Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Castle 17

The Hill Giant Chief - Nosnra's Saga - Part XII

"How did you cause Edouard to change into that giant's form," Gytha asked in a light, alto voice.

"It was the simplest of spells," answered Ivo with pride, replying in a deep grating rumble, each word a rocky sound, but clear and sharp like the edge of fresh cut stone. "Back home, among the hills, we live by such masking spells. Our warriors are doughty but our enemies are large and many. Such illusions are but a word, a gesture and a speck of colored dye."

"They are a wonder to me," she said wide eyed. "I have a simple faith, and with the Saint's boon I am granted such answers to my prayers as he deems me worthy to receive, but I have never seen the like of spells such as yours."

"Have ye not?" the old gnome asked surprised.

"Oh," she laughed, "I have seen mage's spells before, and druids' cause the oerth to rise and take on human form, but not these magics which trick the eye or blind it. And more, I do not trust my senses now that I have seen you cast your spells."

"Hey there!" called Harold from across the fire. "Don't let him deceive you with his simple talk. I've seen him on a midwinter night casing spells from upon a stage set at the center of Greyhawk's High Market. He lit the sky with colored lights that swirled and changed, then came alive. First monsters walked from roof to roof, great dragons danced in pairs above then a rain of sparkling mist chased them all away. Next a land formed, the empty curve of the Selintan before a brick or stone was laid, then against the river a small wooden house, a wall of wood then stone sprang up around it. Then a castle keep, and like a season's growth of grain shown from seed to harvest in a moment's time, the city grew and grew until mirrored in the sky above were all those below upon the ground." The halfling gasped for breath and laughed at his memories of such a spectacle. "Then it all changed and there was Zagyg's face, laughing down at us, he blew us all a kiss and stuck out a tongue that could have lapped the river dry. Oh what fun it was, the Fool was crowned and the mad night begun."

"Now, now master Harold," the old gnome almost blushed at the praise, "no need to tell old tales."

"You need some of that gnomish stonesweat brandy you drank that night," Harold laughed.

"Just a small drop is all I had, to keep out the night's chill," Ivo replied.

"A small drop for one of these giants, maybe," Harold turned to the Cuthberite priestess. "I take it you have never seen the grandest city of the Oerth."

"Oh, I've been to Gorna," Gytha answered innocently.

"Gorna, oh you poor, untraveled lass," Harold cried in a pitying voice. "Greyhawk would fit a dozen Gorna's within its walls and have room to spare."

"I've heard bard's tales of course, but a city's greatness is more than just its size," she replied.

"Well said," Interrupted Ivo. "Greyhawk holds many wonders, but the hills of my homeland are much more dear in my eyes than any of the city's halls or palaces."

"Oh, the shame, that such a wonder worker as yourself fails to recognize the greatest wonder of the Oerth!" Harold despaired.

"That's enough of that," Harald's bass voice declared. "Pardon this little Harold's unrelenting love for his adopted home. He was born in Geoff, same as you and me," he told the red-haired cleric. "North of the Hornwood, was it not my friend?"

"I was but a lad. I had no choice!" the halfing Harold replied.

"Careful there!" The bigger Harald warned. "You do not say that Geoff is a birthplace to bring on shame!"

"No, no..." Harold stuttered, raising his hands in mocking fear to ward off his old friend's wrath.

"Yes, you were too young to be taken away from such a noble place of birth. No better land to raise the young exists," declared Harald.

Gytha laughed. "No wonder such an unlikely pair as these two are such friends. You are as just as bad," she waved a playful finger at the greying hero. "What can master Ivo here think of us; I'm sure his own Kron Hills are just as fair."

"My apologies, Master Gnome," Harald gave a deep formal bow.

"And mine as well," the halfling stretched out a leg and doffed an imaginary cap, in a graceful gesture of respect.

Both Ivo and Gytha laughed at the ridiculous sight of the huge ranger and the tiny halfling thief bowing together like the most unlikely twins.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Hill Giant Chief - Nosnra's Saga - Part XI

Chapter II - Nine Against The Giants

The cave was cold, no matter what that pious, pompous, Pholtite said to the contrary. Harold Goodwine shivered though he was wrapped in a thick-furred blanket of a cape. The halfling was not used to these damp and freezing climes. He had been born in Geoff but raised in the hub of the Oerth, the gem of the Flanaess, greatest of cities, Greyhawk. Eating a hot meal in a warm house was what he should be doing and where he would rather be on such a day as this.

"Watch that cape, and your feet. You'll have them in the fire next!" A deep bass voice called. Harald Hardhand towered over most men but he was a true giant in the eyes of the other Harold.

The two were as different as they were fast friends. The halfling, painfully thin, by his standards, small even according to his people, no warrior but a sneak thief, an unrecognized master of his craft. He dressed in the most appallingly garish colors, and, besides a desire for wealth, had an overwhelming fondness for jewels and gems of all sorts.

Harald was broad, almost of dwarven build around shoulders and chest but on two tree-trunk legs. He was a head taller than the wizard Talberth, a skinny youth, at least as viewed from the distance that thirty or so years had put between them, but the young mage was tall and thin as a sapling. Harald's hair, what was left of it, was brown with thin lines of silver-grey running through. He had it pulled back in a long tail and tied it with leather cord. His whiskers and drooping mustache were streaked with age among the reddish-brown. A long white patch went through his beard. It followed the course of a scar that ran from edge of jaw to top of hairless pate. His other scars, a crisscross of old wounds, did not show. He wore a dark brown-green pair of trews, a brick-red stripe edging the tartan blocks. A wondrous silver-metal shirt of chain, enchanted with a smith-wizard's spell, he hid beneath a much patched tunic, a grey-green cloak thrown over both.

"At least I'd be warm for a change," the halfling grumbled back, but pulled his feet and cloak away from the smokeless yellow flame.

