The Hill Giant Chief - Nosnra's Saga - Part 6
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."
"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.
A huge and black-nailed hand grabbed onto the thief and tore him from the ogre's back. Harold had time for one more stab and twisted the blade in the wound as the ogre pulled at him. He locked his hands upon the hilt and it was drawn from the ogre's back as he was pulled away.
The ogre held the thief in one hand before its eyes to get a look at what had bitten it so badly. "Me eat you, little dog." it said in broken common tongue.
"Eat this!" Harold screamed. His arm lent strength by the terror he felt, the halfling brought his blade down and struck the ogre between its eyes. The monster jerked its head back and to the side and Harold's blade snapped off at the hilt,
Harold felt as if his wrist was being torn apart. He dropped the hilt from a numbing hand. With a stumbling backwards step the ogre's legs pressed against the edge of the garbage chute and tripped. Harold struggled to break free from the vice-like grasp. He felt the world begin to tilt as the ogre fell. His knife was gone but from a wrist sheath he drew out a magic scaling spike. He pressed it against the base of the ogre's thumb and spoke the word which brought the spike to life. It whirred and sank in with a spout of blood.
The ogre did not feel the wound but its hand unclenched and Harold fell back into the room even as the ogre dropped backwards down the garbage chute. Harold landed on the wooden lid and rolled off the edge. He caught himself with his one good hand and hung from chute's edge by his finger-tips.
The climb up had been hard, but Derue had spent all his life at such practice so that this was little more than play. He had learned to step back from what his body did and watch from a distance. He still felt his hands against the rough cord and his muscles roll beneath his skin, but any pain he put into a box within his mind and shut the lid. The smell was the hardest thing to ignore. The reek brought back memories he had closed off from his youth, distractions that he suppressed. He shut them away as best he could and kept on climbing. A small speck of light began to grow then became a square. Derue increased his pace, hand over hand, his legs wrapped around the rope. He worried about his brother who had gone ahead.
"Edouard!" called Derue. "Edouard!" He heard a deep voice and a dark shape blocked out the square of light above him. Then there came a howl, a grunting roar that did not come from a human throat. Derue began to climb with a frantic haste but paused for just a moment to collect himself. He thought of a burning flame that ate away his fears. With even greater speed, but with calm control, Derue pulled himself up the last few feet to the top of the shaft. As he reached the edge a large form came hurtling past, a thick and heavy leg went by and smacked Derue hard across his side and buffeted him against the filthy walls.
"Helppp!" Harold screamed out. He banged his numbed hand against the wooden lid but could not get his fingers to grip the edge.
"Hold on," Derue hissed at him. "I'll get you in a minute." The mercenary swung over the wooden lip of the garbage chute with a graceful twist and landed on his feet upon the kitchen floor. He bent and grabbed the halfling by his arms and lifted him to the half open wooden lid. "Where is my brother?" Derue demanded.
"Where indeed!" Harold replied. "I have been having Brandobaris's own blessing upon me here and he takes off after an orc."
* * *
Talberth and Ivo stood ankle deep in rotting trash, they stared up, up, up and watched Derue begin his climb.
"I'll need a spell to do anything like that," said Talberth.
"In my youth I went caving and climbed up and down the caverns beneath my home, but now...." Ivo shrugged.
"I should have gone first," spoke up Harald. "Then I could have pulled you after me."
"That was what I was planning on," Talberth told him with a smile.
Above them Derue reached the ceiling and disappeared up into the dark vertical tunnel. Below him Gytha held the rope and talked with Telenstil. The cleric Henri had wandered off. He walked toward the eastern corner of the room. Talberth always tried to keep an eye on him. He did not trust the Pholtite priest.
Edouard had never felt so alive. He burned inside even as his blade swam with flame. A tracery of orange followed the weaving tip, it brushed past the ogre's head and set the lank and greasy locks, which grew in ragged spots, aflame.
