To the west the rushing river disappeared as Engenulf had promised. Once more it was a mild stream, a bare trickle that two good steps would pass through.
Nosnra swore and shook a fist at the stars, some night flying flock of birds went by, he would have tossed a stone or spear at them, so mad was he, if he'd had such at hand.
"Come," he called to Gosfrith and the wolves, Ursoth growled and bowled one playfully aside, but Nosnra gave his bear a swat and told his pet to let the wolves do their work. "Engenulf, can you cast ahead? I do not trust our scouts or wolves to find these villains' trail. That stream, it seemed real to me and to the wolves as well. What other tricks do they have in store?"
"I could not even guess, my Thegn," said Engenulf, "but yes I have a spell that may help and a spirit yet at my command, if need be."
* * *
Harald caught a glimmer from the wall. He'd brought an axe to replace his lost claymore, his claidheamohmor in his father's tongue, but he missed the great blade dearly. High above the mantle, held within the horns of a giant stag, was a sword that shown with edges razor keen and a blade like polished silver. It drew him forward like a beckoning maiden on a summer's night. He paced to it across the carpeted floor and stood looking up with worshipful eyes. The axe he laid aside by the hearth and wrestled a chair that would have sat five men beneath the mantle's edge.
Telenstil had sent the two scouts out, and with them their halfling thief, skilled beyond any here in finding ways through unfamiliar halls and chambers. Gytha, Henri, Ivo, all were nearby and Talberth too, but where had their ranger gotten to, he wondered.
A scraping sound turned all their heads, their scouts already yards away froze along a wall, Talberth held a magic wand that needed just a word to cast a bolt of lightning out. Telenstil stayed his own hands and rushed over to the ranger to put a stop to his strange and noisy actions.
Harald stood upon a chair and reached up to grab at the lowest antler that held the wondrous sword. Below him Telenstil reached out and pulled his trouser leg.
"What are you doing? Harald are you bespelled?" Telenstil asked with some alarm.
"I'm fine. This sword, have you ever seen its like?" Harald asked but would not have believed that any blade could match the one just beyond his grasp.
"Harald..." Telenstil began, but stopped, speechless as the grey-haired giant of a man teetered on the edge of the huge chair, like a child reaching for a cookie jar placed high upon a shelf. The antlers were firmly set into the wooden wall. Harald pulled himself upon the mantle and stood before the sword. It lay unsheathed, resting upon the yellowing antler horns. He touched it reverently with two hands and read the words carved upon its quillon block. "Miming." it said in old-fashioned runes, and turning it over saw, "Weland made me," etched on the reverse.
He pulled it from the bracket of horns and as he did a vibrant challenge rang out. The antlers before him came alive then jabbed out and knocked him from the shelf. Telenstil, standing below, saw the ranger fall and jumped aside, quick as only an elf could be, graceful as he rolled and came back to his feet.
Harald fell back and hit the ground, he twisted and landed in a shoulder roll, still clutching the ancient claidheamohmor, but grunted in pain from his hard fall, and bleeding from a half dozen stabs, the horns now dripped red with Harald's blood. They moved from their place above the mantle and sat atop a spectral stag, a monster of countless tines. It walked from a spirit realm that opened into the trophy hall. The stag stood taller than any horse, its coat was a translucent red but its horns were solid and sharp, it coughed out a challenge and proudly stepped further into the room.
Against the eastern wall were set the heads of many foes, each had been stuffed and mounted by a master's hand, they bore a living scream or look of fear or defiant shout, but held a spark of life. This spark was roused into a flame, each head began to scream and shout, some for mercy, most in myriad tongues that cursed the giant chief, but in their roaring discord they served Nosnra well and sent out an alarm that roused the giants in their beds or at their posts within the steading's walls.
* * *
Engenulf carved a circle in the oerth and drew a line from north to south then east to west. He took a pouch from his belt and jangled it in his hand unopened.
"The bones?" asked Nosnra.
"Yes, my father will help me find the way," Engenulf replied. He reached into the bag and pulled out the polished fingerbones of his father, Engulfen. Each had a symbol carved along its length then stained black with soot from a funeral pyre. The witan tossed them down and stared hard at what they had to say. A sweat broke out across his brow; Engenulf gave a moan and fell to his knees. A mist rose from each bone and coalesced above the magic circle, a head formed of swirling white. Two dark pits were its eyes, a skull with wispy beard and hair blown back by a spectral wind.
"Engulfen, my father, my kindred, waken from thy rest. Engulfen!" he cried. "Engulfen as you guided me in life, guide me now!"