Across the fire sat another unlikely pair. An ancient gnome, his long broad nose projecting from a face hidden in a thousand wrinkled lines of flesh. Bushy brows over deep set eyes, a wave of long white hair sprouting from beneath a metal cap; Ivo of Pondsend, a magician of great power. He talked in earnest with a red-haired warrior-maid, a cleric of staunch faith who wielded a stout length of wood, her patron's choice and talisman. Gytha Fireheart, St. Cuthbert's loyal shepherdess. Beyond them the holy priest of Pholtus, Henri, blinded by his God's shining light but gifted with a blank-faced sun-rayed mask that let him see among the realms of men. He sat still and silent, communing with his deity. To his side, near the far wall, a stable had been improvised; a line of horses, a small pony, and some hearty mules exhaled steaming plumes of frigid air and huddled in the cold. Two wizards, cloaked and robed in black with silver edge, both appearing young, the one from lack of years upon the Oerth, the other a high-elven face that looked both youthful and ageless, no mark of passing time but a sense of sorrow that time can bring even to a carefree heart. Talberth, young but of some renown, a human mage, he rested a long-fingered hand upon a shivering horse's flank. With a small spell, a cantrip of no note, he sent a pulse of warmth from his palm and soothed the wordless plea for heat. Telenstil, a high-elven wizard, pale-haired and fair, he stood at Talberth's side, his head reaching only to the shoulder of the young mage, they talked of the past night's work.

"That was Nosnra, I am sure. We could have killed him there, Edouard should not have fled," Talberth complained.

"I disagree, my friend," the elf began. "Nosnra it might well have been, but he is no easy one to kill. I have met him before and I will meet him again, but with all that I have learned, what deadly spells and charms that I have here, I would not face him alone, not by choice. Our brave scout would have been slain to no effect, had he summoned our help, so the giant chief would have summoned his, and it is no pitched battle that we have come to fight."

"You are my master and I but your apprentice," Talberth humbly bowed.

"Come now, no need for false humility. I taught you well, but that was some years ago, you are your own master, and though I lead this expedition you are a colleague and partner, an equal among our group," Telenstil waved a graceful arm to sweep across the room.

Talberth could not help but glance, he saw them all, the two Harry's, Henri, Ivo, fair Gytha, his heart gave a trembled beat, and the albino twins, their scouts, Edouard and Derues. An angry thought stirred within him at the sight, he had a strong dislike for the white-skinned, pink-eyed pair.

"We are nine against a giant brood," Telenstil continued. "We must stay together to face their strength. It will take our united skills to accomplish what we must."

"I would see them dead, but I know as well as you that we seek a cause for their newly well-thought-out attacks, their gathered strength and cautious raids. These are not the giants that I was taught of in school."

"We are far from the Grey College's halls," Telenstil said smiling. "There is much that a book or scroll will say that is no more than the guesswork of some nameless sage. Here we will see what is not and what is said to be. Prepare yourself, and because I have seen these things before, please watch where I may lead."

"I will, have no doubt," said Talberth, "but what have we learned that was not known before? They bleed, a torrent in fact, a sharp blade can end their life as easy as any man's."

"An unlucky stone thrown by a passing cart can end the life of most men," Telenstil replied, "Those two last night, they died beneath a magic blade, drunk and spelled to sleep, a prayer of silence surrounding all that transpired. Had they woken it would have been a fight worth telling of when we return to civilized lands. No, last night we had the Lady on our side. It took just minutes for the alarm to sound and the entire steading to be roused and set to search."

"We saw only the entranceway, their tower and a few feet of that monstrous hall. I do not feel the Lady looked at us in kindness," Talberth shook his head.

Telenstil laughed, light and mild, a cheery pleasant sound, "Oh youth, you expect too much. We came, we went, and no one died; no injuries, not even a pursuit of any kind. That is kind fate indeed. I will not argue that we could have discovered much more, but what we saw, it proves our information right. The map that we have, it tallies with what we have seen. And of much more import, we worked well together. Look at us," he waved his hand again. "A Cuthberite sits near a praying Pholtus priest, a city bred halfling thief, a hero of renown, a pair of mercenary scouts, a gnomish master of deceiving spells, you and I, what an unlikely gathering."

"Working for an alliance of kings," Talberth said with a doubtful tone, "we are a mismatched group as you say. I for a duke, you for your queen, though her interest here seems far astray from her own lands."

"We elves have eyes that see quite far," came Telenstil's good-natured reply. "Or didn't they teach you that in school?" 

Witch 5

Art - Salvator Rosa The Witch La Strega

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Hill Giant Chief - Nosnra's Saga - Part X

"It is evil that has come among us," Nosnra stated flatly to his witan. "It is evil that breaks Eadwig's spirit. You are strong Engenulf, and you know much, but you are not your father." he caught the angry flash in his friend's eye. "And I am not Tofig, but I tell you, he would have done as I do now, and Engulfen would have stood beside him."

"I stand beside you." said Engenulf.

"No my friend, you obey me," Nosnra said sadly, "There is a great difference." He cast a lonely eye across the hilltop. The crowd of warriors had dispersed. The majority followed the pair that carried Eadwig to a cell. They were young, as was Eadwig and while loyal to their thegn, the sub-chief was as an older brother to them. Nosnra did not doubt that had the fight gone against him it would be his body, lifeless most likely, that the warriors would be dragging away.

The steading looked peaceful enough; no harm had come to the walls or roof, or to most within, just two of his kindred dead, like his own sons that he could not allow to rest.

* * *

Once again the chief's hall was filled, but a sober calm had silenced the gathering. Word of Huon's and Eadnoth's fate had spread, as well as the tale of Eadwig's fight, defeat and imprisonment in the dungeon of the Keeper.

The chief saw defiant looks here and there, but these were an older bunch than those who lionized his sub-chief. Many here could have been Eadwig's sire, but even those, older in years, had a fondness and respect for their youthful leader. Few male giant young were of the sub-chief's age, a sickness had come that defied the spells of the aging witan, Engulfen, and babes and mothers both had died. For five seasons young brides had joined the ranks of kindred dead, the pyres burnt on and on. Yet matrons who had birthed before survived, and girl children lived, though only one in three, but each year would pass and not a single son would see an hour's span upon the oerth.

