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."