The stairs were wide, a second ogre came up abreast of its burning companion. It bore a long iron rod used to prod the reluctant orc slaves along and jabbed it like a spear into Edouard's face. With a backhand stroke Edouard knocked the rod away and brought his sword round again. It struck the metal bar in an explosion of flames and sparks and clove off the dull head a foot down along its length. The other ogre beat out its burning hair and as it did Edouard kicked high and hard. He hit its chin, a smooth powerful blow that split the ogre's lip and snapped its head back on its short, thick neck. He followed up his kick with another slash but his arm was blocked by the iron rod. A jab caught him in the ribs but the blow did not part the fine mail he wore or do more than bruise his side. Edouard sheathed the burning blade within the ogre's gut. The blade hissed like bacon fat on a pan. Its point sticking from out the ogre's back, the hilt jammed tight into its hide.
A laugh built up within the mercenary and burst forth in peals of hiccuping mirth as the ogre's body burned and its innards turned to char. The iron rod clanked to the stone steps. The ogre tried to wrestle the sword free its, hands wrapped around the hilt and smoldered at the touch. Its companion on the stairs balled up its fist and struck Edouard soundly in the head.
Edoaurd lost his grasp on the hilt of his sword and as his hand came free the flames went out. The first ogre stood there dead on its feet. Tendrils of smoke drifted from its mouth, its hand were blackened lumps that split and showed deep red between the cracks. Around the now unburning sword the ogre's flesh was cooked clean through, black charcoal-like near the blade and dry brown meat halfway up its ribs. It wavered back and forth then stiff as a statue it fell back and tumbled down the long flight of stairs. The orc ran after the falling ogre, the two other brutes turned their fists against the now swordless scout.
* * *
"Not you too," Harold yelled at Derue.
The mercenary left Harold behind and ran off following his brother's path.
"Just great," the little thief took an empty leather pouch from his belt and scratched a message into it with the tip of a metal spike. He filled it with a handful of coins and dropped it down the shaft.
* * *
Derue followed a bloody trail which dwindled out before it turned the corner of the kitchen. On his left there were shelves, piles of food-sacks, barrels and at least one large table about level with his head, but on the right there was a wide alcove that led to a pair of doors. The righthand one was ajar. He had to pause before the doors and slow the beating of his heart. His chest heaved and his blood pulsed heavy in his veins. The right, something within him said, he followed the advice always choosing to listen to his inner voice. Behind the door he was inside another room, a larder, well stocked and much used, but at the back there was a broad set of stairs leading down, and his voice said to him that Edouard had gone this way.
* * *
"I will be glad to leave this room," Gytha said, her voice muffled by a scented cloth she'd placed across her nose and mouth.
Telenstil willed himself to ignore the unpleasant smell, but he found it distracting none the less, if not as nauseating as the others thought it to be. "I as well," he replied. "What was that?" Telenstil looked up the chute, an echo found its way down from above.
"A shout?" Gytha said unsure, but the loud roar that followed left no doubt. There came a banging sound and the rope shook in Gytha's hands. A large shape appeared as it neared the opening in the roof, she leapt and pushed Telenstil aside. The pair tumbled across the filthy ground barely escaping the ogre's body that crashed to the floor near to where they'd just been standing. It slammed into the pile of debris and sent a shower of rotting goo upon everyone but the sightless priest.
"What the hells?" Harald shouted, he wiped a smearing viscid glob from off his armored chest.
"Are you okay?" Gytha asked the elf.
Telenstil had to think a moment to make sure. "I seem to be uninjured," he said. "Thanks to your quick action."
"This muck is ten times worse when it is stirred up," complained Talberth.
Harald and Ivo examined the body. The gnome kept glancing back up the shaft.
"What is going on up there?" Talberth murmured.
"It's an ogre," said the old ranger.
Talberth bit back a rude reply. His nerves were on edge and his temper had grown short.
"Someone's left a broken dagger in its head," Ivo added.
"It's Harold's. The little thief brought down this monster ten times his size." The ranger Harald looked up the chute and wondered silently the question Talberth had voiced aloud, "What was going on up there?"
"Derue! Harold!" Gytha called but heard no reply.
The old ranger called out as well, "Harold!" then grabbed the rope and began climbing up.
"Wait, wait!" Talberth yelled to him.
Harald had barely reached the ceiling when a small bag flashed by his head. Talberth ran over and picked it up. The ranger didn't stop but instead climbed as quick as he could, up the rope.
"What is it?" asked Ivo.
"A note from our thief, 'Scout's run off. Help!', " Talberth read.