Engulfen aged a year for every kindred dead and in the end he set a pyre, he offered up himself, his life, so that one son might live and break the curse. A wailing babe was born that day, Eadwig, Tostig's son, though he soon became the son of all the clan. His birth saw the end of the deadly spell. Engulfen's sacrifice had proved its worth.

 * * *

"Yes," said Nosnra to the leaders of the clan. "Eadwig has fallen too."

"But chief..." a bald greybeard began.

"There is nothing to be said. It's done, his fate is set. He lives or dies, but his time among the clan is over."

"Exile!" cried Engenulf.

"Had I lost and lived, such would be my fate," Nosnra replied. "Enough! He will be given time, but when he rises and walks again, he leaves."

"But..." Engenulf sought to change his old friend's mind.

"No!" His voice was harsh. "I said enough, I will not hear more. Those who wish may share his fate. Speak now and leave this hall, or raise their hand against me. Who challenges my right to rule?"

He faced them all, defiant and without fear. No voice called out, no giant moved, though some lowered heads or looked away, torn at heart between thegn and kin.

Thiodolf spoke up, "Thegn, none stand against you here," he turned and glowered at some who could not meet his eyes.

"Engenulf," Nosnra called to the witan, "tell of what you have divined."

"Yes, my thegn," he said quietly. Then in a louder voice began his tale. "Human, elf and dwarf, have come among us. Yes, this most of you will already know. I saw nine crows fly past the steading's walls and the spirits of those who died cried out as they went overhead. There are only nine who come against us, nine, but not farmers or herdsmen, not the weak children we have raided and brushed aside. Three crows called out to me and one disappeared. Then another turned into an eagle, then a mighty dragon, and then I saw Eadnoth's face before it too was gone. The last spoke in an eldritch tongue of power and cast a bolt such as a storm cloud makes and burnt at me though only in a vision. Behold!" He held out a black-streaked arm, blistered from palm to chest. "Such power is very great to reach from that spirit realm where visions walk as we do here on oerth."

"What of the other birds?" a wide eyed warrior called.

"Two others called to me and it seemed that each was carried in a great and mighty hand, one blazed with light, a white hot blinding fire that did not scorch the feathered wings it held aloft. The other was a plain sturdy fist, a hand of flesh and bone, but strong and rough, this bird cawed and screeched as any of its oerthly brethren might. The final four were a varied lot, one old, but large, the mightiest of its kind that I have ever seen. A warrior spirit I have no doubt. Two others that wore the shape of the crow but at heart bore a serpent's soul, their tongue and eyes were red as blood. Before they passed out of sight I saw them both set upon the elder bird and strike him by surprise. They fell, all three in a tangled heap beyond the horizon's edge and then they too were gone."

He paused and drank deeply from a pot of ale set by his side. "The last was small, full grown but stunted or from a smaller breed of crow. It weaved and wheeled across the sky, sometimes it lead the flock then fell back and hid behind the others. It was last to disappear but in its beak I saw the glitter of some gem or jewel, and my vision ended there."

"What good does hearing all this do?" asked Gosfrith, keeper of the wolves. "We waste time sitting here."

"You ask such questions?" Nosnra said, "I thought better of our huntsman."

"Huntsman, yes, and that is where I should be, not wasting precious time..." He paused then bowed his head to Engenulf, "I ask your pardon, witan. I mean no disrespect, but the trail goes cold."

"Your wolves found no scent upon the hill, these foul, human scum have hidden their tracks well, ensorceled them no doubt. They're put to better use as guards than running blind down valleys and over hills."

"We will find their scent," Gosfrith said. "Hidden trail or no, I do not believe they have covered every track. My pets will sniff them out if you will but allow it!" His voice ended in a shout.

"Watch your tongue! My patience is worn thin. I have had enough rebellion for one day," Nosnra shouted back. "Hear what Engenulf has said. This was no flock of birds that sit and peck upon a field of grain. He has all but named them. We know their number and have heard and seen something of their strength. Wizards, yes, and servants of some mortal gods it sounds, and warriors, brave and bold enough to hunt us in our own domain. They have killed by stealth and dweomencraft, I have no doubt that they will come again, and soon. I will not have you chasing rabbits when you should be here."

He stopped and watched the faces of his warriors. In some he saw his words sink in but others looked incredulous or showed sour disappointment. "Some here have fought such as these before down below in human lands. Some have broken dwarven halls and squashed the burrowing rats beneath your feet, but also felt the stings of spears or lost a finger, toe or hand to an axe's edge. I have seen them call upon their stunted gods or summon powers of the oerth or walking walls of fire. Yet many here have never faced the like and cannot know the strength within these tiny childlike beasts."

"Listen to your thegn!" Engenulf said, commanding their obedience. "This gap between the young and old, between those who fight now for the first time against a dangerous foe and those of us who have bled beneath a human's sword or elven spear or been cut down by a dwarvish axe, this disunity must end!" 

Castle 16

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Hill Giant Chief - Nosnra's Saga - Part IX

"Arise!" Nosnra commanded the assembled clan, "Arise and look upon your slain kin!"

A feast was laid out in the Great Hall. Above the roasting pit was spitted a monstrous aurochs bull, now a well carved skeleton charring slowly over the open fire. Barrels of ale, larger than a tall man, stood at head and foot of every table. Huge slabs of bread, served as edible plates set before each feaster, were buried beneath thick-cut hunks of meat, burnt crisp along their edge, but at heart raw red and dripping blood. Tubs of cabbage mixed with pickled dwarven heads, clean shaved, a rare delicacy among the hills. A dozen separate dishes, some hot and others cold, but most a charnel horror of sentient flesh, human, elven, dwarven, all fair game and sustaining meat among the giant-kind.

At the chief's command each giant rose, benches scraped back across the floor, then every eye, sad and with deep respect, turned toward the pair of dead set before the thegn's high table.

