"Gather round," Talberth called them all together. "Reverent Henri, if you will, please lower the fire so we may all gather close."
The blind priest walked unerringly across the cavern's floor. The hood from his long, white robe hung halfway down his face; beneath it shown the glimmer of some golden mask, a benison from his radiant god. He did not deign to speak but silently held out his arms then lowered them with perhaps a wordless prayer. The bright flame sank until it danced across the embers of the wooden log, still bright and warm but less than half its former size.
"Edouard, Derue!" he summoned the guards from their post. "We have set a magic ward, no need for you to be apart."
The white-blond pair bowed head to head and whispered to each other first then nodded in agreement.
All nine now sat in a rough circle round the low blaze. The albino pair sat side by side, the Pholtite priest Henri, though only a foot or so away, sat apart, removed and distant.
"We did well," their high-elf leader began. "Now we must plan what our next step will be."
"I have said this to Telenstil," Talberth spoke up, "and I want to say this again to all. Last night I feel we could have done much more. Our surprise is gone and all that it seems we have achieved is to thin their number by two."
A grumble of voices broke out though none much louder than the rest.
"True," said Telenstil. "We took only our first steps, but this will be no easy undertaking, no simple task. Last night we could have stumbled upon more vigilant guards, or fought against the entire giant clan. Though each of us has proven their worth and comes upon this endeavor with royal support, these giants are very dangerous foes. This clan alone could smash a castle or defeat a small army. And these are but the vanguard. Nosnra is the head of a much larger beast."
"Nosnra is not the head!" a stentorian voice declared. The silent Henri spoke and all turned to see and listen to his prophetic tones. "He is but a hand, the first to reach out and smash into the realms below his hills. Holy Pholtus gives me sight. His light reveals a darker will that heads this giant chief."
"Yes," said Telenstil. "I misspoke. My lady queen says such may be as well. Were it simply Nosnra, though a mighty giant chief he be, this would be an easier task. His death may blunt a deadly sword but more than just his kind have been seen in the lands below."
"I have seen such," declared the cleric Gytha. "My flock dwells among the hills and outlands of my homeland, Geoff. I say my flock, as I am a shepherd to my people, but the wolves have come and my people are no more; empty homes where those who lived have fled, and burnt remains of those who would not. They died among their herds and fields or lie among the ruins of house and home. And some are simply gone. If any do survive perhaps they are kept within Nosnra's wooden walls."
"Tell them of these others," the greybeard Harald said to Gytha.
"My pardon," she bowed her head. "I pursued these wolves with Harald here and others, rangers of the hills and woods. We caught a drunken straggler, these giants love their drink. This one had swigged a barrel of three-winter cider thinking it but mild ale. It felled him like the Saint's own cudgel. We bound him tight, trussed him like a hog for slaughter then made him talk. The Saint pardon my deception, but even such as that giant, drunken lout I could not have slain helpless as he was, but I saw no harm in letting him believe his slow, painful death was near," she paused for breath.
"These others..." prompted the small Harold.
"I beg your pardon once again," Gytha gave a thoughtful frown. "I am no teller of tales. I know how only to begin and say what I have to say till I am done."
"Please go on, we will not interrupt," Talberth said and gave a dark look across the fire at both halfling and aging hero.
"My thanks," she said and smiled so to cause Talberth a painful fluttering within. "This giant, he talked; the ranger Arawn could speak and understand their gravelly tongue. He bragged and boasted, still half drunk, he cursed us vilely, but spoke of his great chief, a cousin to this Nosnra, Karnash he named his chieftain to be. He told how at their hall they had hosted strong allies for a war to come. They had cleaned out an ice-cooled cavern, a storage place for fresh killed meat, and made it into sleeping chamber for their blue-skinned guests."
"Frost giants," Harald, disregarding Talberth's word, broke in.
"Yes," Gytha continued. "And such, this giant said, had come along with him that very day. They could be no more than an hour or two ahead."
"A giant's step is very wide, no need to say, I know," Harald began his tale. "Two hours lead," he laughed, "we never would have matched their pace let alone overtaken them, but they were drunk, just like the one we'd caught. We found three giants, blond-haired and blue-skinned. They sweltered in the cool air, but sang and stumbled and passed a barrel back and forth. They made these giants here look like unshaven, untried youths. Half-blind drunk they fought and came close to killing me. They downed three rangers out of five. They fought with boulders and with bare hands, clumsy as any tavern drunk could be, but dangerous still like an avalanche, a force of nature, like a winter storm they were. We killed them all, no chance to capture. I brought back a splendid head," Harald smiled, "Pickled it in that three-winter apple wine."