"You two, follow me," Gytha commanded the orcs. She started toward the door, but neither followed. "What are you waiting for?"
"They've looked at the gnome's charm," said Ghibelline. The elf walked slowly, half carrying Jalal, he'd drafted the aid of a small orc to help.
"Great," Gytha shook her head. "Harald don't go just yet."
The ranger was happily letting down the heavy chain. As the last links fell from his shoulder he stretched out his arms and groaned. "Gytha, it is best if I check the gate alone," said Harald. "Too many of us might alert the giants."
"Don't take any risks," Gytha called to him.
"Just being here is risk enough, do not worry," Harald said to Gytha. He peered around the corner of the door then slipped outside.
"Ghibelline, help me with these orcs," said Gytha.
"You hold up my friend here, understand?" Ghibelline asked the small orc.
The orc runt called Little Rat gave the elf a nod and braced its arm around Jalal's waist, holding up the frail old man alone.
* * *
Outside, the giants had dug great pits and trenches across the yard near the burning walls. Already the blackened embers that had been the chief's private hall were cooling beneath the dirt and the drizzling rain. The fire had not yet died. Its red tongue had licked the beams of the great hall and still danced along the inside of the roof. A huge timber that spanned the ceiling had fallen, smashing tables and benches beneath it, and leaving a long splintered swath of smaller beams above. The hall roof began to sag, but the supporting columns, mighty tree trunks still round but shaven of their bark, kept it from falling while any of the beams still held. The walls had fallen, from the hidden stairs beside Nosnra's private eating hall where the company had first descended, to the chieftainess' chamber at the far end of the trophy hall, the furthest eastern edge of the steading.
Estrith, the chieftainess, had her maids and the orcish slaves struggle the hardest to save her rooms, but to no avail. They put out the fire but Estrith's chamber was lost, three walls and the roof collapsed. The trophy hall was gone, the western passage burnt away and the doors leading to the childrens' room and the maids' chamber blocked by falling half-burnt beams.
To the north, among the ruins of the chief's private chamber, the giants were just stumbling across the huge iron wall, created by magic and left fallen across the floor when the walls came down. The giants still fought the blaze using shovel-loads of dirt, long spears and axes to push and chop the fiery wood away from the unburnt walls and roof. None of the giants, the ogres or their orc slaves noticed the lone human who opened the northern gate then ran back inside through the servants' door.
* * *
"Come quick!" Harald yelled to them. "The way is clear. The gate is open, come." He glanced into the room and caught a glimpse of the whirling pattern that Ivo weaved. Harald turned away but had to shake his head and rub at his eyes to clear them of the mesmerizing gleam.
"You can cease your weaving, my friend," Telenstil called out to Ivo.
The mage had bound the ogres with the assistance of the thief, tying their hands and ankles tight with stout cord and gagging them with rags. The group gathered at the door and waited for the word to make their escape from the steading. Talberth, Gytha and Ghibelline shook the orcs free from the grip of Ivo's spell and then helped get them across the floor keeping their eyes from the tantalizing glow.
Ivo let his arm slow to a stop, the magic died, and he put the crystal back safely in his vest. His arm ached, to keep the ogres mesmerized he could not stop or even slow the twisting pattern that had formed the shimmering hypnotic web. While he had been busy weaving his spell he had not felt the strain, but now it came rushing along his arm, it made him gasp.
Suddenly the ogres came alive, they pulled against their bonds, two had been standing, now they fell, trying to free their feet they'd lost their balance. One smashed down face first and lay senseless, not dead, but he would wake with a bruise and a lump the size of a fist atop his head. The other landed with a painful crash, wrenched his shoulder, but still rolled back and forth. The cord was stronger than the thick muscles along the ogre's arms and back, they cut into its hoary flesh, digging bloody grooves deep through its skin.
Harold brought his dagger up and then slammed it down, reversing it in mid-air so that the pommel cracked against the ogre's skull. The monster slumped, its writhing ceased, eyes rolled up to show the yellowish whites, it lay stunned like its companion. The third ogre, the more thoughtful of the three, dropped back and shut its eyes as well, feigning death or sleep. It did not struggle against its bonds as the others had once it saw their fate. The little thief shrugged, he'd have cut their throats and have done with them if he'd had his way. Across from him, Ivo secured his pack and ran over to where Harold stood.
"All ready?" he asked.
"I'm done here," Harold answered him. "Let's go."
