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    Gannon gave him a dirty look and disappeared into a shadow. Suitably impressed, the rest of us put together a tactical plan quickly; the mages would raise duststorms and fog clouds and generally create confusion, after which I would charge in and damage people.
    Gannon moved in closer. The Fae had a bunch of glowing, writhing worms on sticks to gave light; their perimeter was pointed in, and they were busily keeping the orcs (who outnumbered them about fifteen to one) in line through whips and possibly a fear spell. He might well be able to sneak up on one of them, but would surely be noticed without an assisting distraction.
    Conner created his wall of smoke, shrouding some of the orcs. Meara's spell created more smoke around some orcs and a couple of the Fae. Llweder raised a duststorm around two of the Fae, then charged in right beside me. Having memorized the layout on his approach, Gannon made it through the line of distracted Fae without being noticed, slunk up to the nearest orc and went to work on its chains; since they contained no iron, the metal was not very strong.
    The Fae wore leather armor; this did them very little good with Cold Iron sweeping down at them. I struck off a head. I was a little surprised, in retrospect, at how easy it was. I didn't hesitate or anything. Things happened very quickly.
    Meara cast a spell, coating herself with flames. Gannon freed a few more orcs. Some of them began moving to free more of their fellows. A second Fae attempted to parry my blade and failed miserably, joining his comrade in death. Llweder swung his staff at one of the remaining overseers, hitting him in the head, then parried the return blow from the Unseelie.
    Having identified me as a threat, three converged. One struck well; my armor turned most of it, but that stung, and I had a good opportunity to notice the flame outlining his blade. Another missed its blow, and the third glanced harmlessly off my shield. Meara charged down the hill, still haloed by Brigid's fire, and set one of the Fae alight. A moment later the one facing Llweder went down with an arrow through his throat.
    Then the orcs decided that enough of them had been freed for them to attack their former overseers. Gannon faded back into the shadows, his job completed, as a number of orcs grabbed one of the remaining Fae and slammed him into the pile of iron ore. The one with the flaming sword decided that discretion was the better part of valor and began backing away, not fast enough. I went low and dealt him an ugly gut wound. The one Meara had set on fire blazed more fiercely for a moment, staggered, flailed, and collapsed.
    That left two. The one still facing me gathered himself together — literally — and took a step backward, then another, after which he dwindled rapidly into nothing.
    "Damn," I muttered.
    The other one was unwounded but very, very afraid. Llweder put on a menacing display with his staff, but the orcs got there first, interested only in tearing their former masters to shreds.
    Gannon tapped Conner on the shoulder. "We should go."
    "Lady Ariana, we might want to leave now," he agreed.
    "You keep saying that," I sighed distractedly.
    "We can come back," Meara reminded her.
    "We're going to have to, we still don't know what the hell's going on here."
    "No, we don't. Let's go."
    "Maybe we can go talk to Emer while they're calming down...." They were right in that there was little use in attempting any conversation until the slaves had recovered from their frenzy, and the ghost's opinion on current goings-on was sure to be interesting. Assuming he didn't kill the lot of us out of hand for presuming to bother him.
    "There's a little too much bloodlust in the air," Gannon observed. "Starting with her," he added under his breath. Which was unfair; my head was surprisingly clear.
    "Let's run," Meara suggested patiently.
    We wound up at the druid's grove; it seemed a good place to consider what we had learned and to plan the next move.
    Fifty years ago, Emer had asked his druids to investigate the matter of Balor's prison, in a way that struck the druids as "odd." It is not certain that they had time to do so before disaster struck. Emer had either awakened something he shouldn't (and later repented?), or interrupted someone else at it. In one night the druids had been wiped out, possibly in a goblinkin attack, and Emer and his entire warband killed somewhere around the iron mine. That night had never departed. I suppose the way to test the relationship would be to shove a couple tons of ore back down the mine and see if the darkness is affected.
    There are goblins and evil Fae involved in what certainly looks like an effort to free the bound. Some of the former have spread southwards from the valley. I'm not convinced that the villagers are innocent, and I still don't know why our tax collector was killed. Had he found what we've discovered? More? Had he decided to reveal the valley's secrets?
    Perhaps Emer can shed light on these matters.     

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© 2002 Rebecca J. Stevenson et al