"So we know what to expect," said Harald.
"No, we do not," Talberth said slowly. "We know that this is not a simple hill giant clan raiding the lowlands. All we really know is to expect more than our previous experience with these giants has taught us."
"And such knowledge is worth a great deal," said Telenstil, directing the conversation once again. "We will not walk blindly into a situation which puts our mission in jeopardy. Last night, our preparations and caution proved their worth. Our scouts did their job admirably. They allowed us to retreat without a confrontation that would not have been to our advantage. While we only brought down two of a great number of foes, these two were eliminated at no cost to our limited resources..."
"Magic.,." Harold interrupted.
"Yes, magic, but also ourselves," continued Telenstil. "We nine are our greatest resource. I have been given some items of power that once used will be used up. I know the same has been done for some of you, but while such items are helpful, even invaluable, each one of us in ourselves is a greater resource, and as a group we are stronger than all nine of us individually. None of us were injured last night, and two of the giants were slain. Believe me when I say that this was a great achievement."
"But now the steading is alert..." said Talberth, still upset that they had not achieved greater things on their first try.
"It was inevitable," Telenstil replied. "Now we must show greater ingenuity in our plans than simply walking in the front door."
"Have you a plan?" asked Gytha. "I value plain speech. You sound as if you have a plan already."
"I try to keep several options open at all times," said Telenstil good humoredly, "but yes, my feeling is that we are unlikely to accomplish our mission, to both hinder or destroy Nosnra and his clan, and find out about this alliance he has undertaken as well as his plans, in one foray. Because of that I have thought of ways to enter and renter the steading. Here is what I propose. Tonight we enter again. With both Henri's and Gytha's help we will cause a stillness to descend upon a section of the steading. Master Ivo will conceal us from sight. Talberth and I will help bring us to the steading's roof. I have the means of obliterating a small section of the thick beams, and if my map is correct we will descend into the emptied kitchens of the steading. From there, well my feeling is to scout more, to proceed with stealth, set traps. I have brought several magical sorts. There is also a meeting room which Nosnra uses. My source speaks of a map. I wish to see it at least, steal it; copy it, perhaps."
"All this sounds fine," said Harald, "but we are going to actually fight these giants at some point aren't we?"
"You will get that wish, do not doubt," said Telenstil.
* * *
They left the camp unguarded, or at least it might so appear, but Talberth and Telenstil both set wards. The Pholtite Henri and master Ivo both claimed that no eye but theirs could see it now. Then not to be outdone the old gnome crafted a spell of misdirection and spun it around the cave.
Night had fallen once again, cold and misty, but no rain yet. It would come, Harald thought, these hills were said to be the birthplace of all the mists and rains which fell across the lands below.
* * *
The middle of the night had passed. The hill was never completely silent but a stillness had come over the steading. Around the outside of the walls a patrol of wolves and giants circled endlessly. Nine dark shapes moved up toward the top of the hill. They avoided the main roadway but approached along its course from the south, having a rough time crossing the weed and bramble strewn field. The largest of them, Harald, moved swift and quiet through the clinging brambles, the small Harold followed close behind.
Harald was a ranger of Geoff. He knew well how to move almost undetectably through such thorny terrain. The halfling Harold was a city thief, but he had passed through enchanted gardens and climbed protective hedges more than once in his life. He noted the ranger's deft movements, his instinctive reaction to each snag or pinch of thorn, and mimicked them as best he could.
"There it is," whispered Harald as they crested the hill.
"Look, they have their hounds running loose," the halfling said. "Not to worry though, I have a charm that prevents such dogs from catching our scent." he touched a chain which hung around his neck and pulled a coarse cloth bag from beneath his shirt.
"I have one as well," the ranger smiled and removed a large pouch he kept at his belt. He opened it and showed the halfling thief.
"What is it?" Harold asked.
"Pepper," the ranger laughed quietly. "Better than most magic charms I've come across. Sets them running when they get it in their snouts. Wolves or dogs, they hate the stuff." He closed the pouch tight and placed it back within his broad leather belt.
The halfing inched ahead and, as he put a hand upon the flat ground above the hill's gentle slope, a keening wail was loosed.
* * *
A shudder ran through Engenulf. He lay asleep upon a narrow cot deep below the steading's wooden floor. The dead guards had given voice. He could feel their cry. Their killers had returned.