The Hill Giant Chief - Nosnra's Saga - The End
As if he had pulled upon a dangling thread of an intricate and delicate tapestry Ghibelline's action unraveled the complex enchantment that Ivo had cast upon the camp. The spell dissipated like morning mist in the light of the rising sun. It took only a moment and then it was gone, lost from memory like a dream upon waking. The wolves and giants came to a halt, staring at the small group of the little people who had appeared in their midst.
Ivo's hands moved in surprising swiftness as he tried to catch the broken thread of his illusion, but the stuff of magic was gone and he found that he grasped only air. "What...?" he stuttered, his mind still forming pictures of how he wanted the camp to appear to the senses of the giants and the wolves.
"Oh Hells!" cursed Harold. The little thief's eyes went wide.
Ghibelline could not stop the swing of his sword. His blade slashed down and opened a long and wicked cut along the flank of one wolf. The beast yowled in pain and tried to leap away. Its cry broke the silence of the camp. Suddenly there was a yammer and howl of voices. The wounded wolf was struck again. Steel cut open its hind leg and removed its tail. Rolling, it sprayed out blood and its mouth frothed with bile and rage.
"Ghibelline!" yelled Gytha. She sprang toward him and shouted out a prayer that was also a cry of defiance. "Cuthbert! Your blessing upon us! Let your strength banish the strength of our foes!" Behind her the ranger raised his sword.
The claymore glowed with a silver light, perhaps a reflection from the sun off the burnished steel, but more likely a surge of power from the enchantments laid upon the blade.
"Wait!" Telenstil yelled beside him and grabbed the ranger's arm. "Kas-Va!" the mage exclaimed and tossed a handful of red dust at the surprised warrior. Harald grew, as did his clothes and gear, but his sword remained the same, the blade impervious to minor magics. Standing twice as tall as he had been only a moment before, no longer did the giants tower high above him.
"Hah!" grunted Harald in surprise, but he was pleased. He threw himself into the battle.
While Telenstil cast his spell and Gytha prayed, Talberth had drawn out his wand and sent a bolt of lightning into a crowd of giants. It burnt them and killed a black-coated wolf who charged unknowingly into the path of the deadly magic bolt. The giants were not greatly hurt, and now doubly enraged, they ran toward their hated foes. Derue moved like a cat. He pounced and drove both hands, knuckles striking like spears, into the stomach of a wolf. He struck only moments after Ghibelline's first blow and the third blow of his hands came as the elf cut his wolf the second time. The edge of Derue's hand whipped down on the prostrate wolf and with a crunch, crushed the monster's throat. He left it dying on the stones.
"Stay behind me," Harold said to Little Rat. The young orc had a knife in either hand. Harold glanced back and saw him licking the edge of the blades. "Stop that, it makes me nervous," he told him.
* * *
The dwarven warrior kicked at the snarling muzzle of a wolf. Jaws opened wide and the booted foot was caught within a trap of fangs. They both tugged. The dwarf, hopping on one foot, his balance in peril, could only weakly try to free himself from the wolf's mouth. The wolf bit down, but the boot was pushed too far in for the fangs to pierce the thick sole. It was a losing battle for the dwarf. One precarious hop at a time, he was dragged forward. Then a flash of silvered steel swept down. The trap was sprung and the dwarf fell, his foot suddenly set free. He landed hard on his back, his mail shirt clashed noisely against the stones. Sparks flew around his eyes and a blinding flash of blue-white light streaked by him, somewhere to his right. He blinked away the dazzle, but a purple nimbus stained his vision. Trying to stand, he nearly fell again. The wolf's head was still firmly locked to his right boot. Severed at the neck, the beasts eyes were dead but the grip of its jaws was tight as steel.
The ranger's blade hissed with steaming blood. Harald killed a wolf, taking off its head, then ran to meet another that had come rushing at him. It leapt, trying for his wrist, but Harald was the quicker and his blade passed through the middle of the wolf. Two twitching halves fell to the ground amid a gory flow from the entrails of the beast.
"Hold! Hold!" called out the voice of Telenstil. Harald did not hear the voice or did not heed its warning call. A giant faced him. The monster bore no weapons but for his hands. One fist came down as if to smash Harald into the stones, but the ranger's sword met it. Oerthy flesh, tough as the hills, met enchanted steel. Mimming, Harald's blade, sang with the voice of rocks splitting in the cold. Flesh parted, as did bone, and the sword passed through the giant's arm clear to the elbow. The monster howled, horribly maimed, and grabbed the halved forearm in his other hand. He tried to meld the sides together again. Harald's backstroke went high, took the flesh from shoulder, took off an ear and a length of scalp. The giant fell to his knees and the ranger mercifully ended the wailing cry, severing the huge head in a single blow.
