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A drip of sweat rolled down Elnin's back as she leaned on the crank. As it gave under her weight the same drip trickled back up its path to the nape of her scraped up hair. She grunted and the device clicked to a stop. She stood up, puffing. From the darkness of the trees Hasper came out from their impromptu building yard with his hands full.
“Oh for crap's sake Hasper.” She despaired with deep breathes. “What the hell is that?”
“Well, it was supposed to be a distraction wasn't it? You've got to admit this would be pretty flipping distracting.”
She turned to face the looming wall of the castle, outlined in the clear, summer night.
“You know it would never survive the shot right?”
“You don't know that. Besides, you're the one not sticking to the plan we haven't exactly seen the signal.. Why are we even continuing to do this?”
“Because,” Elnin said quietly. “I've been sweating my backside off building these things all day. I'll be buggered if they're going to go unused.”
“You say that like it's a bad thing sis.” Hasper bent to secure the load into the rough hewn cup of the catapult. Elnin shook her head and stuck a wet finger in the air.
“Should be a pretty simple arc at any rate. You make that shot secure and I'll wind the other one.”
Hasper smiled happily as he tried to find a way of keeping his missile in its cup. It was true that the pair had worked hard on the two small machines. It had been a hot day to carve down so many branches, even to construct something that should only last a shot or two. At the very least he felt they deserved a flamboyant laugh at Ofer's expense.
“You think they're okay?” Elnin asked as she heaved on a second machine's crank. Hasper was slightly surprised she had asked him.
“Er. Sure. I suppose. Since when did we start worrying about them? When was the last time they didn't manage to get out of a fix? At least, eventually.”
“The last time they went up against Ofer.”
It was a good point, he was surprised he had not considered it. He had been concerned about how his sister might react to being this close to her former lover. She may be the calming factor on his own excesses but you did not have to know her long to realise she had fire of her own that might lead her into trouble. Hasper had spent most of the day making sure she did not try to run off and stick an arrow in the gluttonous mage, he had not considered that she might be worried rather than murderous.
“Well, I guess we have to believe he hasn't eaten them or anything creepy. If them going quiet on us means he's caught them then the best thing we can do is pour all this shit in there to try and shake things up. Then, if the don't turn up tomorrow, we can snoop around the aftermath for ourselves I suppose.”
“I'll kill him.” She said flatly.
This was more expected. Hasper had practised his moves for rage. He started back to the trees for another load and a flame from the brazier.
“He has a lot of men in there Elnin. You know normally I wouldn't hesitate to wander into a yard of strapping lads but you and I are not the only ones in the picture here. Apart from our paymaster and old Vitus, Laima could have a knife at her throat. You wouldn't want to put her at risk by charging in, teeth gnashing, would you?” He called over his shoulder as he reached the tree line, not giving her a chance to protest. “Of course not. So let's get to work, eh?”
“Yes. This has to be it.”
Vitus and Mergen crabbed around the room's edge, avoiding the well established territory of the Davara at it's centre. Laima came up from the drawers that she had been sorting with a flask in her hand. The discovery brought them both to a stop.
“That's not a card.” Vitus said flatly.
“Of course not.” Laima replied. “I think it's brandy.”
She held out the uncorked flask to Mergen who was nearest. Despite himself the bald mage leant over for a sniff.
“Smells like it.” He confirmed. Laima pulled it back with a grin but as it touched her lips he added. “But could be anything. I guess it comes down to what you think Ofer would keep lying around in his own personal love dungeon come torture palace.”
Laima regarded the bottle furiously, weighing her knowledge of Ofer with her thirst. Eventually she threw the flask to one side.
“I hate that man.”
The door shuddered with another blow and her two friends nodded in understanding.
“If we don't come up with something soon I think he's going to give us a few new reasons to justify that.” Vitus observed.
Laima held a flat shape up in her other hand.
“Like find this you mean?”
