or small fire will bring the giants' notice down here?"
"If it wasn't for this stink it would be smoke we'd be smelling right now," Ivo agreed.
"You are right," Telenstil shook his head. "The fire had slipped my mind."
Gytha came running back with a small torch, its oil-soaked head wrapped in thick burlap. She pulled the wrap away and set some twigs of lilac among the cloth, then with a spark from flint and steel she set the torch ablaze. The lilac scent fought a losing battle against the rotting stench.
"Here," the cleric said, she waved the torch back and forth through the air, but it merely gave the stench a burning scent. "Take this torch for a moment," she said to Telenstil. Gytha took some small green leaves from her pouch and crushed them in her hand. She ran the sap beneath her nose and did the same for Ivo and the elven mage. "
Oh!" said Ivo. "Mint! What a good idea."