Talberth intoned a spell, "Fotia-Ena!" he said and tossed a yellow brown pellet toward the giants and the wolves.
"Harald!" Telenstil yelled again.
"I sent it past him." Talberth said without looking toward Telenstil. The pellet turned into an orange glow, like the heart of a burning coal, and the flames expanded. Fist sized, it streaked past Derue and Ghibelline, then large as a barrel, it struck far beyond and to the right of Harald. There was a thud and then a whump like a gust of wind filling a sail, then a roaring ball of flame. High as the tree-tops, it caught half the giants from behind, wrapping them in a wave of fire.
"Tuli-Pal!" cried Telenstil. The elven mage followed his former apprentice's lead. A second pellet streaked by and grew into a ball of fire. Giants who were still aflame were caught within this second burst of fire.
"We cannot stop the others this way." said Talberth. "Not without roasting Harald as well."
* * *
A knife the size of a sword was stuck in the headless giant's belt. Harald pulled it free from the leather sheath with his left hand. The enchanted blade in his right contrasted strongly with the plain steel, but the two were in a pleasing balance. The weight of the blades in either hand brought Harald a sense of peace that had been lost to him for a long, long time. He was utterly calm. The light of the sun was fair against his skin, the air smelled sharp with fire and the seared flesh of giants, and a taste of copper-salt was on his lips from blood not his own.
Two giants assailed him. One had a club, a mere cudgel to the giant, but big enough to batter down a human door. The other held a knife, twin to that which Harald carried in his left hand. Mimming took the end from the club, while Harald traded cuts with the knife wielder. The giant gave as good as he got and blood ran from both their arms. Harald was quicker than either giant and Mimming flashed again, this time opening a deep cut in the knife wielder's leg. A stump of wood, all that was left of the giant's cudgel, went flying past Harald's head. Then the giant leapt and tried to knock the ranger down. Magic steel was thrust out like a lance and deep went in the blade. Ribs were shorn and a bubbling foam pushed its way from the split flesh along the giant's side. Harald had opened a mighty wound as he stepped forward beyond the giant's path. The heavy body slammed hard onto the stony surface. But the knife-wielder had struck again. Sparks danced from the coat of steel worn by the ranger beneath his old and weatherbeaten tunic. The giant's blade had the force of a hammer as it beat redhot metal against an anvil. Harald could feel his ribs creak beneath the blow. Knife against knife clanged as Harald met the next sweep of the giant's blade. The giant's strength was like a fall of rock, mortal strength could not compare, and Harald was thrown back. His stumble saved his life.
A stone whizzed by, thrown by another giant. The knife-wielder jumped after Harald, but pulled himself back and bellowed at the one who'd thrown the rock. "Hey!" boomed out the deep voice. Harald nearly fell but his back touched something tall and sturdy as a tree. The smell of burning flesh was thick. Without looking Harald swept his enchanted blade around in a wide, turning arc. There was a thunk as if a tree was what he'd truly hit, but it was a giant's leg. Burnt black, flesh charred and hair gone to a greasy smudge, a giant faced him. It tried to scream through cracked and blistered lips, but no sound came out. It stepped and Harald pulled his blade free from the entrapping bone. Crack! High up on its thigh, the bone had split and the giant fell back, with a leg sword-split and broken.
The stones were sooty where Harald stood and all around him were the fire-touched bodies of giants. One or two had fallen, but most still lived. Twice struck by magic flame, some having been bathed in the lightning from Talberth's wand as well, these monsters would not die.
* * *
Mimming thrummed, the blade seemed happy and Harald let a tune whistle through his teeth. There were a half dozen giants to his right and almost twice that number to his left. They seemed to have forgotten his companions, their attention riveted on the man grown almost to their size and the glowing blade he wielded in one hand.