"Quick and to the point," said Telenstil. "There is little else we can do."
"I can climb at least," Gytha said. She did not hesitate but followed the ranger up the shaft.
"Gytha no!" Talberth cried.
"Have Harald pull us up when he gets to the top. We will get the packs," Telenstil called.
Gytha paused and yelled back, "I will," then turned her attention to the rope.
"Where is that priest?" Ivo asked looking around the room. Henri was nowhere to be seen.
* * *
Derue skidded on the bloody stairs. Edouard had been here, had fought on these steps, but now was gone. The scout hopped down from stair to stair and ran into a huge room. A babble of voices struck him an almost physical blow. He'd been hearing it all along but had not given it a thought as he jumped down the stairs.
Rows of orcs filled the room with bugbears beating them into line. There were scores of the skinny, filthy, beasts and at least a dozen of the tall hairy monsters. The bugbears had a brick-red fur and an unsavory insectoid cast to their features. They faced the entrance to the stairs and a surprised silence spread over the room as they caught sight of Derue rushing in.
"Oh damn," Derue swore. From far off he heard the screaming of a human voice in pain. "Edouard!" These monsters had his brother, " Edouard!" he screamed. His hand went to the hilt of his sword and he heard the call of another voice, "Ardare," he spoke with calm, with joy, and drew the blade from its sheath. "Ardare! Ardare! Burn them! Burn Them!" A bright flame burst forth and played along the blade, the metal glowed white and the air shimmered in waves around it. Derue was filled with the warm glow, it made him smile then laugh aloud. He charged the orcs and bugbears, two quick slashes sent one of the tall guards back into the ranks of orcs, its hair singed black and wide, bleeding cuts across its arms and chest. It stumbled and fell, the orcs, an unruly bunch, their more passive brethren already taken up the stairs to fight the blaze above, looked down at the stunned and wounded guard.
The bugbears were a sadistic breed, they delighted in the torture of the hapless orcs, but seeing the tables turned, the bugbear lying at their feet, the gathered orcs snapped, and with teeth and skinny fists and clawlike fingers, a dozen orcs set upon their tormentor. The rebellion spread and as Derue fought another bugbear guard the room turned into a frenzied melee. Orcs fell beneath the swords and spears of the bugbear guards, but they bore them down and picked up the weapons of the ones they killed.
Derue cut a bugbears hand from its arm, and an orc jumped on the sword that fell, still clutched in the severed grasp. Three others threw themselves upon the wounded guard; another sank its teeth into the bugbear's leg. As the babble of voices became a bestial unending roar, a door in the northern wall was flung open and two huge and hairy men ran out. Derue had never seen their like before. Behind them came a giant but with a twisted back and a huge hump rising above his misshapen head.
The giant was armored in a vast shirt of chain and held a monstrous axe with a blade big enough to split a castle's gate or chop down an old thick-boled tree with a single stroke.
The orcs were mad with blood and the bugbears that had guarded them were dead. They turned upon the giant and the hairy men, some with weapons in their hands, the first that they had held in months or for a hearty few, in years. One giant beast, an ape as it was called, roared and beat at its chest, the other, its mate, looked toward their giant keeper, waiting for his command.
"What's this!" the hunchbacked giant yelled. "Kill them my pets! Kill them all!"
Both apes launched themselves into the crowd of orcs, the male, slightly bigger than his mate, grabbed a pair of orcs, one in each hand and smashed their heads together. The skulls exploded in a bloody mess and the ape let the bodies fall to the floor, still shaking headless on the ground, dead but dancing out their last moments on the oerth. The other ape sank her teeth into the face of a hapless orc; she bit through bone and flesh, clear to the grey-green brain. Unarmed orcs threw themselves upon the pair. An orc armed with a bastard sword got in two hacks that left bleeding cuts along the male ape's back, but a sweeping blow broke its arm and then the ape turned and grabbed the orc with both hands. It lifted the screaming body high above its head and threw it twenty feet into a wall. A spear went flying and struck the male in its gut while its arms were raised. It plucked out the hurtful thing and as it did five orc jumped upon its back and sides.
