Tuesday, June 13, 2017

To Hearth-Home and Back: Chapter 2

Alard awoke to the same blackness. He couldn't see but felt the burlap sack about his head. His hands and feet were bound and he heard the familiar sound of shod horses mixed with guttural voices and laughter. He felt around and realized that he was on the wagon with what felt like at least two of the others. Remembering Griswold's wound he shouted, "Uncle, are you there?"

Thorek came to as Alard shouted and as the wagon bounced across a particularly deep rut, banging his head against a sideboard. Planned dwarvish invective died on his tongue as memories of the ambush flooded back. He need to figure out where he was. The back of his skull and the rumbling of the wheels told him he was on one of the wagons, and the voices around him told him he wasn't in friendly company. Damn. Not good, he thought to himself, but why do they want us alive? Unable to see anything, Thorek tested the tightness of the knot binding his hands, gently trying to see how much play he had to work with. Are the others nearby? Who's left? With no better options, Thorek tried prodding around with his boot to see if anyone else was on his wagon.

"Ow," said Malion. It was bad enough to have been beaten, tied up, then thrown into the back of a wagon, but now someone was kicking him in the head. "You can stop that. I'm not an orc, you know." Mal began trying to free himself from the ropes. He was pretty limber, and orcs weren't known for their attention to detail. He hoped that knot tying wasn't one of their strengths. In his struggle to extricate himself, Mal could feel others rolling about on the floor of the cart with him, and had heard Alard call out for his uncle. Mal didn't know the others well enough to be to concerned about their current state, so he attempted to listen and see if he could hear anything of importance from their captors.

Jones came to as well, progressing from a world of dark, silent blandness to one filled with a throbbing pain intervaled with rough jolts that sent sharp pains through his head and side. He began to take stock of his situation as quickly as he could in his rattled state. His hands were his first concern. They appeared to be bound behind his back. He flexed his wrists and moved his fingers to determine how tight the knots were. With his newly discovered ability to magic knots, he could easily break these bonds, but he also knew between his practicing and the battle, his ability to cast further spells was severely limited. Some sort of cloth bag was drawn tight over his head as well, preventing him from seeing where he was. He was lying in one of the wagons; he could feel the rough wooden floor and cramped space around him.

Judging from the guttural laughter and conversation he could pick up, it appeared that the rest of the caravan had suffered a fate at least on par with his own. Quietly and slowly, as much to humor his aching body as to try and avoid drawing attention to himself, Jones began to test his range of motion and to try and determine what he was lying against. He thought he may have heard a human voice call out a name, but in his foggy state, Jones was uncertain if it was real or imagined.

Merritt rolled his eyes. Not that anyone could see them. He'd been bound and beaten before. It happens when you grow up more or less a street rat. "So which one of you assholes pissed them off that they came after us?" He started "gently" kicking around at random, trying to get the attention of the others he assumed were bound with him. "Fess up and let's get this damn thing over with." He tried to roll around a bit to get to the side of the scrum so he could better sit up. "I'm not sure it'd be wise to try and cut these ropes either. Worst you do is piss off the orcs further when they come to fetch us and I'm not ready to die for you assholes yet."

An orc, amused by all the kicking and prodding its bound captors were inflicting upon one another, looked down at Merritt in annoyance from its seat on a barrel at the back of the wagon. It looked to its companion, sat similarly on the other side of the wagon, smiled and smacked the man's head with the flat of its ax as he tried to sit up. They shared a good laugh as Merritt's eyes crossed within his burlap sack and his back hit the wagon floor once more."Gods damnit, that wasn't necessary ass. I know you're orcs and all but c'mon, let a man at least sit up a bit."

Kuhlbert came to to the clang of metal. He felt the bruises growing on his body and the constraints binding his limbs. I'll have to teach the wizard how to better negotiate, he thought to himself. Still he was alive and the orcs weren't about to kill them yet. Others were awakening as well as he heard the mumbles and the thrashing of the other bodies. Kuhlbert kicked, as best he could, the person who was punching his back. Annoyed and with no understanding of how much time had passed, he began to pray and pray hard. He did not want to end up in the slave pits or cook pots of the foul beings. There was evil to smite and the holy one's work must be done.