Mergen grabbed at the card in her fingers and shuffled back to the torch. Vitus had shoved their one light into the grid bars of a cage which lacked locks but had a surfeit of iron phalluses. In its unsteady illumination the card showed a geometric pattern on one side, interwoven shapes that reminded Vitus of his time amongst the Moors. The wizard flipped it to see the other, a scene edged by two white, leafless trees. Their branches stretched into the centre, mirroring each other and forming the outlines of a pair of slender, night filled eyes. The scene beneath the boughs was a winding path to the edge of a black lake, full of of reflected stars.
As Vitus and Laima crowded in Mergen tapped the lake lightly and together they watched ripples spread out across its surface, the stars undulating and the ivory branches tightening as if the eyes narrowed.
“Oh yes.” He confirmed. “This is the Alu card alright.”
“Great!” Vitus boomed and slapped him on the back. When the other pair looked surprised at his enthusiasm he rolled his eyes. “Oh come on. You wouldn't have led us into this hole if you had no idea how to get out, and this is our ticket. Isn't it?”
Mergen wobbled his head, trying to find a way to maintain his mystery. He failed.
“We would have been screwed if we couldn't find it.” He tried weakly.
“Yes.” Vitus nodded. “But you knew it was here. I'm not saying I wasn't worried. I still am, but if the last thousand years of watching you make a pig’s ear of everything have given me faith in anything it is your ability for self preservation.”
Mergen looked upset. Laima patted him on his side,
“I thought you didn't have a sodding clue what you were doing.”
This seemed to actually cheer the wizard up and he fanned himself with the Alu.
“It is possible that we can improve our situation, now we have this, but it won't be straightforward.”
Another splintering crack came from the door and the tip of something steel poked through its timbers before an unseen hand worked it back out.
“Less straightforward than being locked in a depraved play cellar alongside a trio of flesh eating babies with rocks for eyes waiting for a man who, when last we met, inserted burning iron into one of my orifices without damaging my taste buds?” Laima asked cheerfully. “I'll take it.”
Vitus lent across and prodded the lake on the card, watching the stars bob on the waves he made.
“So what do we do?”
Mergen held the card to his chest and looked at his friend with raised eyebrows.
“The Alu holds great power, even separated from the rest of its deck. It is the portal card, the opener of ways. I think we can use it to open a portal to a short distance away, through which we may be able to at least begin our escape.”
Another crack came from the door and the Davara hissed at a splinter stuffed hole that was starting to appear. Mergen was the only one in the room to smile at the noise.
“You know there is no way I, alone, would be able to produce the requisite energy to unlock such a way in the amount of time that we clearly do not have. It could be that we can turn our misfortune to our advantage.”
Vitus looked at the hissing, child-sized cannibals they had been avoiding for the last hour.
“You want to rely on those things to get out of here? You do realise they eat human flesh at the same kind of rate that Laima normally knocks back Shiraz?”
“It's true.” Laima pouted. “Plus, they've got tiny cocks. How can you even think of putting our fate in the hands of something with such tiny cocks?”
The two men looked at her in confusion, though Vitus could have sworn he saw one of the Davara glance down in the corner of his eye. Mergen shook himself back to the moment and brandished the Alu at her.
“Unless we use this we are, to use language you will appreciate, fucked. Those three over there are giving off more latent magic than you and the twins combined. I can channel that to create works of power that would take me days if I had to make them from my own strength.”
Vitus patted him on his shoulder and glared an admonishment at Laima.
“It is both lucky and, to be fair, pretty pissing typical that you have the only thing that could save us. So, come on. Say you work the impossible, what do we get for our money?”
Mergen composed himself.
“I'm hoping I can open a path to the outside of the hill. At least, if those chaps are as potent as I believe, we should get that far. I hope.”
A chattering of cracks interrupted them and they all looked back to the door, but it looked unmolested.
“Was that...?” Laima left off quizzically.