"Yes," said Telenstil. "Let us be far from this place and quickly."
* * *
Dark shapes ran out into the night. They left the steading behind and followed the foot trail north, but had nowhere to go. The ranger pushed the gate closed behind them, muttering under his breath at the weighty chain he carried on his shoulders.
"Cursed wizards' toy," he said.
They crossed the hill. There was no cover except for the wild weeds and grass that grew chest high where they had not been beaten down by the passage of the giants. To the south were the lowlands and the way they had come. All around them the mountains towered above the hills; the land became all wild valleys and steep slopes, filled with monsters, home to the giant clans which owed their allegiance to Nosnra, the hill giant chief.
They'd not gone far, just down the giants' hill, through the valley to the north and up a steep cliff. There was no shelter, simply an overhanging ledge of rock that kept the heavy rain off their heads, though the wind swept the mist and droplets beneath their stony roof and slowly soaked them to their skins. Their perch looked south. This hill, a young mountain, was taller than the one that the steading sat upon, but their temporary camp was well beneath the steep summit which looked down upon that hill. Out over the narrow valley a dark smoke could be seen coming from the steading. It stained the early morning sky.
"I am glad for the place to rest, but we are too close," Harold said to Telenstil.
"I know," the elf replied.
The two stood on a sharp-edged rock that jutted out from the hill. Behind them their companions huddled beneath the little shelter that the overhang provided. Most were asleep. The orcs were clustered in a group like a pack of dogs, sleeping side by side for warmth. They had brought no cloaks or blankets and were unprepared for life outside the steading or the dungeons where they had been kept. The elf Ghibelline rested with eyes closed, his friend Jalal lay next to him, the old man slept, but restlessly. Gytha and Talberth slumbered as well, they had meditated when they first made camp then weariness overcame them. Ivo was just as weary as his human friends but he could not sleep. His bones and joints ached; the hard rock and the cold rain made him feel his years. He studied a book made from thin metal plates where he had his spells inscribed; no rain could dampen the silver sheets. An enchanted stone that burned endlessly with light held in a metal sphere lit the book. When turned, the sphere twisted to reveal a hole which could be widened, letting out the light in a thin point or a wide beam. Their companion Derue, now their captive, was awake. He fought his bonds and would have yelled and screamed but they kept him gagged. The spirit which enslaved his mind still bound him tighter than the cords around his hands and feet. Above the ledge the halfling had found a small cave, once the den of some wild animal, it was warm and dry, but not big enough for any others, except the gnome. Ivo had declined. Harold's snores echoed faintly from the walls and drifted down to the others who remained awake below.
"At least someone is sleeping," said Harald. "I can keep watch, you should sleep as well."
Telenstil nodded toward their makeshift camp. "I am tired but I cannot sleep."
"Don't you need to rest, even if you do not sleep my elven friend."
"I will rest," Telenstil replied. He watched the smoke drifting in the breeze; it was still thick and black. "I think we are safe for awhile. The fire still burns. Will there be any steading left for us to search I wonder?"
"Wouldn't that be for the best?" asked Harald.
"Eventually perhaps, but there are questions that have not been answered," said Telenstil. "It is Nosnra and his warriors that are the danger, not his hall."
"Better to fight them in the open," Harald laughed. "I know, I know, there is no good place to fight giants."
"The open is better," said Telenstil. "I don't want to be trapped within the hall fighting at close quarters with a dozen giants all around, but there is more here than Nosnra, more that I was sent to find than I have found so far."
"That map, it didn't answer your questions?" Harald asked.
"It answered some, but raised even more," said Telenstil. "You know some of this, the giants of the ice and snow; they are part of this as well."
"I came across them raiding the lands of the Duchy," said Harald. "They are strange allies, they have far to come and they prefer their chilly climes."
"Yes, it is a strange alliance," Telenstil said thoughtfully. "I see signs in this of a darker force at work, one which I cannot name till I am sure."
"What mystery is this? I was told little. I do not think that even the Duke himself knows much more, but you seem to have some idea," said Harald.
"There are things which I suspect, but they are farfetched," said Telenstil, "Stories which we tell our children when they misbehave. When I know more, when I know that these suspicions are more than stories, I will tell you. For now it is Nosnra that we must fight, but I would like to search his hall."
"If any of it still stands," Harald yawned. "Now I will rest. Wake me after a few hours have passed. I will take the next watch."