Annoyed by the futile struggling and cursing of his fellow captives, Frodo tried to relax in his small part of the wagon. "Save your strength ya' damned fools!" He called out to the mass of thrashing bodies. There was no point in making a fuss, besides, he was still alive which meant that he could still try to escape at some point. He didn't relish being an orc captive, but he was enjoying the fact that Griswold had gotten what he deserved. Frodo only wished that he could have struck the blow. Spitefully cutting out the smug merchant's tongue or gouging out his eyes so that he couldn't look at all of his gold coins was what Frodo was planning to do when the opportunity presented itself. The orcs had taken that opportunity from him, but a bitter smile still crept across his face underneath the hood. That filthy bastard Griswold had bled out in pain. What a delicious thought.

The wagon drew to a halt at a commotion outside. There were shouts of what sounded like alarm but any hopes of rescue the captives clung to were quickly dashed as hails were exchanged and footsteps approached the wagon. None of the prisoners spoke the orcish tongue but they all could recognize the intonation of the leader as it addressed, or perhaps questioned, other orcs. One orc finished speaking and the night fell quiet, the silence broken only by the bush crickets. "Accurukun hundur avhinguk," the anger in the exclamation was punctuated by a loud slam on the side wall of the wagon. Silence followed until the leader started talking again, after a few short sentences the sound of a single pair of footfalls fell away from the group and the wagon began rolling once more.

Roughly another hour later and the wagon stopped again. The men under Griswold's employ quickly found themselves forcibly pulled, pushed or kicked from the wagon on to the rocky ground beneath it. Each was pulled roughly to their feet, heaved over a shoulder and carried off. After some twenty paces a great scraping sound could be heard, as if wood was being drug across stone. A similar distance later the same sound was there again, followed by metal clanging on metal and a unceremonious deposit on a hard stone floor. Cries of pain interspersed these thumps as well as the metal on metal sounds. Finally, footfalls echoed away before what sounded like a massive door slammed shut.

From beneath their burlap sacks, a faint flickering light could be seen by the captives, but beyond that their hoods concealed all. Jones wasn't certain, but he suspected that a large portion of their group had been left in some sort of prison or cell by the orcs. He had been listening to the speech patterns in the orc's conversations, but had been unable to pick up their language yet and was uncertain as to the intent of their captors or the location of the prison. Trying to gain his bearings, Jones called out, "Who all is here? Can anyone hear my voice? Let me know where you are." He had every intention of finding another member of the group and cooperating to get their bonds off. If it turned out they were separated by cells or unable to get out for some reason, he was ready to untie the knots with magic. Struggling to maintain his balance and get to his feet, he listened for some sort of affirmation that his comrades were awake and present.

Sensing the same opportunity, Merritt called out "I'm here, the one with the bow. Name's Merritt. Gimme a sec and lemme see if I can slip this rope here," as he began the process of slipping his bonds. It didn't go well.

"I'm here." Thorek's reply was pitched low and tinged with frustration. Whoever tied his ropes was an unusually meticulous bastard for an orc. Thorek sagged forward for a moment, rolling his head from side to side, before slowly straightening up. Thank the Ancestors, at least one thing's gone right on this trip. He paused and listened to what was going on around him. "'Ere, anyone loose?" Frustration gave way to hopefulness in his tone, although he kept his voice low and tried to keep it from carrying.

Mal heard some of the group identify themselves as he tried and failed to slip his bonds. "Malion here as well. I can't seem to slip out of these ropes. I think we're in the same room. I only heard a single door close. Can anyone else free themselves?"

Frodo heard and whispered, "aye," as he struggled with the ropes. "I'm here, but keep it down. Don't give those savages a reason to come back and check on us." He fared better than the others, and with a sigh of relief, his small hands were able to slip out of the clumsy orc knots. He quickly took off his hood, stood up and looked around the dimly lit chamber.

The air was stale and dry. He stood on a cold stone floor of well cut and mortared blocks some five feet by five feet square. Three of the walls were similarly well crafted but the fourth was iron bars from the floor to the ceiling some seven feet above it. "Definitely in a cell," he whispered, mostly to himself. The bars had a door in them that he tried for the hell of it, "and it's locked to!" He turned at the sound of Merritt's voice.

"If'n you’re done with the tour, how about a hand," he asked, rolling on his side to show Frodo his bonds. The halfling clapped softly, Merritt's reply was loaded with sarcasm, "A jester then?" Frodo eventually bent down to untie the archer who removed the burlap sack from his head and then undid his ankle restraints. He looked around as well as he stood up. The only source of light came from a torch in a wall sconce outside and to the left of their cell on a facing wall. The two couldn't see to their immediate left and right but noticed an alcove across and to the right of their cell. They could just make out a large double door there, further back and to the right.