“Let's hope so.” Vitus grinned. “Get to it, Mergen. Channel the tiny cocks and let's get this cart on the road.”
Ofer had just finished inspecting the tip of his make-shift ram, whispering charms over its steel spear head so that his subordinates could not hear, when the first burst of snapping sounds came muffled into the humid tunnel. He twisted to look back at the door. The three heavy-set men that he had grouped in front of the treasure room glanced the same way with concern. They had looked distinctly uncomfortable with all the tasks and events of the evening. Ofer was fairly certain that if they got through the door he would have to kill all of them because of what they would see, they held a little too much piety in their simple hearts. He would deal with that when they had proved themselves the parochial lumps he believed them to be though, not before.
“Take another run up.” He snapped at them. “I'll go and see what new nonsense this is.”
Despite his purposeful stride he felt, rather than saw, the three hesitate in his wake. He stopped and turned, fixing eyes with the biggest of the three. “Another run.” he hissed and the man looked down, dragging the strange metal tipped pole back up the corridor, his companions with it. Satisfied, Ofer set off back toward the outer door and another rapid burst of snaps. It sounded as if a line of two dozen poplar trees was being broken cleanly in half one after the other, in his courtyard beyond. He stepped over the mess that had been the sentry and flung the door open, pleased to be out of the foetid shaft.
Running up the hill to him was the captain of the battalion left in his care by the Duke of Savoy. He was old by the standards of the yeomanry but yet to have turned entirely grey.
“What is it now?”
The man came to a halt, his eyes drawn to the grisly remains on the other side of the doorway.
“My lord. I cannot say for certain. It is as if thunder itself is being flung into our midst. The men are terrified and the horses are trying to bolt.”
He said it all without once taking his eyes away from the thing that Ofer would have called a corpse in the same way he might call a puddle of piss a glass of champagne. Ofer noted his stare and a dim recollection surfaced.
“The young sentry here. Your nephew wasn't he?”
The captain nodded. “It was I who asked you to find him a posting, my Lord.”
The man clearly blamed either Ofer or himself. Ofer blamed Mergen, so felt the sentiment was understandable.
“He should have been safe at this door. I am sorry. When this night is out I will ask for you to carry my condolences to your brother. It was your brother wasn't it?” The soldier nodded slowly. “Then you shall take our prayers as well as ten deniers to give him a proper burial.”
The captain finally looked at his liege, albeit in surprise. He began to splutter his thanks but Ofer waved him to silence. He had no doubt that would be five deniers if it ever got to the boy's parents and even then no one was going to spend much burying that mess. What he needed now was focus and money always sharpened that, besides, he did feel a little sorry for the unlucky shit.
“Show me this new devilry then.” He began down the hill, the Captain pointing ahead of them as they went.
“The most twisted creatures have been appearing from the night all across the courtyard and the motte, they come in silence but...”
Something hit Ofer in the side, throwing him off balance. It clawed viscously at him and he rolled down the hill, batting away sharp talons and trying to grasp his attacker firmly. As he slid to a halt, his hands squeezing tightly on soft plumage he held the crazed creature up to the starlight to find he had been knocked on his arse by a chicken.
“What the...” Ofer's question was cut short as a fizzing tail of sticks, dangling from the chicken's neck, began to explode. The first explosion deafened him and he threw the bird back. The light from the second left a white burn in his vision. As the others began to blow in sequence the insanely terrified fowl ran back at and over him. He felt a charge burn his face and with the extra fat coating his moustaches they flared up like torches. He rolled further down the hill, swearing and smashing his face into the grass, rubbing wildly in the dirt like a truffle pig making the find of its life. He felt the captain pulling him to his feet and dizzily tried to get his bearings. The cackling bird was running in crazed turns with each fresh blast from its necklace. Further down the slope another panicked hen had landed in a tumbling role and was starting to explode amongst some of the soldiery. The men pranced about it, fear making confused goats of them.
