"Look!" Telenstil exclaimed, happy to be proven right. "There, above the heap of trash, that passage should lead up to the kitchens."
"If your map is right," said Harold. "And that's a garbage chute."
"True, but it is our way out," the elf said happily.
"Oh, no..." Harold complained. "I suppose you want me to climb up."
"Not in the least," Telenstil told him. "I will have Talberth cast a spell, and Ivo, if you would, please render our friend here invisible."
"Fine, but I prefer to cast my spells away from this stench, if you don't mind," said Ivo. "The mint is quickly losing its effect."
They left the pen and moved far back into the huge and empty room. Talberth and Harald came in through the eastern arch and joined them. The old ranger had the magic chain hung across his shoulders. He let it fall with a clang to the ground, blackened links dropping snake-like to the floor.
"Careful with that!" Talberth made a quick move to grab the chain.
Harald reached out and pushed the wizard back.
"Don't," the ranger told him. "This chain is heavier than you might think." Harald sighed and stretched his arms, he gave a twist and his back went pop-pop-pop.
"Talberth did you copy that map?" asked Telenstil.
"Yes, here it is," Talberth pulled out a scroll from his sleeve but kept his eye on the magic chain. As soon as the elf took it from his hand Talberth bent down and examined the links to check if any had been damaged. Harald rolled his eyes and stepped around the mage and over to Telenstil.
"You've found a way out of here," he said.
"We will be sending the thief up with a rope," answered Telenstil.
"They think they will be sending the thief up with a rope," said Harold.
"What do you mean?" asked Telenstil.
"I'm not too happy about being sent up into the middle of their kitchen," Harold said with a sour expression on his face. "If that is even where that tunnel leads. It might bring me into the middle of a barracks room or their privy for all that map of yours can say."
"You will be invisible," Telenstil told him.
"That won't keep me from being stepped on, or worse," Harold complained.
"Harold, you are a skilled thief. I am surprised at you," said Gytha with a disappointed frown.
"I have already been stepped on once, and shot by manticores. Crushed by giants fits in as a nicely poetic touch and I do not want to give them a chance," said Harold.
"Well," said Telenstil, "I won't force you, but we do need your help."
"I'll do it," the old ranger said.
"Oh no you don't," Harold told him. "Your big feet will be heard, invisible or no. I don't like it, and this isn't fair, but I'll go act the scout and see what is really up above. You," he turned and looked up at the ranger, "you will get yourself killed, and leave us trapped down here."
"Everyone," called Telenstil, "Gather what you will take. We will need to quickly follow our brave thief if the way is clear."
They gathered their packs. The ranger wrapped the chain across his neck and over his shoulders again. They moved to the southern gateway, the smell of refuse and decay was still strong in the damp musty air. Ivo stayed back and cast his spell upon the halfling thief. Harold vanished from the room; his form wavered as if seen through shimmering waves of heat and then was gone. A rope dangled from a spot slightly above the ground, it climbed among the corrupt debris and stood beneath the gaping mouth of the garbage chute.
Talberth walked into the pen, his face screwed up into a pained and gasping visage as he inhaled the almost tangible stench, but with a choking incantation he cast his spell and the dangling rope began to rise.
* * *
Harold wrapped the scented handkerchief of Ivo's around his face like some bandit from the northlands, but still the garbage chute's smell worked its way past the residue of herbs and made the small thief clench his face, soured by the stench. The chute was long and the magic ascent not as quick as Harold would have liked, but it ended without warning, though not half too soon. A wooden board sealed off the opening, far too heavy for the small halfling to budge.
"Just great," muttered Harold. "This wasn't on your map Telenstil. What to do, what to do." The thief had several magic spikes and used them to sink the line secure into the chute's wall. He gave the rope a tug and waited for some help to climb up.
Edouard felt the line become taught and then the tugs. "He's at the top," he told the others.
"Good," said Telenstil. "Edouard, please, you and your brother, go up next, then begin to draw the rest of us up."
The scout said nothing but grabbed the rope and pulled himself up without any help; hand over hand he climbed into the dark and stinking chute. Derue held the rope and watched his brother disappear up into the gaping hole. The walls were slick, Edouard's feet slipped off when he tried to brace his leg; he had to use just the strength of arms and shoulders to raise himself. He cursed silently and felt the burn of muscles as he climbed. Finally he reached out and found the spikes set in the wall. "Thief!" he hissed. "Thief, where are you?"
"Right here," a small quiet voice whispered from nearby.
"What is this, where is the opening?" Edouard whispered back.
"Above your head," Harold's voice said from the empty space nearby. "There's a wooden board, or lid or something, but I can't lift it."
Edouard reached out and felt the rough wooden lid; he pushed it with one hand but could not exert much strength. It did not budge.
"Wait, I'll put a spike near your feet," said Harold.
"Do it quick!" Edouard hissed at the thief. "And put it so that I can use my back against this board."
Harold did not like the scout's commanding tone, but their position at the top of the shaft was awkward and he could not move the board without the mercenary's help. He set another magic spike in the wall to act as a footstep for the scout then pushed off to get safely out of the man's way.
With his shoulder against the board and his foot pushing against the spike, Edouard slowly moved the board aside. It scraped loudly across the lid of stone and a dim light came rushing in that chased away the dark. Edouard put his head above the rim and looked out across the room. All he could see were table legs, huge wooden chests and dirty sacks.
"Get down," said Harold. "Let me look around first, they may spot you."
"Bah," said Edouard. "No one is around." He pulled himself up and out onto the cold stone floor. A pair of orcs came rushing by and stood frozen with shock staring at the human who had just jumped from the garbage chute. "Oh damn," Edouard cursed and drew his sword.