The wolves charged, they'd been near the edge of the camp where the company had been hidden. Derue, Ghibelline and Gytha fanned out to try and protect the mages, but it was all that they could do to protect themselves. Gytha ran to Ghibelline's side. He nearly took a swing at her, but turned his blade in time. Derue went to the left and brought down a wolf that was running toward the gnome. Three more went past, the last of the black-coated pack, their leader in the front. Ivo faced them alone. The old gnome made three quick passes with his hands and the words of power he used seemed to come from his mouth like smoke. In his mind he thought of molten rock cooling to solid stone and the wolves froze in place. There was a snap that Ivo heard and felt, but within, no sound that anyone else could ever hear. The lead wolf, Konig he was named by his master, had fought free of Ivo's spell. Leaving his packmates behind, he sprang at the small creature, hoping to rend it to pieces. A stone whizzed by and skimmed across the wolf's muzzle. Then a small shape flung itself atop the black-furred back, a pair of daggers stabbing into its side.
Little Rat twisted one knife in the wolf, and pulled the other out to stab again. The wolf spun and bit at the creature who had hurt it so. A keen edge cut above one eye, clipped an ear, then Konig had the arm in its jaw and bit hard till bones snapped. "No!" yelled out Harold. The halfling had been running forward, his sling useless while Little Rat was tangled with the beast. He drew out a magic spike, with a word it would bury itself deep in wood or stone. Harold spoke the word as he slammed the spike against the wolf's head. It whirred and sank in past the bone and into the monster's brain. Jaws opened wide and Little Rats torn and broken arm dropped from the mouth. Harold was tossed aside like a rag doll, and the wolf ran off into the rocks and scrub.
To the right of Talberth and Telenstil, as they faced toward the camp and the path beyond, the wolves had gathered in large number. The two mages sent a hail of magic bolts into the pack, grey-coats, big, strong and many. The missiles only stung them and made them howl. They came on lusting for the kill.
"Fo-Tia-Tikos!" yelled Talberth as he flung a ball of tar and sulphur at the wolves.
"No!" shouted Telenstil but it was too late. A wall of fire sprang from the ground just before the rushing wolves. It curved from the side of a stone outcropping, enclosed Ghibelline and Gytha on the near side of the flames and Ivo and the others to the left of Talberth as well. "Harald is out there!" Telenstil said and his voice was an accusation.
"I know," Talberth replied.
"I will not abandon him," said Telenstil.
"The wolves are at our throats and the giants are behind them," Talberth pointed with one hand.
The burning wall set three wolves afire. They ran like living torches, sending out streams of flame behind them. The others pulled back in time, singed fur and noses, but no fatalities. Beyond the wall, Harald fought alone.
"Prepare yourselves!" Telenstil called out to the others. "Harald needs us, follow me." The elf ran to the edge of the fire. He could see nothing through the flames. "No-it-us Ol-la Men-Na!" he shouted.
The wall of fire melted. A section at least ten yards wide dissolved as the power of Telenstil's spell overcame Talberth's craft. Ghibelline and Gytha were at the mage's side, Talberth was behind him. Derue flowed across the ground, quick and smooth as water in the moonlight. The old gnome wizard came after him, slow, but moving quick as he could. Only the halfling stayed behind. Harold wrapped Little Rat's savaged arm in a bandage. The young orc lay senseless.
The ranger could feel the heat from the wall of fire that had burst into life behind him. Nothing could come at him from that direction, the thought flashed through his mind, but he could not stand against the giants. A boulder sailed through the air, then through the flames. Harald moved, he charged the giants. Another stone smashed down where he had been. The claymore in his right hand flashed. Stabbing high, the point sought a giant's throat, but cut across a shoulder instead. Three giants circled him. One pushed around the edge of the burning wall to get at his back, but Harald turned and jabbed the monster in the gut. The cloth of shirt and pants ignited as the giant stepped back away from the blade and into the wall of flame.
"Got ya!" barked out another giant.
A hand slapped hard against the side of Harald's skull. Stars exploded in his eyes and danced merrily around as he shook his head to clear his sight. Blindly he slashed with his knife but struck nothing. A huge hand reached out and caught him by his neck, thick fingers clamping hard about his throat, crushing tight.
Harald drew the edge of the giant's dagger, that he used as a short sword, across the fingers that were wrapped about his neck. The steel edge grated against bone, the awkward angle running against Harald's chin and cheek. Blood of man and giant mixed, the hand was snatched away, and Harald fell to his knees gasping for air. Something came at him from the side. Harald did not look but swung his sword and tried to stand. Mimming opened up a giant's leg from knee to heel, but it did not stop the kick. The foot struck Harald's side, mashing armor, breaking ribs, knocking the ranger from his feet. The giant stumbled back, but others surged forward. One stamped and caught the hand that held the giant dagger. Fingers snapped, caught between metal, stone and the giant's heel. Harald stabbed the giant in its thigh then ripped the blade out so that a deep open wound gaped across the its upper leg. The foot lifted and Harald pulled his broken hand away, but left the dagger behind. His hand was bent and pierced with the sharp ends of bone stabbing out from within.
