Torfindel sighed as they passed out from the warmth of the great Hall into the chilly evening air. It was pushing eight o'clock he noted from the sun's position. Wistfully he glanced out over the compound as if he could see some magical means of escape from this horrible situation if only he looked hard enough.
But no, everything was just the same as when he'd last walked this way in the late afternoon sunshine. Their six Hobbit guards still surrounded them in a loose ring, three with drawn swords, three with crossbows now. The gates had been shut, and three guards slumped idly around them. Twelve more pairs stood or walked along the walls. The compound itself was more crowded then when they'd left it, a collection of scruffy and underfed thugs all trying to intimidate the others into leaving them alone. If any of them did make a run for it, alone and unarmed, a whole crowd of the bastards, looking for a bit fun kicking a helpless escapee around'd mob them.
While he'd been thinking his gloomy thoughts they'd been rapidly crossing the square. Instead of dragging them back to their cell for the night as Torfindel had expected he noticed that their captors where leading them towards the gate. Pretzel had meant what he said when he demanded they start immediately then.
"Aww, look Torfindel, it's Smokey," cooed Carmina softly, avoiding alerting any of the others.
Torfindel glanced down at the large black cat walking beside him, and it took all of his noble's skills of self-control not to stop in shock as he recognised the look of cynical contempt Smokey always reserved for him. The cat could never respect anybody who kept a bird for a familiar, but Torfindel had never been so pleased to see the animal in his life. Before his stunned mind could begin to react however, a hulking armoured Half-Elf rose up from a nearby campfire and cleaved in the head of the nearest guard.
He heard a whiss-thunk noise and a scream from behind him, followed by a strange crackling noise. A cloaked woman who he dimly recognised as the Necromancer appeared and threw a short sword his way. The compound had erupted into chaos, people running left and right. He snatched up the weapon from the dirt. Ieannia stabbed a guard in front of his eyes, and Zorro clubbed the crossbowman from behind, felling him. The short weedy Hobbit thrown into their cell earlier spread his arms out and began to chant out a spell, but Smokey took the opportunity to sink his claws into the spell caster's leg, and the spell chant collapsed into a yowl of pain. Snarling Torfindel charged the last swordsman, who was himself stalking Urg.
Carmina snatched up her weapon, a long knife, but her guard, their sergeant, was quicker. She managed to whirl out of the way of the rapier thrust that would have plunged through her side, but was pricked slightly in the shoulder. Her own lunge with the short blade turned into a desperate parry as she found out her longer reach was cancelled out by the shortness of her blade. She was dimly aware of pandemonium behind her as the other campers scrambled to distance themselves from the battle. She lunged at the other again, but their duel was cut short by the Necromancer. She flung her last Chill Touch spell at the Hobbit, and Urg crushed his skull when he doubled over in pain.
Torfindel barely had time to swing once at the last swordsman before Ieannia and Zorro butchered him from behind. Someone screamed out a death cry, but Torfindel was distracted by a crossbow quarrel whizzing past his face. A quartet of guards on the wall had loaded up and fired, and eight more where racing down the wall steps towards the adventurers. The guards who'd been lazing by the gate too where now frantically loading crossbows. More shouts sounded behind them. The Unknown Necromancer raced up to him and gestured widely to his left. Coming towards him were horses, lead by a mounted cross-wielding Hobbit.
Crossbow bolts smacked past them. Carmina saw one glance of the armoured bulk off the Half-Elf she now recognised as the mad priest from the square. Ieannia cried out as two struck her at once, lifting her from her feet and flinging her to the ground. Instantly Zorro jerked her upright and flung her over a horse lead to him by the Necromancer. The Cleric rode past her and Carmina was scooped up and dumped with Ieannia. Ron muttered a word as they thundered for the gateway, and the Ranger's wounds closed magically. Behind them there was a roar of flame as a whole section of the wall burst into fire at Torfindel's shout. The screams of the crossbowmen as they hurled themselves aflame from the wall came too late for Urg. Twice bolts struck him as he hauled his powerful body onto a horse. He crashed to the ground, but struggled into a sitting position. As Ron cantered towards him a third quarrel found his throat, and he fell backwards and stared emptily up at the sky. Two more bolts, from the gate this time, smacked into his horse and sent it into frenzied thrashings over his fallen corpse.
Ysel fired her last electrified bolt into the chest of the third gate guardsmen as they thundered towards the barrier. Things weren't looking good. Three horses had been killed in the flight for the gate, as well as the Half-Orc. Ieannia, Carmina, Zorro and Torfindel where all injured to various degrees from those damned quarrels. Worse, the guards had barred the blasted gate. Who'd have thought such a slovenly bunch would have put up such fanatical resistance? It was only thanks to the Cleric's healing spells they hadn't lost anyone else. She hauled her horse up and slid off, glancing behind her at the line of fighters coming their way. Already the first bunch from the walls were almost upon them, and she could see that scores of Hobbits had spilled out of the house behind them. There simply wasn't time to get the main gate open.