Huon's wife had brought their wedding shield, a huge kite of painted hide and wood, and placed it on his arm. Young Eadnoth had found no mate, instead his brother gave him a wanderer's staff, no runes carved upon it, his betrothal quest unlived, no tale ever to be told. A bread-plate of food was set for them, a huge flagon of ale beside their hands. Their bodies had been washed of blood, their wounds sewn tight and hidden, bloody clothes cut away then taken and soaked in oil. A torch would be made of these rags, wrapped round the wood then set aflame, a kindling wick to light the funeral pyre.

Then each giant was dressed again in their best finery and laid out with reverent care. Each member of the clan, from eldest, Ingigerd the ancient crone, to the youngest suckling babe, paced by the bodies of the dead; They stopped and took a bite of food or sip from flagon or snip of cloth, binding some fragment of their slain kin to the whole of the living kindred.

Engenulf approached them last. He placed the flagon to their lips and poured a tiny sip within, then took a pinch of bread and meat and put it on their tongues. He gently closed their jaws, reached up and shut their eyes then turned to face the gathered crowd and spoke the final words.

"They Sleep!" The witan proclaimed. "Eat, now that they have tasted their last food, drunk their final drink. We celebrate their life, and in their death they become one with all the kindred. All who have lived, all who live now, all who will one day come."

A roaring cheer erupted from every throat; it shook the rafters and the roof, and echoed down the hall. The feast began, the giants set to and soon there came first chortles then choruses of merry laughter. A snippet of a song erupted, flagons filled and emptied quick, a fight broke out, a drunken brawl, a table was overturned, a dozen meals upset.

Nosnra smiled at the sight, his people at play. It warmed his heart. This wrongness he'd felt was gone for now, the dead at rest, all was set aright.

* * *

The morning sun rose over the lowland forests. Its rays burnt away the mist rising from the damp valleys and steamed the fields around the steading dry. Smoke drifted lazily from the open gaps above the great hall and the smell of roasted meat wafted across the hill. Outside, a pack of dire wolves ran free then a trio of giants rounded the far corner wall, one stopped and called to the wolves. They bounded and frolicked, joyful in the warmth of the cloudless day.

Inside the hall the feast was done, the tables cleared, old sawdust and debris swept up and dragged away. A score of orcs, skeleton thin and showing signs of recent wounds, tossed a fresh layer of sawdust across the floor. Those giants who had not been conscripted for patrols or forced to help with morning chores had quickly fled. Most slept, but others readied weapons or dragged out bits of armor; rough hammered grieves, chain shirts, and brightly colored shields. The entrance hall had been washed clean, but up the stairs the dried black pool of Huon's blood was left, a grim reminder for unwatchful guards. Each gaping tower window contained attentive eyes, for now at least, unblinking in the morning light.

* * *

"Ver-find-ingan," Engenulf began his chant, crosslegged, upon the feasting table. Beside him Huon's body lay; one last service to perform. "Ver! Ver!" the magician-priest called forth. He drew a cryptic sign in Huon's blood, first on the dead giant's head, then another on his chest. "Sprek-ver!" the command came harsh and clear.

"I slept," the sepulcher voice exclaimed. It came from Huon's bloodless lips, no muscle stirred, no breath, just a distant speech summoned at the witan's call.

"Ver!" demanded Engenulf.

"I drank, I did not watch. They came... small, children... humans, olven, dwarf... two, three... two, then two, they came... the pain, pain, can't breath... cold, dark... Ogiva, Ogiva...." the voice gave one last plaintive moan and then was silent.

"Rest now," Engenulf kindly said and closed the staring eyes. "You heard?" he asked but did not turn.

"I heard," Nosnra replied. "It's as I thought; the human scum, olves, those foul dwarves from down below... They have killed us in our own hall. Our dead are dishonored."

"No, they died. That is all," Engenulf moved to face his old friend and looked him in the eye. "They are not dishonored in this death."

"I feel it here," the chief pounded on his chest. "The foulness of these creatures, it has washed over them. Their deaths were bad."

"Do not do this..." pleaded Engenulf.

"They cannot rest, they did not watch in life, the will keep guard in death. We will bury them just beyond the outer doors. Come," Nosnra yelled and several warriors appeared. "Take them to the entrance hall, bring picks! And Engenulf... prepare yourself. They will earn their rest, but you must wake them first."

"I obey. No pyre for them yet," Engenulf replied, shaking his head sadly.

* * *

Eadnoth and Huon were not buried deep. Instead they were set beside the wide dirt path at the crest of the hill. The lowlands lay below them, a forest that spread out far as the eye could see, but beyond the trees, the human lands. These two failed watchers would now keep a ceaseless vigilance.

"Nen-slfen, nen-rast, nen-friden," Engenulf cried aloud. His face was drawn and gray; this rite sapped at his spirit and blackened his soul. His voice started high and clear but fell to no more than a whisper. He set upon each grave a brazier filled with a powdered bone, a sliver of flesh cut from each dead giant's hand and marked with a drop of their own blood. As his voice began to fade, a magic fire, white-hot and shooting high, burst forth. It consumed the powdered bone, flesh, blood and braziers too. The flame burned deep within the ground, burned its way into each giant's chest and from the burning hole arose a spirit-cloud that swayed above their shallow graves. A soft whispered moaning word upon each ghostly lip and then as if some breeze took hold, though no wind was blowing across the hill, each wavering form turned into a thinning mist, and then was gone.

"It is done. They guard," Engenulf said and swayed upon his feet. His strength was gone, run out into the spell.

"My friend..." Nosnra said, and reached out a supportive hand, but a howling angry voice broke in upon his words.

"Nosnra! Nosnra! What have you done!" Eadwig came running toward them, a small crowd of giants following close behind.

"Eadwig!" Nosnra shouted back. "Do you command! The right of life and death are mine to choose!"

"My brother, you have dishonored him. Engenulf how could you curse him so?" Eadwig fell to his knees before his brother's grave.

"I, Eadwig, I had no hand in his dishonor. You step too far, your grief is no excuse," The thegn was in a rage. "Your brother died beneath a human's hand. He failed, he slept, like Huon there, he brought his dishonor upon himself!"

Eadwig flushed, his face went pale then suffused with red. His anger was so great he could not speak; a vein pulsed along his neck. He breathed great painful, sobbing heaves. A wordless scream broke from his tortured throat. It hurt the ear to hear. He stood then threw himself at Nosnra.