“Bloody Elves.” Ofer hissed. He grabbed the captain by his tunic and pulled him close to his smouldering snarl. “Take a troop of men and go to the east side of the castle. These bloody things are being launched by a pair of skinny dip shits with pointy ears. They'll probably be near the tree line, but somewhere they can get a clear shot with a catapult.”
He may as well have told the man to do his laundry using a corn thresher for all the response it got. It was clear a little more sharpening was required,
“It'll be twenty deniers to take to your brother if you find them, with one per man who helps bring them in.”
That kicked the man's seized cogs into gear and he stumbled back.
“My lord. At once.”
“Watch yourself captain. They're stronger than they look and they're better with a bow than any man in your command. Buggers can see in the dark like it's daylight too so don't bother creeping up on them, just try to box them in.”
A flash of uncertainty crept back into the man's face as a staccato of squawks and explosions fired up from the courtyard.
“They are men, sir? I mean, this isn't something we need a priest for is it?”
“Of course you don't need a bloody priest, and one of them is a woman anyway. In fact, bring me her back reasonably unharmed and I'll stick another few coins in everyone's palms.”
The captain knew enough of his Lord's appetites to be unsurprised by the enticement. He doubted much imagination was needed to guess what the greasy noble would do with his captive. If, however, he had been given a flash into Ofer's mind he would have found that actually you needed quite an ample supply of imagination, as well as a rudimentary knowledge of cookery and a healthy stock of poppy milk. The captain snapped out a salute and span to charge back downhill, his orders pumping out of his lungs with each heavy stride.
In the outer courtyard a splash of fire erupted across the ground. Hasper and Elnin had run out of chickens and started flinging flasks of oil into the castle,
“And get somebody on those fires!” Ofer shouted to the disappearing soldier. He had lost castles to fire before and trying to find a new one afterwards, or rebuilding the lost interiors, was a frustrating waste of his time. Given how fast he had seen them spread before, he thought twice about killing the men forcing the door of his sanctum. He might need them to pack everything up now, so best not do anything too rash. The thought of his treasures and pleasures took him away from the blazing chaos outside and back into the tunnel. He toed the remains of the Captain's nephew as he passed, reflecting that there was barely enough to make a decent soup and hurried back to the battering ram.
The doors were clearly splintered in the centre now, a spot of dancing light answering their own torch. The big men were sweating in the close confines of the tunnel but their lord's presence spurred them to greater exertion. Another crash and the central piece of wood came loose from its neighbours. A further crash and it buckled inwards, tongued joints popping at its sides. One final crash and a cross brace behind it snapped and the three guards threw the makeshift ram backwards past Ofer.
“Get in there. Kill anything bigger than knee height.”
The obscure order made the men hesitate for a second. Then the lead, his sword already out, shrugged and kicked the door open. They piled in with a guttural scream to find a figure blocking their way. Without hesitation the first man plunged his falchion deep into its mid section and then dived to the side, leaving the way clear for his fellows to attack. When their own blows were met with nothing but dull thuds the soldiers’ war cries fell away and they drew back to let Ofer through.
With an order of death on his lips the occultist swept in. He came face to face with the middle finger of straw stuffed woman, hastily bound into a gesture of insult.
The summer baked turf cracked open as the hill vomited Vitus out into the night, spitting sods of earth from his mouth and clawing mud from his eyes. His two companions followed close behind and, as they all struggled to their feet, coughing, Vitus looked around for the attack he had assumed would be instant. Instead, they were alone. From the other side of the looming keep the sounds and shifting lights of fires being fought were louder than their escape. The three Davara, sliding in a slow, entwined tussle were the last out of the hole.
“Hah.” Vitus barked. “The twins let rip with the distraction after all.”
“They were supposed to wait for the signal.” Mergen stamped his foot. Laima kicked him in the shin.