By this time both Malion and Jones had managed to slip their knots, the magic-user only after losing a bit of skin on his left wrist. They set about freeing their legs and then turned to their cell mates. Jones freed Thorek, and Malion the priest Kuhlbert. Together, they all joined the halfling and archer at their respective cell doors and looked around. They couldn't add much beyond what the other two had gleaned, aside from the fact that Mal and the priest were in the cell to the left of Frodo and Merritt, and Thorek and Jones were in the cell left of that. Kuhlbert finally broke the silence that had descended. "Does anyone know where our other six companions went? Were they alive," he asked the other five that remained.

"When I first came to in the wagons, I thought I heard someone calling out for Griswold, but I can't be certain," replied Jones. "I suppose they could be in another set of cells down the hallway," he added. He strained to see if anything could be seen down the corridor, either friendly or captor, but his angle gave him precious little to work with. He gave up and began to inspect the door of the cell, giving it a shove to try and determine how sturdy it was. The bars held firm. While old, they were definitely well made, constructed by hands much more skilled than orcs. Given the low ceiling, and their presence in the Farolas Hills, he concluded that they were likely in an old dwarvish fort. "I don't suppose one of you happens to be a locksmith," he added dryly.

That elicited a quick laugh from Frodo. "That we would have that much luck," he said. "Well lads, it's all well and good that we're free of our ropes and such, but I don't think those orcs will be too happy about it," he added. The halfling turned his back to the bars and leaned against them. He stared around the cell and whistled a soft tune for a moment. His drunken adventures had landed him in many a cell so this was not a new experience for him. Having blood-thirsty orc jailers, on the other hand, was. He looked over at Merritt, but spoke to the group "Any bright ideas gents? Beyond hiring a locksmith?"

Jones gave a quick glance around the cell. Without any immediate means of escape, and the other cells seeming to be in a similar situation, he retreated to a pile of dirty straw in the corner. "Since we appear to be stuck for the time being, I'm going to try and catch some sleep and refresh my casting abilities. Theorek, if any of the beasts come back, wake me." The magic-user wasn't sure what the future held for them, but he'd be damned if he wasn't going to try and be prepared for it at least.

"Aye, sure, just take a nap while I go to work on this lock here," Thorek said, rubbing his wrists. His inclination to thank Jones for untying him dying at the mage's words as he began to lie down. This wasn't going to be easy, but it was worth a try, he said to himself as his thoughts returned to the lock. Subconsciously he placed a hand on his beard and the metal hid there as he began to look over the door. He reached through the bars and tried to feel for the lock. While mucking with the padlock, he addressed Frodo a cell over, "One step at a time: going to see what I can do with this lock. Hopefully it's not too tricky." Thinking for a moment he turned back to Jones, "Hey Nancy-boy, got any hair pins I can borrow?" Jones ignored him and his smirk.

"I'm afraid I'm no good at lockpicking," Mal replied to the halfling's query. "There wasn't much of a need for security of that nature where I'm from. I'll see what I can find though." He began to look around, hoping to find a loose stone or bar, or some evidence of a previous occupant's escape attempt. His efforts were rewarded when he found that a stone along the cell's back wall moved. After a bit of wiggling he was able to pull the small block out and move it to the side. Inside the opening he found a leather bag, the material dry and brittle with age. Kuhlbert watched the sack fall apart as the half-elf revealed two small vials from within it. Malion looked at the vials, "these look useful," he said. The priest held out a hand and the half-elf passed him one.

Kuhlbert gently pulled the stopper out of the vial, gave it a sniff and then lightly dabbed it on his tongue. "I believe that is a healing elixir," he said. "And judging by the similar color of the two, the other one might be as well. The curate of my sect was able to brew these, and I was charged with seeing them safely to and from the stores. I've seen them bring a man, trampled by oxen and near death, back to full health.

Malion secreted the vials amongst his belt and Thorek ceased his playing with the lock as Jones stood up at the sound of approaching footfalls. Merritt and Frodo were the first to see two orcs as they walked past the double door and into the hallway leading to the cells. They both carried numerous sets of manacles that clinked against each other as they walked. One bore a set of keys which dangled from its belt next to a dagger and a rather nasty looking whip. The other carried a small club while a dagger lay sheathed on its belt.