The chief screamed back. He charged as well and crashed head to head with Eadwig. They collided with the sound of bone on bone, like two proud horned-rams upon a mountaintop.

Eadwig won that first encounter; he knocked the thegn from off his feet and sought to crush his head beneath his broad iron-nailed boot. Nosnra rolled aside and grabbed him by the ankle, then made a sudden twist that tore muscles with a popping sound. Eadwig yowled in pain and fell hard upon his side, but as Nosnra crouched, preparing to rise, Eadwig summoned up more strength from rage, and, with his uninjured leg, sent out a kick that caught the chief across the face.

Nosnra coughed and spat out blood. He shook his head to clear it and the time it cost let Eadwig close, and with both hands he grabbed Nosnra by the throat.

The stunning blow had left him dazed but at the grip of Eadwig's choking hands Nosnra's mind was clear as crystal. He saw a look of manic glee behind his sub-chief's eyes, but with both hands he struck a hammer blow that cracked against the temples of Eadwig's head. The look of glee was wiped away; the crazed eyes rolled up and showed bloodshot whites, the strangling hold was broken. Nosnra struck again, his knuckles thick with scars broke tooth and nose, burst forth in blood themselves as stone-hard skull and jagged teeth rocked beneath the chief's relentless fists.

Eadwig, stunned and gushing blood from mouth and swollen eyes, struck back, but his force was spent, the chief now had the upper hand. Nosnra stood, with two bloody hands wavering above Eadwig's prostrate form, but he did not stop. He used his feet to kick in ribs, break hands and head, till his breath was gone. He paused. Engenulf came to his side.

"Enough?" he asked.

Nosnra spat red frothy blood. He let his breathing calm. "Enough," he answered back. "Does he live?"

"Yes, thegn, but he is badly hurt."

"Take him to the Keeper," Nosnra said in a raw growl.

A pair of young warriors grabbed Eadwig beneath the arms and carried him away.

"He will live or die as fate decrees."

"It is sad work done this day," said Engenulf, watching as Eadwig, still senseless from his beating, was dragged off to a dark bare cell.

Witch 4

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Hill Giant Chief - Nosnra's Saga - Part VIII

The Great Hall blazed with light. At its center a fire burned high within the stone-lined pit, and along its walls and wooden pillars, dozens of torches smoked and sputtered. The double-doors at its northern side were opened and Engenulf walked through, Nosnra at his side. All eyes within the hall turned to watch the witan's entrance.

Eadwig raised his head but held tight to his brother's inanimate hand. Ogiva, Huon's wife, held back her tears and with a stern command muffled her daughter's sobs and her own as well.

Nearly all the giants were gathered in the hall while ogre servants and orcish slaves were scattered here and there. A hush fell over them as Engenulf made his way to the high table. He was an imposing sight, tall as a forest tree, thin but possessed of a wiry strength, and corded with muscle detailed beneath his skin. His hair was long, no razor-knife or shears had ever cut it, instead many braids had been woven, twined with polished rune-carved bone, feathers from a dozen winged beasts and dye-stained cord, some creatures hide, now colored red and green and a dark rich blue. About his waist a belt of bone, the ribs of man and monster strung together with lengths of centaur hair, the buckle carved from a dragon's tooth. He wore a cloak of deep, soft fur thrown back from off his chest, its clasp, a human skull, eyes now cuts of amber ages old. Between its teeth it clamped a silver tang, held firm by jaws that iron rods kept closed.

"Friden, slafin-tif," Engenulf pronounced so softly the words almost went unheard. He stood upon the raised wooden floor, the high table at his side, and gently made the troubled Eadwig close his eyes and rest. From a fetish pouch he drew a careful measure of a grey-white ash, the harvest of a sacred pyre, and scattered them above the sub-chiefs head. "Friden, friden, friden..." he intoned and Eadwig gave a snore.

From his brother's hand, Eadnoth's hand was taken and Engenulf held it in his own. Then, as if to warm the death-cold flesh, the witan chafed its palm between his rough hands and held it to his lips.

"Sauber-ghen," he breathed the words upon the unseen skin, "Sauber-ghen, uss-ghen-ets!" he commanded. The translucent flesh obeyed, and in a wave that started with the hand within the witan's grasp, Eadnoth reappeared.

The giant's corpse was grim indeed, now visible once again, with open eyes that held a startled look and a throat slashed from ear to ear.

"Good that he sleeps," Nosnra said and looked sadly at Eadwig's recumbent form.

"Death comes to us all," Engenulf replied and bent to search the gaping wound. "The kindred claim their own."

"Death such as this," the chief pointed to his slaughtered guard, "should not have come at all."

"This cut was from a very sharp blade," the witan lowered his head, and, with braided hair covering the sightless eyes, sniffed along the severed neck. "An ensorcelled blade; It smells of magic," he turned and spat upon the floor. "Bring me a cup of ale!" he called "I need to rinse this wizard stench away."

He pulled a needle of splintered bone from a folded pouch of black, coarse cloth, and, with a length of resilient gut, sewed razored flesh together once again.

Art - Evelyn de Morgan Hope in the Prison of Despair

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Hill Giant Chief - Nosnra's Saga - Part VII

The Chief's private hall was filled, hill giants for the most part, but a trio of grey-skinned stone giants stood against the outer wall, silent and still as their name implied. Most noticeable, though, was a round-headed, bull-necked ogre. He stood only shoulder high to his giant masters but no one would mistake the scarred and heavily muscled figure as a youth or question his right to stand among them.

"All the elders of the kindred are present, my Thegn!" Thiodolf declared.

 "Where is Engenulf?" Nosnra demanded.

 "He is here!" A powerful voice replied.

 A cold wind swirled around him and a pair of monstrous dire wolves cavorted at his feet, puppy-like.

"Well close the cursed door!" Nosnra shouted back.

Thiodolf gestured and the youngest warrior among the gathering jumped from his seat and ran to shut the outside door.