The skull of mist opened wide its jaws and screamed, no voice could be heard, no throat to form the words, but silently. The face was swept away and in its place a hand began to shape itself. The carved bones upon the ground did rise and match themselves to the ghostly hand, and then the mist was gone. Engenulf did not hesitate; he snatched the bones from the thin air and grimaced at their touch. Each sharp-ended digit sank in and pierced the witan's hand. His blood ran across the bones till the black-etched runes shown bright red.
"This way!" Engenulf shouted and his hand, held in a skeletal clasp, pointed toward the south and east.
"Hurry, this spell will last, but only as long as I have the blood to keep it fed."
"Henri!" Talberth yelled above the din, "Can you make them stop that screaming!"
"I see their spirits," Henri said, "Those I cannot save I will cast out."
The priest strode forward and held up a disc of silver white. "By the symbol of my faith, by the God of blinding light!" he called, "I bring you the One True Way! Follow it or be banished from my sight!"
The heads upon the wall began to wail and as the priest said his last words some began to melt. They flowed like wax set above a flame, and their wailing became a final scream. Rows of fleshless skulls lined the wall, but some had burst and others burned like torches, licking at the frames which held them upon the timber wall.
The giant stag had stepped back at the priest's approach, but when he'd finished, it remained. In a smooth graceful bound it leapt to him and lashed out with its ghostly hooves. Henri was knocked back and off his feet, he rolled across the floor.
Harald felt a flush of shame to be the cause, but the sword he held quickly took such thoughts away. "Miming," he said aloud to himself, "I claim thee as my own." A flood of strength rushed through him. He felt the pain of his fall and stiffness of age all wash away.
* * *
Two of the giant guards walked across the inner field. The wolves had gone with the chief and most of the clan as well. A misty rain began to fall and both guards pulled up their hoods and wrapped their cloaks around them tight. Breme had set a fire near the center of the yard. It hissed and smoked as the damp rain fought against the blaze. Both walked toward its warmth, kept outside for duty's sake, they'd rather have been asleep in bed.
"What was that?" asked one.
"Nothing," the other murmured a reply, reaching out to warm his hands.
"You must be deaf. Listen!" A chorus of muffled screams drifted across the yard and blended with the crackling noise of the open blaze.
"Oh hells, that's the chief's hall. Raise the alarm!"
"Nosnra will skin us!" the giant shouted back.
The door to the outer barracks, a three room building unattached to the main hall in the north-east corner of the yard, burst open. Breme, an aging giant warrior came out. He gave a wide yawn, lifting his arms over his head and stretching his back. It took him a moment to react to the shouts and then he gave a start.
"What...what is going on!" he yelled.
"The chief's hall," a giant guard yelled back, "those heads of his have set to screaming!"
Breme ran over, passed the fire and continued toward the northern door which lead into the main building and down to the chief's trophy hall.
"I can't hear anything now," said Breme.
The two guards looked at each other then one spoke up.
"Well they were, just a minute ago,"
"They've stopped," said the other guard.
Breme looked from one to the other trying to decide if he believed them. "Come on then. We will go and see," he decided.
* * *
Inside the hall the stag was causing havoc. It passed through chair and table like a mist. The weapons of the scouts did not even touch the beast, but its horns and hooves had drawn blood from both. Edouard reeled back, his forehead bleeding, grazed by a jabbing horn. He had ducked back just in time or he would have lost an eye. His brother had been kicked aside and nearly trampled, but Gytha had pulled him free.
The red-haired cleric waved a cudgel at the beast, "By the Saint's mighty hand I call his wrath upon you," she cried and flung her cudgel toward its head. The wood shimmered as it flew and seemed to expand till it was of giant size. It struck the stag a good solid blow across the head and made it rear up and stagger to the side. It nearly lost its footing and dazedly weaved its ghostly shape through a table top.
Talberth had put his wand away. He slid it up his sleeve then called up a spell he thought would wound the beast. "Zimee-ari-kno," he said with force behind his words. He flung out his hands as if to toss away a stone and five streaking darts of glowing blue raced toward the stag. They struck its insubstantial side and left gaping holes along its blood-red coat.
A sweeping blade sliced across the stag. It wheeled, but dragged a wounded leg, then was struck again. Harald swung his new-found sword and with its ensorceled blade carved broad gashes through its ghostly hide. The stag lashed out, then bent its head and thrust a dozen pointed tines into the ranger's face. Harald brought his claymore down and sent a clattering of severed horns falling to the ground.
Gytha motioned with her hands and, several feet away, the giant cudgel smashed down and cracked against both solid bone and translucent skull. The stag lifted its broken head and gave one final coughing moan, then shriveled like paper set to flame. The horns fell with a crash and shattered on the floor; they broke apart, brittle as if they had been made of ice.