"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.
"What in the many Hells was that?" Harold asked.
"Just that, or so it sounds," the human Harald said.
The wail came again and was joined by another voice. The wolves across the field added a chorus of yips and yowls then wailed as well. From beyond the steading's walls the pack joined in, then a metal gong began to sound.
"That buggers it," the halfling said, "time for us to be gone."
The ghostly wails increased and two misty forms, they glowed a pale silver like trapped moonlight, drifted across the hill from their right.
"That doesn't look good," Harold said, then the halfing turned and ran down the way he'd come. The ranger Harald paused and scattered a generous portion of his pepper bag across their path, then followed after his halfling friend.
* * *
Halfway up the hill's southern slope seven human-sized shapes lay in wait for their scouts to return. The eerie call from above sent a stir through each, one standing up, another straining forward, each clutching at a weapon, some item of power or symbol of their faith.
"Gytha!" Talberth stood and grabbed the cleric's arm.
She pulled the wizard's hand away and turned with a fury in her eyes.
Talberth drew back, but in an instant regained his commanding demeanor. "Gytha. Hold! We need to stay together not go rushing ahead alone."
A wild look left her face and she bowed her head. "My apologies," she said.
Then another wail reached them, and then a wild chorus of yowls and barks and a clanging metal gong rang out.
"Prepare yourselves!" Telenstil called out. "Talberth, you remember that spell of fire I taught you some time ago, I hope."
"Yes master Telenstil. I know it well," Talberth said and pulled a stinking brown and yellow pea-sized ball from a pocket at his belt.
* * *
Nosnra had not slept. When the dogs began to howl and the warning alarm sounded he was awake and dressed, sitting upon the edge of his bed and staring at the wall. A lethargy had come over him, so unlike his nature, but these evil times had drained him and neither sleep, which would not come, or drink, of which he'd had too much, could fill him with his accustomed vitality.
* * *
Harald gave up any attempts at stealth and ran down the hill as fast as his long legs could carry him. He soon over took his halfling friend and as he went by, reached down, and lifted him by Harold's hooded cape.
"Hey! What the..." Harold yelled, his legs kicking madly in the air. "Lemme go you lummox."
"Ha!" laughed Harald. "You're too slow. You owe me for this."
"Oh, don't worry. I'll make sure to pay you back," the halfling said, then let loose a torrent of curses and swears.
* * *
"What is that!" Talberth cried. He drew back his hand and prepared to cast his spell.
"Hold!" Telenstil commanded, "It is our scouts. They are returning."
A single large shape came hurtling down the hill and close behind two misty clouds drifted by, but with purpose and direction. They seemed unrushed but gained upon the retreating form.
"Gytha, Henri," Telenstil called them forward. "Those shapes, they have a giant's form, some spirits of their dead. They seem to have awoken them."
"They are those who fell to our hand," Henri said, his voice an even unoerthly tone. "They have not seen the light. I will set them to rest or cast them into the outer dark." He threw back his obscuring cape revealing his white shimmering robe beneath and on his face, a golden mask with eyes of clear diamond, their facets sparkling with a rainbow glow.
Harald, holding the halfling thief, came leaping down the hill and skidded past. Then Henri stepped out and faced the ghostly mist. He raised both arms and as he did the sun appeared to rise. Its light blazed from his mask. Most was blocked by his own body, but still the others in the group had to turn away or hold an arm or shield before their eyes. Talberth had a bare glimpse of Henri's body, his skin translucent red, his skeleton dark within. A wail, mournful and despairing poured out, and then fell away as if it dropped slowly down into some well or pit, another cry, but this one harsh and defiant still. It went on, then drew off too, but did not fade entirely.
Talberth blinked a red and purple blob away that haunted him eyes shut or open wide. Henri stood, but slumped, his arms fallen to his sides. It was night once more upon the slope.
"I could not save them," Henri said with sadness in his voice. "One is gone, cast out into the dark, the other resists but had to flee the true God's light."
"You did well," said Telenstil then suddenly caught sight of giants, dark against the starry sky, just cresting the hill and coming down toward them. "Talberth, prepare to cast your fire spell!"
The sound of howling, unnoticed while the wraith-like forms approached, came to them now, and then it changed. There were sharp yips of pain, and loud cursing giant voices.
"They've trailed too close," Harald panted; his breath short after his hurly burly run.
The halfling laughed. "Your 'magic' pepper is a potent artifact."
"What is this?" Talberth inquired, always eager for knowledge of his craft.
"Just good black peppercorn, ground rough, the same you'd use upon your dinner meat," Harald explained.
"It's not stopping our giant friends," Gytha called them back to their approaching foes.
A half-dozen giants had begun a quick descent. They knew this hill, every inch, no gopher hole or gully, would take them by surprise. They made quick time and, with a stride no human could ever match, ate away the distance between themselves and the runts they'd come to kill.