"What is this?" Engenulf questioned. "Holding a witenagemot without the witan!"

"You're late is all," Nosnra yelled back. "We have serious business. Have you heard?"

"I've heard some, and I sense some, but you tell me," Engenulf replied.

"Huon's dead," Nosnra said abruptly as he had said it before in the watchtower,"and Eadnoth, but he is bespelled as well. His body is there but none can see it."

"Ahh..." Engenulf intoned. "Yes, I know that spell; Easy enough to break."

Nosnra felt a wave of relief. How could Eadnoth's spirit join with the kindred when it could not be seen by them.

"Is there more?" Engenulf asked.

"Isn't that enough... but yes, there is more," Nosnra replied. "Come," he stood and walked over to the witan. They were of an age, though Engulfen had been much older than Tofig, he had sired a son that was born within days of Nosnra. The two had been fast friends and boon companions, one destined to rule and the other to counsel. Now they buffeted each other verbally as they had pummeled each other physically in their youth. "Eadnoth needs to be cleansed of this vile enchantment and honored by the feast."

He led Engenulf by the arm toward the long passage and the Great Hall. "Thiodolf," he called back, "Bring everyone but the outer guards to the Great Hall."

"Yes, Thegn!" Thiodolf nodded respectfully and sent an unhappy young warrior on another errand.

"What else has happened?" Engenulf asked quietly as they walked down the passage. The witan looked concerned. Something had greatly disturbed his friend, much more than the death of two warriors. Always unpleasant, but death and life intermixed. Giants did not often die old, especially the warriors of the kindred. He reached out and gripped the chief by his shoulder lending his own strength.

"I felt this," Nosnra said, "as I lay asleep. I felt the wrongness come to the steading. I did not know then, but now... I felt the death of Huon and of Eadnoth. Why? Many of the clan have died, some by my own hand, most obeying my commands. I felt nothing like this before."

"How many have died inside these walls, or even upon this hill?" Engenulf gestured, sweeping his arm out from under a long fur cloak. "Your father held this hall against the last of those who would challenge our clan. None have come against us since." He stopped Nosnra before the wide double doors that opened upon the northern edge of the Great Hall. "This steading, this hill, it is part of you, as you are a part of the kindred. But what else is there? I sense something more?"

Nosnra paused then looked into his advisor's face. "I saw a phantom..." he began, "It appeared as a giant, one of our own kind, but insubstantial. It did not heed me when I called to it."

"There are magics involved," Engenulf closed his eyes to see beyond the mortal veil. "I can feel them. If there is something more, some touch of the spirits upon our world, I do not feel such, but I will cast the bones and we shall see."

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Minstrel Tales Black-Eyed Dwarf Rye (repost)

Minstrel Tales Black-Eyed Dwarf Rye

A small ditty from the streets of Greyhawk. It is considered rather rude and disrespectful of the Watch, but is sung throughout most of the city's inns and taverns.

Black-Eyed Dwarf Rye

Now Jak was a watchman whose post was Old Town
And she was a damsel, the street she skipped down
Said the damsel to Jak as she passed him by
Would you care for to purchase some Black-Eyed Dwarf Rye?

Thought Jak to himself now what can this be
But the finest dwarf whiskey from the Barrier Peaks
Smuggled down in a basket and sold on the sly
And the name that it goes by is Black-Eyed Dwarf Rye.

Jak gave her a gold piece and he thought nothing strange
She said, hold on to the basket till I run for your change
Jak looked in the basket and a child he did spy
I'm a goblin says Jak, if this be Black-Eyed Dwarf Rye.

Now to get the child fostered was Jak's next intent
For to get the child fostered to the priestess he went
Said the priestess to Jak, what will he go by?
Your worship says Jak, call him Black-Eyed Dwarf Rye.

Says the priestess to Jak, there's a very strange name
Your worship says Jak, 'twas the strange way he came
Smuggled down in a basket and sold on the sly
And the name that he'll go by is Black-Eyed Dwarf Rye'

Now all you bold watchmen who roam on the town
Beware of the damsels who skip up and down
Take a peep in their baskets as they pass you by
Or else they may sell you some Black-Eyed Dwarf Rye.

(Very lightly adapted from Quare Bungle Rye a popular song from Limerick)

The Hill, Giant Chief - Nosnra's Saga - Part VI

Four sets of hands lifted the transparent body, its weight so ponderous in death, ungainly and slick with blood. Four shoulders set to bear the sad burden, four sets of legs to move it from its hiding place and bring it forth for all to see. The clan would feast round their dead, a table in their midst, the bodies laid out upon it. But this sightless corpse, now unseen, enchanted so by some cursed mage, would have no witness of sad-eyed kin to hold it within the grave.

* * *

"This is Eadnoth?" Nosnra reached out a reluctant hand and touched it to the corpse. The chilling flesh beneath was tacky with a coat of blood. He held a bony shoulder in his grip and brought his other hand to hold the lolling head.

"Here," he said to the nearest bearer of the dead, "put an arm about his neck. He is your kin, not some slab of meat for the kitchen block!"

He brushed the bearded face in passing and felt the gaping wound, a throat laid open wide by a coward's knife, and drew his hand away. From the outer doors a thunderous approach came pounding and Eadwig, soaked and dripping, ran with a manic speed to confront the mortal shell of his most hapless brother.

* * *

The Chief's private hall was crowded, filled with the base rumble of angry giants. Across the passage the Great Hall itself resounded with the noise and bustle of several dozen booming voices.

"Close that Door!" Nosnra commanded from his padded chair within his hall and a warrior leapt to obey. The din inside the Great Hall surpassed that of the celebration the night before. Huon's wife had begun a keening wail at the sight of her dead husband. His son, only a few years short of a warrior's age, sat with his father's sword across his bony knees and Huon's two young daughters hid their faces, crying into their mother's skirt.

Eadnoth's corpse lay upon the high table; Nosnra had the bearers set it there by his command. Eadwig sat nearby and held his brother's transparent bespelled hand between his own. He made no sound, no movement but the steady rise and fall of his vast chest. His head was bowed and his eyes were closed.