* * *
"There now," said Harold. "That's the best I can do." He finished wrapping the badly mauled arm. He bound it tight with two sticks to keep the bone in place. His hand went to his dagger. Harold turned with his blade at the ready. Footsteps clomped across the stones.
"Mmmmm!" the dwarf tried to shout. A rag had been stuffed in his mouth and another strip used to tie it in place. He'd managed to spit most of it out, but not enough to speak.
"You seem to be the giant's foe," said Harold. "I hope that means that you will be a friend to us." The halfling gestured for the dwarf to be still and walked behind him. He'd sharpened the dagger to a keen edge and it cut through the rope that bound the dwarf's hands in a single draw. Immediately the dwarf pulled away the strip of cloth and spat out the rest of the rag. He coughed and sputtered for a moment before turning around to clasp Harold by the shoulders.
"Be friend. Yes," said the dwarf. "I be Nyradir."
"Well Nyradir..." Harold began to say, but his words fell from him and were lost. The wall of fire gave a huff and disappeared. Harold could see into the camp beyond, his eyes widened in alarm.
* * *
The ranger swept his sword before him, more to keep the giants at bay than to strike any down. A long arm lashed out and a huge fist cracked hard against his skull. Blindly he swung a backhand blow and a giant grunted as the blade hit with a meaty thunk. Harald swayed, stars in his eyes and a ringing in his ear. A two-fisted blow hammered him into the ground, his face smacking solidly, his head giving a bounce, and Harald was still. Two kicks were all the giants had time to give before Telenstil stepped through the gap he'd made in the firewall. Ribs snapped and Harald was lifted up with each mule-strong blow. Words that echoed like thunder in the mountains stopped them, stopped all those in the camp.
"Ket-Jo Sal-Ma!" came the words of power from Telenstil. His voice was loud and filled with menace. In his hand he held a strip of fine white fur, a rod of crystal pinned inside with thirteen needles made of silver. The elven mage opened his fist and without any movement of his own the pins flew from his hand. The crystal blazed with light and the strip of fur was utterly consumed, not even a speck remained.
A bolt of lightning flew from Telenstil. It struck a giant just behind the three that kicked at the body of the ranger. White blazing, almost living, it wrapped itself for an eyeblink around a giant's head. Already burnt and badly hurt from the burst of fire sent by the two wizards, the giant screamed, and shook, and died. The lightening was past the collapsing body and jumped from giant to giant before the first one fell. Five, six, then a seventh were caught by the rebounding bolt. An eighth was struck, then back again it went, dashing among the shaking forms.
"You never taught me that spell," said Talberth, his tone hushed with respect.
* * *
Telenstil didn't answer, but instead drew out a black chain from which dangled a handful of amber stones. "I've never even seen that spell before." murmured Talberth to himself.
For a moment the camp was quiet, then the wall of fire gave a huff and disappeared. It broke the silence and set the wolves to howling.
"Stand back!" yelled Telenstil. His voice was loud and filled with command, but it lacked the eldritch quality that had rung out as he'd cast his spell of power. With a twist of his hand he snapped the largest of the amber stones from the chain and hurled it toward the giants.
Fire blossomed, rising in a twisting pillar. Arms and legs formed, and a grinning head. The fire-creature had a wicked face. Eyes black as coal, fangs and claws glowing white hot and hair like molten steel. It gave a shriek like steam escaping from a kettle and tore into the giants around it.
"Away, away," cried Telenstil.
"Fire Elemental," Ivo glanced at the elf. "Dangerous."
"It will not attack me, but the rest of you stand clear!" ordered Telenstil.
The giants fought, but stone went through the creature and did little harm. Hands smashed at it, but the flame-flesh burned the mere oerthly hide of the giants. Clubs and daggers fared better, but they struck nothing solid, only parted the substance of the elemental's body which reformed itself as the wood or metal passed through.
Claws of fire left blazing cuts and slashes. Just the nearness of the creature set beards, hair and clothes ablaze. The elemental twisted, danced and laughed, its voice a shrieking, evil wail. But not all the giants faced the elemental. Some were near to Telenstil and the others. Some near the far edge of the camp by the path. And the wolves set upon prey that did not burn. They had no liking for fire. The elemental was a deadly beast, but only a distraction for the giants, it would not hold them long.