Cursing she pawed at her armour, drawing up the key they'd taken from the unconscious Minos in shaking hands and started for the portal gate, set in the left door. Behind her, the Unknown Necromancer saw what she was doing and bellowed at the others to dismount and turn their horses. Ysel flinched as a quarrel tore past her head and dropped the key on the ground. Feeling sick with fear the hobbit scrambled frantically around for it in the dirt. Behind her the horses began to die as the party's living wall was peppered with another volley of crossbow fire. The first pursuer, a Hobbit, had just scrambled across a chestnut's corpse to meet Ieannia's sword when Ysel scooped up the key and jammed it into the lock. The well-oiled mechanism opened smoothly and they staggered out one by one to the whommsh of Torfindel's Burning Hands spell as the Sorcerer cut off the gate from the pursuit behind a wall of flames.
As they charged down the street they heard the clatter of feet as the Hobbits surged for the wall steps, hoping for a lucky shot at the fugitives. Other, fresh pursuers spilt out from nearby houses bordering the main way. It was as if somebody had disturbed an ant's nest. Without a word the party turned and bolted across to the nearest side street, their breath coming out in ragged gasps. Carmina and Torfindel, the most heavily injured, swayed on their feet. Even the Necromancer, usually fleet of foot, felt her legs dragging on her like lead weights.
"This is no good!" she shouted out "There's so bloody many of them! We've got to find a place to hide! We'll never make it out without the horses unless we do!"
"Why did you bring them in?!!" howled Ieannia back.
The Ranger couldn't forget the slaughter of the trapped animals inside the walls, the memory all the worse because it could so easily have been them, and still could. The warren of Lower Wyrmling had fractured their pursuers into bands of black cloaked searchers, but they where so many they continually appeared on street corners, blocked off roads and trailed them down alleys. It was as if half of the town was after them.
"I thought the gate guards would scatter when they saw us riding at them, not bar the gates and fight to the last man! And this isn't helping us!" shouted back the wizard.
She Flared a group of Hobbits who'd surged into the street in front of them, and the party scurried past them and down a cobbled lane. Behind them the Hobbits picked themselves up, and with cries of pursuit took up the chase once more. Ysel, in the lead, had covered about a quarter of the lane when she saw the other end fill up with black-cloaked enemies. The Thug began swiftly checking for other escape routes. The walls of the lane where scalable but too high. She doubted that many of them would live to reach the top by presenting themselves as such easy targets. Flying was impossible as none of them possessed anywhere near the power needed. That only left the ground, and here the Hobbit blessed the Goddess, because set in the stone was a square metal sewer lid, as usual left unsealed so local residents could pour their garbage down it.
The Hobbits had halted their pursuit, content they had the adventurers bottled up. They waited for crossbowmen to arrive and push themselves forwards. No one had any particular desire to lead a rush onto the swords of a cornered quarry. Seizing the time given to them Ysel turned around and grabbed Zorro.
"Get the lid up," she hissed at him, pointing to the grate.
Quickly the Dwarf hauled up the metal lid and unhesitatingly jumped into the darkness below. There was a roar as the Hobbits realised that their prey where escaping, and resumed their twin charges. But they where too late. The adventurers where bundled themselves inside all together. Ron, the last one inside, hurled himself onto a pile of groaning bodies and slammed the bolts home, sealing the lid shut in the snarling faces of enemy. The party braced itself for a storm of blows to the grate as their pursuers sought entry.
However instead of the pounding of swords on metal, they heard a shuffling of feet, as though a great many people where moving aside for someone. The voice that finally spoke to them then, oddly disembodied through the lid as it was, did not come as a total surprise. Its gently mocking tones where no different then they had been in his office.
"Well now, this is quite a mess you've managed to land us all in isn't it? I'm afraid that you and your companions seem to have killed or injured over a dozen of my guards Mistress Elf," said Pretzel "and I congratulate you. I had thought we could capture you back at Yaggis without any of this unpleasantness. I underestimated you all. But fear not, I won't do it again. Normally you'd be followed down there and killed of course, but I think I've lost enough valuable brothers and sisters for one day. There are only a few entrances in and out of your prison, and all the ones in our territories will be watched, mark me. And I do think it would be so much more satisfying for you to suffer the fate you've all tried so hard to avoid. Mortals, I leave you to the Ratwarrens! Farewell!"
The party looked about each other uncertainly. Then the Necromancer opened her pack and lit a torch. Under it's flickering light they stared down the dark tunnel ahead of them with trepidation. No one moved. Suddenly Torfindel caught a clear look of Ysel's face in the torchlight.
"Hang on...." he began, frowning.