A clatter rang from across the hall. The Chief's wife Estrith summoned the matron of the kitchen, an ancient giantess, but one still possessed of an indomitable spirit and wiry strength, and ordered her to begin a second feast; this one a celebration for the dead.

Ingigerd the Old, such she had been called when Nosnra's father, Tofig, had been a babe. She had seen the sun rise upon this hilltop before the steading's first timber had been set. She was the eldest of the kindred here, and perhaps eldest of all the halls and manors, huts and hovels, eldest of all her kind that still breathed upon the Oerth.

Estrith, proud as her husband's father Tofig, blinked her eyes beneath the stern gaze of the willful crone. Though she was mistress of the steading, second in power and will only to her husband, and some would say that it was he who was not her equal but second to her forceful will, here, among the pots and pans, among the firepits and scurrying slaves, here she was overawed and outmatched. Once, years ago, in a fit of temper, Estrith had struck Ingigerd, the insubordinate fossil, a cruel blow that might have felled a young warrior or a small tree, but Ingigerd simply endured and shrugged away the pain. Without a word she turned her back to the red-faced chieftainess and walked away. Estrith, in a silent rage, shamefaced, stood and suffered the humiliation of her ineffective wrath.

The matron had won and Estrith proved the weaker of the two. Now her orders were accepted but not obeyed, as if they were mere suggestions and not commands. Ingigerd need only look to her underlings and they would rush to their duties. Her dictates needed no shouts, or threats of dire consequence, only a silent nod or gesture.

Without awareness, Estrith sought to emulate Ingigerd's noble bearing, but her unruly nature escaped her attempt at quiet dominance time and again. The women of the steading left their places among the tables of the Great Hall. Some gathered the young and lead them to a far corner, others returned babes and toddlers to the relative safety of the creche where each member of the clan was raised, mothers taking such care in turn, and many followed the matron into the kitchen to prepare the feast that would last till the mourning was done. Estrith looked on in silence, arms folded across her ample bosom and watched with unconscious envy the deference paid to this decrepit churl, deference which rightly belonged to her alone. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Hill Giant Chief - Nosnra's Saga - Part V

Ursoth padded unhappily back and forth disregarded by the gathering company of giants. The odor of man lingered about the entrance hall, he snuffled it out from among cloaks and piles of skin, but the smell of blood, giant's blood, overwhelmed the human stink. He followed its trail, a scent like burnt copper mixed with fresh oerth, and pawed aside a bundle of hides damp with blood. He pushed and nosed till the bare floor was revealed. Beneath his paws he felt a lump of lifeless flesh cooling but not yet cold. He could not see it, though he smelled its presence.

There was a stir among the ranks of giants filling the stairwell, a gap was made, some backing down, others flattening themselves to either side, and Eadwig, came rushing down. He summoned two burly warriors from the pack and set off across the hall, heading for the outer doors. Ursoth came bounding to him; the bear brushed against the giant's legs and gave a roar as Eadwig passed him by. The sub-chief had no time for his thegn's spoiled pet. His brother must be somewhere out in the night, wounded or more likely dead.

It was Gosfrith who, stopping to pull a hide cloak over his shirtless chest, brushed a hand against the insistent bear. His fingers came away wet, and stained a dark red. He looked closer at the dumb beast and eyed the red-streaked muzzle and paws coated crimson.

"Eadwig! Eadwig!" He called then chased after the pair who'd just disappeared out into the night.

* * *

"Make way! Back to the Hall!" Thiodolf yelled to the aimless crowd. "Curse you, make way!" he pushed those standing at the top of the stairwell back down. Most turned and forced their way through. Thiodolf prodded any stragglers and sent a youth tumbling, knocking giants down the stairs like ninepins. He would have laughed but his joyless chief followed close behind.

* * *

Gosfrith ran out into the night. A steady rain was turning the path to mud, the fields around were slick and sodden already. It was some time before dawn and the cloud-blanketed sky hid the stars from view. Eadwig had disappeared completely; he needed only to run a few score of feet ahead before he was swallowed in the utter pitch of the rain-streaked night. Gosfrith turned and stared out along the path, then right across the field away from the steading, and, seeing no sign, revolved and looked out along the long wooden wall of the steading itself.

Nothing, yet he had been delayed only a moment and could be only a short way from the other two. He ran a bit further out along the muddy path then stopped again and called out "Eadwig!" in a loud frustrated shout.

From out of the dark, somewhere to his right across the marshy field, away from the steading a voice called back in glad reply, "Eadnoth! Eadnoth! Is that you?"

"Eadwig, it's me, Gosfrith. Where are you?"

"Gosfrith!" the voice, Eadwig's, called back angrily. "What are you playing at, curse you."

"Eadwig, come back to the hall. Where are you? Come back. Stop running around in the dark," Gosfrith shouted back.

From out of the night two giant figures emerged jogging across the field. They had gone far, Eadwig running out ahead chasing after the image of his brother lying gravely wounded, fallen among the rain-soaked brush.

* * *

The entrance hall was lined with giants as Nosnra came down the stairs.

Thiodolf stood talking in earnest with a pair of warriors, one turned and, at a quick pace crossed to a side door, departed on an unknown errand. Ursoth sat leaning against his leg while Thiodolf absentmindedly reached his hand down to brush the bear's head in a kindly gesture. He heard the sudden hush which first took hold behind him, then flowed across the room on a breath of silence. Thiodolf gave a dismissive nod toward the second of the giant pair who lingered for some final word, then turned to face his Thegn, bad news at the forefront of his thoughts. Ursoth turned around as well and, glad to see his master, rushed over to him in a joyful bound.

"Ho there pet," Nosnra chided his bear as it playfully rolled round his feet, rose to a four legged stance then rubbed its soft and furry shoulder against its master's legs. Its antics brought a wistful smile to the grim Thegn's lips and he rubbed a loving hand along its back, thankful for the moment's distraction from this terrible night. But the moment passed quickly by, as moments do, and raising his head he looked toward Thiodolf then gestured for him to speak.