"Time for working," the key-bearer said with menace in its eyes, either not caring or not knowing that the captives should have been bound. The other orc yawned which earned it a cuff to the side of the head. Turning back to the prisoners the lead orc continued as it slowly walked past each of the cells. "Who first? Man-filth? Half-man? No…" it said, stopping in front of Thorek's and Jones' cell. "Stunty first," it concluded sneering at Thorek. "Hands here stunty, man-filth too," it said, gesturing for Thorek and Jones to put their hands through a gap in the bars so they could be manacled. "That, or whipp'n", it added eagerly.

Thorek bit back a retort and stepped forward with a sly wink to Jones. Jones saw and followed, not knowing what the dwarf was about but planning on playing along. Each placed their hands through a gap in the bars and looked to the orc. Somewhat crestfallen at their compliance, the orc clapped a set of chains on both the dwarf and man before unlocking the cell door. The second orc then entered the cell and clapped linked chains on both of their ankles. It gave a tug to the chain it still held and Jones, followed by Thorek, trudged out of the cell. The process was repeated at the next cell where both Malion and Kuhlbert were chained at the wrists. The lead orc bent to unlock their cell door as the other yawned.

"Have a meal of me fist ye ass-faced, dirt lickin' washoon!" Thorek had been waiting for more strength in numbers, or a chance to figure out where they were first, but "Sleepy" was too much of an opportunity to pass up. He barely considered his plan as he stepped behind Jones and swung his manacled fists around, smashing them into the side of the yawning orc's head. The orc stumbled back and to its left, dropping the chain to their ankle restraints, as it hit the wall and slid to the floor. "Take him Jones!" Thorek shouted, hoping to at least distract the other orc long enough for Mal or Kuhlbert to strike.

Attempting to capitalize on Thorek's distraction, Malion pulled his manacled hands back into the cell and took a step to his right, planning to reach through the bars and pin their gaoler against them. Forgetting his restraints, he put his hands through two separate gaps in the bars and cut his reach short as the chain caught. Malion's surprise was mirrored in the orc's face on the other side of the bars. That expression quickly turned to terror as the chain from Thorek's manacles flashed in front of it and found its way around the orc's neck. Eyes bulging, hands clawing at the iron links digging into its neck, the orc found itself bent back away from the cell door as Thorek snarled in its ear, "who's gettin' the whipp'n now, ye rat-skinned scabshyte." The orc passed out quickly and fell back onto Thorek with a string of dwarven expletives. Jones, somewhat in shock of what had just transpired before him, stared down at the orc, and the keys and weapons it carried.

Kuhlbert blinked in surprise as the orcs were brought down in short ordered. He recovered his wits and exited the cell, removing the keys and the dagger from the orc on top of the still swearing Thorek. He rolled the orc off the dwarf and helped him up. The shackles clanked on the floor as they fell off the dwarf as Kuhlbert found the right key. "Take this" he said to Thorek, handing him the dagger as he freed himself, the wizard, Malion and the two others still in their locked cell. After everyone was free, Kuhlbert addressed the group "Since the last time went so well, this should be easy." He almost cracked a smile before shooting the wizard a look, "don't think about pulling your negotiation stunt again."

Jones nodded sullenly at the cleric's words. He turned and moved over to explore the fourth cell, testing the door and peering into the darkness. He didn't have the faintest idea of how to use the whip left on their unconscious jailer, but maybe a staff or old dagger had been stored in this dark corner of the dungeon somewhere. With limited magical abilities left for the day, he needed to find another method of defending himself. The cell's door was open but there wasn't much in it aside from some rags and a bit of straw.

Thorek thanked Kuhlbert via a mutter of appreciation as Jones wondered off. He turned to Merritt and tossed him the knife he had been offered. "Thanks but I've got me own. Let's spread the wealth a little." From under his beard came a short, wickedly curved skinning knife which promptly disappeared briefly into the chests of both of the downed orcs. He tossed Sleepy's dagger and club towards the group and squatted over its bloodied head, working his knife back and forth around one of the orc's larger incisors.

Free of his cell, Frodo gingerly stepped around the orc bodies and reached up on the tips of his toes to take the torch off of the wall. With a mass of orcs likely beyond the large doors, he reckoned that it couldn't hurt to look further down the hall for another way out. Staring down the darkened corridor next to his former cell Frodo motioned with his torch, "we'd better get moving lads, the orcs will surely be checkin' on their kin soon." Cautiously, he started down the hall.

Kuhlbert stooped to pick up the club as Malion grabbed the knife. They both followed the halfling as he started to move away. Merritt followed as well once Thorek had finished extracting a tooth from each of the felled orcs. Jones went to follow them before noticing light emanating from the hall next to the fourth cell. He looked around the corner and heard the footsteps of the others. He walked down the halfway before stepping into the light before a startled Frodo who gave the mage an incredulous glare.