"What's going on?" Harold heard the mercenary curse but did not see the orcs from where he sat on the wooden lid.
"AAAAHHHH!!!" One of the orcs screamed then turned and ran from the sword-wielding mercenary.
Edouard spoke a word and his blade began to flame. The other orc, dumbfounded, a skinny and timid example of his kind, stared in shock at the man and the magic sword.
"Kalfashow!" Edouard yelled. The burning sword arced out and cut the orc's head from its shoulders. Its greasy hair burst into flame, the stump of neck was blackened around the edges. A fountain of blood shot up, the orc's body dropped onto its knees then fell forward onto its chest. The red spray painted Edouard from head to toe. He swore loudly and cursed the beast. Wiping blood from his face with the back of his hand Edouard gave a scream and, roaring a wordless cry of fury, took off after the other orc leaving Harold alone atop the wooden board.
Franticly Harold pulled at the rope, signaling for the others to come up. The halfling could offer little help alone. "Come back!" he yelled at the mercenary scout, but Edouard did not hear or did not care to stop.
Derue felt the rope tugging in his hands. It had taken longer than he had expected for his brother to reach the top and a touch of worry had begun to invade his mind.
"There is the signal again," Derue told the others who had gathered round. He tugged back and waited for the rope to be pulled up but he was not lifted from the ground, only more tugging; another signal to climb. "Something is wrong," he said.
"What is the matter?" Telenstil asked.
"Edouard should be pulling on this rope, he's not," Derue gave the rope another tug. "I will have to climb up."
"Wait," said Talberth. "What if it is a trap and they are waiting for us at the top, picking us off one by one."
Derue did not reply, instead he picked up his pace and furiously shimmied up the rope.
The orc was quick; those that survived the giants' careless feet and casual but crippling blows were the most nimble of their kind. Edouard was close behind, the sword he carried left a brief glowing trail as he ran. They passed through a vast kitchen, its walls were lined with tables, shelves and cabinets, a huge fireplace still gave off an orange haze from dimming embers, and here and there a torch burned, held in a sconce upon the wall.
A turn to the right brought them into a larger room, then around a corner where two doors were set in a southern wall. The righthand door was half ajar. The orc had disappeared. Edouard did not even pause, he ran for the partly open door and stepped into a storage room, a pantry where various meats hung from hooks, bags of grain lay against the walls, a cooling rack with loaves of coarse brown bread near at hand, and against the southern wall a wide set of stairs leading back down to the dungeon he'd just escaped.
A fire was burning within Edouard. It coursed through his blood and set a wild anger, that he could not control, aflame. He ran to the stairs. He would kill that orc, he swore. Halfway up the stairs three ogres stood, one held the squealing orc in its hands and lifted it up to listen to its words. All turned to watch the running man come charging down at them. The orc dropped from the ogre's arms but it could do no more before the fiery sword slashed across its chest and left a wound with black burning edges soon doused with the ogre's blood.
* * *
Harold felt a weight upon the rope, someone was climbing up, but every minute that passed while he sat alone within the giants' kitchen made him anxious. The scout Edouard had disappeared and the body of a headless orc which lay on the ground was his only companion, Harold climbed down from the wooden board that covered the garbage chute and begun to explore. The bloody corpse, red fluid still leaking out from it into a spreading pool, made the halfling's knees feel weak. The scent of scorched flesh was very strong in the air. At first he thought it was the smell of the steading as it burned but then he caught sight of the orc's smoldering head where it had rolled against a table leg. The little thief felt sick, his skills were wasted among such carnage that these sword-swingers left behind.
A trail of red footsteps showed where the scout had gone. They led off around the corner of the kitchen but faded quickly as the gore was scraped from Edouard's boots. Harold did not follow them, instead he turned and went back the way he'd come.
The giants' kitchen was normally a busy place, but the fire which still burned within Nosnra's trophy hall had drawn every resident of the steading that could be spared. Orc slaves were sent as messengers, the two that had run into the deadly scout were returning from the dungeons below where the slave pens were being emptied. An errant ogre youth, always hungry, took its chance to raid the kitchen larder. It entered quietly, keeping its eyes peeled for any giants or ogres who might catch it stealing food. The beating that would result would be severe enough to pass through even an ogre's thick hide. It crept around the corner, coming from the great hall and stopped before the fallen body of the orc. Harold froze. He had just stepped around the body of the orc on his way back to check the rope and see who was climbing up when the ogre came into view. It stood no more than two feet from him. The thief forgot, for a moment, that Ivo's spell of invisibility was still upon him. The ogre grunted and bent down to touch the orc.
"Still warm," it said. It put a huge finger across the pool of congealing blood like a child would through the frosting on a cake. The ogre licked its finger clean and smacked its lips.
From the garbage chute a banging sound caught its ear. Harold could hear the creaking of the rope as it sawed back and forth across the spikes set in the wall and the soft calls of someone coming up from below. The ogre heard these noises too. It bent over the open wooden lid and peered down into the dark and noisome chute.
"Won't get away," it mumbled and drew a huge dagger from its belt.
Harold climbed upon the wooden board and drew out a dagger of his own. As the ogre bent he jumped upon its back and drove his blade up to the hilt between its shoulder blades. The fine steel bit in and clove the ogre's hide as if it were butter. Harold pulled it out and struck again, his other hand clenched around the ragged collar of the ogre's rough wool shirt.
The ogre roared, its mouth opened to reveal a set of fierce and yellowed teeth. It chomped at the air and, dropping its knife, reached back to pluck away the halfling who stabbed the ogre with a desperate fury.