Thiodolf blinked and cleared his throat then gave sad tidings to his chief. "Thegn, I think it is Eadnoth's body we have found."

"You think. You do not know." Nosnra said, but at his heart, which dropped, weighed down with grief, he had expected such sorrowful news.

Art - Kawanabe Kyōsai Female Ghost carrying off a Male Severed Head

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Hill Giant Chief - Nosnra's Saga - Part IV

The retreating hill giant, or so the apparition appeared to be, stood facing the massive wooden doors, but as its hands reached out its fingers disappeared into the surface of the wood. It was a thing of no substance or solidity. Its form began to waver and the door began to move, creaking on rusty hinges and inching along wider and wider. As the door slowly opened Nosnra pushed himself to his feet, splinters of wood piercing his hand and arm sending a dozen trickles of blood dripping down to the floor.

Ursoth ran to his fallen master, but Nosnra ignored the brush of the bear's furry side against his leg and took a stumbling sprint forward. Ahead, the semblance of a giant had slipped through the narrow crack between door and frame, its chest and shoulders passing through the hard-grained wood like steam through an iron grate.

It took precious moments to cross the long passage from the hall proper to the double-doored entranceway. Nosnra swore vilely under his breath cursing the clutter of benches and tables which had slowed his pursuit and sent him tumbling to the ground. He reached out and grabbed the door by its edge and swung it open with great force, a hinge bolt shot from its anchor in the wooden frame and gave a dull thud against a nearby wall.

Beyond the passage lay a vast entry hall lined with cloaks hanging from a forest of pegs set in the wall. Below the cloaks, piles of skin-wrapped bundles and scatterings of carryalls and packs littered the floor. A cold, damp draft blew from the outer doors. The great ironbound portals let in the breeze, left open when they should have been shut fast.

"Eadnoth!" Nosnra shouted. The young warrior was nowhere to be seen.

"Eadnoth!" he yelled out the name but expected no reply. Was that the phantom spirit he saw, deaf to his entreaties, in the great hall? With quick strides he crossed to the outer doors.

The night was filled with noise, a constant patter of rain as its backdrop. Looking out into the starless dark he could see nothing, no sign of his errant guard.

"Eadnoth!" he called once more into the rain, but there was no reply. A fire built within him. This was no uneasy dream which sent him away from his bed and well-earned sleep. Where was this guard? What was the silent form he had come chasing after? He had no answer. Now he would rouse his people and set the steading astir.

The watchtower stairs were before him, he had but to cross the entry hall and follow them to the upper chamber. In his mind he could hear the clanging of the steel hammer on the iron bars, the alarm raised and the phantoms which plagued him chased into the night.

* * *

The wooden steps boomed beneath his feet, but they had been built with such punishing urgency in mind.

"Huon, sound the alarm!" Nosnra called ahead of him but there was no reply. His watchman lay silent and still, his back propped against the tower wall. A monstrous flagon sat overturned beside him, a dark pool spilled out over the floor where he rested.

"In your cups are you!" Nosnra swore and pounced upon the indolent form. His anger was great and he lashed out with a vicious kick. The blow landed with a dull thud and knocked the lifeless body over and about. Huon stared at his chieftain with eyes blinded by death, his head lolled at a careless angle, his throat opened from ear to ear.

The iron bar, twisted into an awkward circular hoop, sent a jarring dissonant clangor out across the steading. It resonated through the very timbers of wall and floor and roof. Nosnra struck it again and again, bringing forth an explosion of sparks with each relentless blow. Suddenly he stopped, a sweat had broken out across his face, his chest, his arms, and he stood red-faced and puffing as he breathed. He recovered quickly, but as the last of the echoing cacophony faded from hearing, the sound of approaching feet drummed across the floor below him.

Eadwig, bravest of his warriors, clambered up the watchtower steps and ran to answer the alarm. "Thegn!" he cried out, taken by surprise at the sight of his chieftain at the alarm. "What has happened? Where is Huon?"

"Dead," Nosnra said flatly and pointed toward the upturned face of the watchman.

Just beyond Eadwig, not daring to enter the room, a company of hill giants gathered. Sleep-lidded eyes and hair all astray, barefoot some, shirtless others, they lined the stairwell awaiting direction.

"Some foulness has come within the walls," The hammer dropped from his hands with a clang. The alarm raised, it made a poor weapon; its use was past. Nosnra walked toward the stairs empty-handed. "Is Eadnoth among you?" he called to the assemblage.

"Eadnoth!" The subchief cried out in much the way he had greeted his chief, both with surprise and alarm. "My brother! Thegn, what has happened here? Where is he?"

"Evil things," Nosnra answered. "Eadnoth watched the door as Huon the tower." He looked sadly at Eadwig. "Go," he said quietly. "Search him out. Take some of those," he nodded toward the stair, "and I will be in my hall. Return there when you have some word."

Eadwig did not delay, he lowered his head with a respectful bob then turned and called forth two of those gathered to follow him.

"Thiodolf," Nosnra called to a scarred and ancient giant whose pate was bald, ears notched and nose flattened from a crushing blow dealt to him long years ago.

"Yes, Thegn!" Thiodolf came forward without hesitation, he needed no further command. A tuneless whistle escaped from his lips as he eyed the body of Huon, but his attention snapped back in an instant, careful not to anger his chief by disregard. "Intruders are about," he stated the obvious.

"Send for Engenulf. Have him come to my hall."

"Yes, Thegn," Thiodolf dutifully replied.

"Have Huon taken from here," Nosnra continued, "bring him to the Great Hall. Leave two here, let them see Huon, let them know I expect them to watch and not rest."

"I'll make them understand Thegn." Thiodolf said. He ticked off each command on his fingers and held them stiff to make sure he did not forget.

"Good," Nosnra had a faraway look in his eyes, "Good. Guard the door, summon the Keeper, scour the hill..." he mumbled.

"Thegn," Thiodolf asked quietly, "should I summon the Keeper?"

"What?" Nosnra shook his head. "No, no, set the guards then bring the rest out to the Great Hall. There will be much more that needs to be done. There will be no more rest this night."