The room was some twenty feet wide and thirty feet long. It apparently housed an island of eight identical cells in the middle of it. They were all empty now, save for the one opposite the hallway that lead to the double doors. That cell contained the skeleton of what appeared to be a man. It was still clothed and lay on its side at the back of the cell. The bars of the cell looked different from the others as well, they gave off a different luster.

Malion approached the cell and gently tried to open the door. It was locked. Looking to Kulbert, the priest passed him the keys so he could unlock the door to the cell. It opened with a creak. He cautiously approached the skeleton, leading with his dagger, the stories he had heard in his youth of the walking dead clear in his mind as the others gathered at the bars. Jones shuttered and looked away as the half-elf gave a tentative prod at the skeleton. Malion satisfied himself with a few more prods before gingerly examining the body. It was definitely once a human male given its size and bone thickness but he had no way of telling how the man had died. The clothes it wore were old and rotten, having seen the man's flesh decompose within them. The boots looked to be soft and well worn as well, but still serviceable from their exterior leather.

Malion was not uncomfortable with death, it was, after all, part of the natural cycle. He was, however, relieved that the skeleton appeared to be of the permanently dead variety. Mal eyed the leather boots the skeleton was still wearing once more. Maybe the man had hidden something within them before he expired, he thought. He knelt to remove the boots, they came off of the skeleton's feet without too much trouble. He flipped them upside down and shook them of their contents, dust, dirt and other debris were all that fell out. Peering inside them he expected to be greeted with an awful stench and stains but to his surprise he experienced neither. The boots looked on their inside like they did on their exterior, well worn but still in decent condition.

Malion shrugged, his boots were perfectly fine but he suspected the skeleton's boots might be more than they appeared. He removed his boots and tucked them into his belt and then pulled the leather boots on his feet. They felt a bit large for his him, but not overly so. He wasn't sure what he was expecting to happen, but nothing did beyond a few raised eyebrows and a queer glance from Frodo. "Who takes a dead man's boots," the halfling muttered to Merritt.

Jones turned from the scene to inspect the bars of the cell more closely. Something about them stood out from the other cells, not to mention the general squalor and filth of the prison. The half-elf had opened the door with little problem with the key, but the presence of an enchantment couldn't be ruled out. He rapped on the bars with his knuckles and turned to the dwarf, "Thorek. Your people are renowned for the metallurgy. Do you notice anything unusual about these bars? They seem to be a bit off from the rest." Jones turned back to the cell while Thorek scrutinized the bars. A chill ran down the magic-user's spine. After that night he had spent stuck in a crypt while gathering spell components for his master, Jones was more than happy to let someone else get up close and personal with skeletal remains.

After a few seconds of peering at the bars Thorek turned to Jones, "aye, they're made of silver lad. A bit of an odd choice for cell bars, bending 'em wouldn't be too hard."

Jones repeated Thorek's analysis in alarm and a step back, "Silver? As in the metal used to kill undead, silver? Maybe we should let our resident priest here take a look at that skeleton," he said looking at Kuhlbert. "Just to ensure that its current state is the proper one, and that it stays," he stressed, "in that state.”

Kuhlbert looked at the mage, it was clear that he was unnerved by the dead man. "Or we could just leave the door locked like we found it," he said plainly. "If Malion didn't disturb it undressing it I doubt it will rise up now. Let the man reset in peace."

Malion, meanwhile, had heard the halfling mumble and attempted to defend himself. "He doesn't need them anymore, you know," he said as he began to hop from side to side and then quickly ran from wall to wall in the small cell. "Besides, they could be magical!"

Frodo shook his head, "are we done here," he asked.

Thorek crossed his arms, staring at the cell bars thoughtfully. "You know, with a hammer an' chisel, or maybe a good mattock, we could walk out of here with a pretty good amount of money from pawning off these bars."

Malion shook his head, "the halfling is right, we should get out of here," he said, still hopping from foot to foot in an attempt to activate what magic, if any, the boots contained. "I say we leave this room. "There may be more orcs coming once they realize their friends haven't returned. We can come back for the bars later." He looked at them all, "by the way, we haven't been properly introduced. I'm Malion, but you can call me Mal," he said. "I believe we owe these orcs for the beating we took. Are we in agreement?"

Merritt nodded. "Aye, lead the way funny man," he said looking at the halfling with the torch.