“You want to talk about people not sticking to the plan? What the hell was that?” She pointed back at the shallow trench.
“I thought it would get us a little further to be honest.” Mergen conceded.
“Who cares?” Vitus hissed at the pair. “The bloody distraction is working and we've got a shot at the north wall. Shift your stupid backsides before I kick you over it.”
Together the three started towards a staircase, similar in all but smell to the latrine buttress where they had been captured. They had given up worrying about the murderous demons that were shadowing their every move. There was nothing they could do to discourage the Davara and even less they could do if they decided it was snack time. A silent agreement had formed between them – to deal with just one threat of death at a time. On reaching the battlement they heard a furious scream coming from the direction of the keep.
“I think Ofer's just found his girlfriend.” Laima chuckled. “You got that rope?”
Vitus slung a coil from his shoulder.
“Rope seems a bit rich for this stuff. Let me by and I'll try and tie off the top one. Are you sure these will hold?”
“You don't have a lot of experience with whips then?” The Dwarf maid smirked as Vitus struggled to secure one of their stolen leather thongs around a crenellation.
“Ha ha. More than you'd think actually. We used them to motivate slaves in the arena. Nobody was crawling up and down them though.”
“They'll hold, but it's still going to be one hell of a drop.”
“Better that than getting stuck in here if Ofer finds us.” said Mergen.
Vitus nodded and heaved a final tug on his knot. He began strapping a cat o' nine tails to the end of the secured bullwhip.
“You sure you couldn't just get us through the base of the wall with the Alu?” He asked the wizard, who shook his head.
“I'm pretty tapped out, and if you thought appearing under a few feet of dirt was hard I'm pretty sure you’d like it even less under a couple yards of granite.”
“Then it's twenty lashes for us all.” Vitus threw the whip over the side and stepped back, a polite hand indicating for Laima to lead.
“Thank you kind sir. I think.”
“Well. I reckon you'll break my fall nicely.” Vitus smiled.
“You drop anywhere near me you great lug and I'll break something alright.” She threatened as she clambered over the stone and began her way down. Mergen yelped, cowering back for a second, as the Davara jumped up after her. When they failed to begin tearing into his flesh he straightened.
“I guess they're next then.”
The Davara dropped over the side without grabbing at the whips and the two men peered over after. The demon trio scurried like spiders, startling Laima off her feet. She was left banging against the wall twenty feet above the ground. A stream of Dwarvish curses came up to the two men.
“Hopefully they'll run off into the night without us.” Mergen whispered sideways as Laima twisted on the whip.
Vitus shook his head, there was no way they were that lucky. It was more likely the crystal eyed monsters would ambush them just when they thought they were safe. He tried to call to Laima quietly, but ended up sounding like an actor conspiring his plots with the audience.
“Just slide down, you've only got about six feet of that thing left anyway.”
The stream of swearing did not pause but she did begin to slip further toward the ground. She stopped at the extent of the leather, still spinning slightly, then let go.
It was too dark at the base of the wall to see what happened but after a few seconds of silence Vitus expelled the breath he’d been holding when her voice came out of the dark.
“Well. What are you waiting for you idiots? A written invitation? Let's get the hell out of here.”
Mergen shifted his belt and began to climb over the wall. Vitus checked behind them. The light from the fires was stronger now, outlining the central keep. If anyone had been coming across the hill toward them their shadow would have been a long streak in the orange light so it was obvious they were undiscovered. Ofer would have his hands full with the fire, especially if he had already sent men after the Elves. It served the greasy bastard right as far as the centurion was concerned. He stopped for a second, struck by the sudden thought that this was not too far from how they had actually intended to make their escape.
“Shit a brick.” He muttered as Mergen slid away down the wall. “This is what it looks like when the bloody plan almost works.” He heaved himself up between the crenellations, waiting for the wizard to thump to the ground below. “Doesn't look that much different to the usual titanic balls up, really.”