The hunchbacked giant stepped into the fray. He swung his axe and chopped an orc in half from skull to groin, the blade sparked against the stone. Up went the axe again to his shoulder and then swept down. It skimmed off the top of one orc's skull, greygreen brains sloshed out; then split a second orc from shoulder to waist across its chest. That swing brought the blade down low almost scraping the floor on its descending arc before rising up to the giant's other shoulder.
As the hunchback prepared to strike again Derue screamed out a challenge and rushed in. A group of orcs ran at the giant as well, mad with fury and immune to fear. Derue's blazing sword smacked against the giant's chest and snapped a line of steel rings on the monstrous shirt.
The burning tip of the sword set the hunchback's greasy beard aflame. Its backhand stroke went wild; the flat of the blade stove in an orc's head just the same and sent the body flailing across the ground. The flames danced about hunchback's face and burned off the thick fringe of hair around its bald pate as well. The axe fell to the ground while the giant used both hands to try and smother its burning beard. Derue cut deep gashes across both the giant's arms then stabbed it deeply in the gut.
The giant gulped, one vast hand flashed out and grabbed the blade as Derue drew it free, the blade cut to the bone and as Derue yanked it to the side cut off the giant's thumb.
The orcs had not stood idle while the fight went on. Those who fought the pair of apes matched fury with fury, but paid a fearful toll in life and blood and broken bones. The apes fell at last and lay dead amidst a pile of orcs slain by their naked hands and ragged claws.
As the battle raged a handful of bugbears, no more than a dozen, came roaring into the room with two ogres pushing them on from behind. All the while Derue slashed away at the hunched giant and five orcs attacked its legs. One died beneath the giant's feet, an accidental death; the giant completely unaware it had stepped on the skinny beast.
The bites and scratches from the unarmed orcs were ignored while it beat out its burning hair, but when Derue stuck it deep with the white-hot blade the pain was overwhelming. The giant gasped for breath, its eyes bulged and slowly it fell to its knees. An orc ran up its back and sank its teeth into the burnt and blistered neck, Derue used two hands and cracked the hunchback's skull, but the bone was thick and the blade wedged tight, the hilt resting on its nose. He had to place his foot against the giant's face and waggle the blade back and forth to get it free.
Across the room the bugbears had cut a swath through the orcs, fresh, uninjured, armed and armored, they killed a dozen with as many strokes. The ogres seeing the bugbears carnage laughed and brushed their lackeys aside. The orcs drew back and as the ogres stepped forward, Derue stepped from the crowded midst of orcs, his sword still burning in his hand.
"Not another one," an ogre with a scorched face called out.
"Edouard!" Derue screamed. "Where is my brother!" he charged them and laid open the wounded ogre's stomach with his first stroke. Long ropey intestines burst forth like the coils of a red-purple snake or monstrous worms. The ogre screamed and tried to hold itself together with its hands while the orcs began to hoot and cheer.
The second ogre growled and swung a massive fist that passed harmlessly just a hairsbreadth above Derue's head. Derue lashed back and cut open the ogre's arm from shoulder to elbow and then the orcs charged. The wounded ogre was pulled apart, the bugbears turned and ran. Surrounded by orcs the last ogre broke one of the pig-faced monster's back with its wounded arm then had seven blades cut it from back and sides.
Derue found himself surrounded by the victorious orcish mob, both ogres dead, their bodies hacked apart and strewn across the floor.
* * *
"Henri! Henri!" Ivo called. He weaved his way past piles of rotting muck and carefully watched where he placed his feet. The floor was slick with filth and studded with half-gnawed fragments of bone. The old gnome easily spotted the tall opening in the wall, it was narrow for a hill giant to use, they would need to enter shoulder first and scrape belly and back against the frame. To Ivo the gap was as great as a castle gate, rising high above his head, he could swing both arms out and never come near to either side. "Henri!" he called again, a little exasperated with the priest.
The room was filled with chests and trunks, a rough cloth sack had split and poured out a tide of coins, all green with age and welded one to another with verdigris. Atop a wooden crate sat the Pholtite priest, his eyeless mask of gold downturned, a pile of coins he held in cupped hands. Ivo did not say a word, he caught the last hushed phrases that Henri intoned and threw his arm before his eyes. There came a flash, the old gnome's arm became translucent red, only the dark mass of bone inside saved his sight from the blinding flare.