Ivo slipped a tiny bottle from a wooden case. A small tube, only a sliver of glass, was at the center of the bottle, surrounded by a dirty, yellow liquid. Inside the tube was a pinch of dark powder. Thrown hard by the old gnome, the glass shattered on the ground amid the wolves. Smoke, grey-yellow and dense, billowed from the spot.
"Friend," the dwarf, Nyradir, said, but he looked toward the fight and not at Harold.
The halfing could hear the concern in the dwarf's voice.
"Friend, Galar!" Nyradir cried out in alarm.
Harold looked to see what the dwarf saw. Fire rose up among the giants. The elf Ghibelline stabbed one of the monsters while Gytha smashed it across the knee with her iron staff. A stream of motion was Derue. He glided between two giants, swaying back from the club strike of one and ducking beneath a sweeping blow of another. Talberth sent a flight of blue-glowing magic bolts into a wolf that charged him, and a cloud of sickly vapors swallowed the rest of the pack. But what had so alarmed the dwarf, Harold could not see.
* * *
"Talberth, help me. We must grab Harald and get him out of here," shouted Telenstil.
"We will never move him," Talberth said breathlessly. "Wolves!" he shouted in turn, his eyes flashing toward the smoke-cloud created by Ivo's spell.
A handful of the beasts jumped from the wafting edges, their hair lank and greasy with a shiny, yellow oil. More staggered from the cloud, some dropped and rolled in the dirt, others wiped at their muzzles with paws bitten by the magic smoke.
"You two get Harald," Ivo told the two wizards. "I'll take care of these." The old gnome held a white feather in his hand and waved it toward the wolves. He spoke words of gnomish magic beneath his breath and the feather disappeared. What the wolves saw even Ivo did not know. His spell sought out their greatest fear and made it real. There were growls and whines, one wolf leapt straight up into the air. None went back into the grey-yellow cloud, but all turned tail and ran.
Nyradir raced toward the giants. He had no weapon, but that daunted him not at all. Veering toward the left, he avoided the three who fought with Ghibelline, Gytha and Derue. Behind them the elemental skreeched and whirled. The sacks and bags of the giants lay unattended.
Galar lay bound among the litter. The dwarf was still, but his hands worked at the rope that tied them. Rough cord bit into his skin and slicked his wrists with blood. He'd just about freed one hand when Nyradir reached him.
"Galar!" cried Nyradir with relief. "You are still alive."
"Undo these knots!" snapped Galar.
"You've almost got this off yourself," Nyradir said, looking at the gouges in Galar's flesh. "How are the others." He glanced at the sacks that the giants had not upended.
"Dead," Galar said like a curse. "They put me in last.. owuch! What are you playing at!"
"Sorry, I've no knife and these knots are pulled tight," Apologized Nyradir. "They're dead. How do you know?" he asked in a low voice after a moments pause.
"I was trussed up and put in last," said Galar. "I saw. They cut their throats and bled them like rabbits."
"Why not us," grunted Nyradir.
"They've other plans for us," said Galar. "There!" he pulled his arms free and grimaced when he saw the deep cuts on his wrists. "My pack, my hammer, they are in those sacks of the giants. Your axe as well, come, help me," Galar didn't wait for Nyradir's reply. The older dwarf kicked through the debris surrounding him and threw himself upon one of the large cloth sacks. He pulled at the cord and it came open in his hand. There was another sack beside him. Nyradir grabbed at it, but Galar slapped him on the shoulder. "Not that one," Galar said and shook his head.
"This one? Annar and Sjar?" Nyradir asked.
Galar nodded to him silently. The muscles in Nyradir's hand tightened, his fingers went white with the strain, and the cloth bag tore down its side. When he had ripped it halfway, a curly head came into sight. Nyradir put his hand beneath and cradled the neck, as if the dwarf was merely sleeping.
"I have said prayers for them, said them for all of us," Galar told him. "Our gear is in this bag, say your prayers for them later, say it with your axe. Carve a prayer in some giant flesh."
The fighting raged around them.
* * *
"I had hoped to save these," murmured Telenstil.
He tore two more of the fiery stones from the black chain. A pair of elementals appeared, both identical to each other and to the first that had risen from the enchanted stone. They were half the size of their larger brethren, but just as wild with a vicious, blazing madness.
The mage had thrown the dweomered gems in haste and with an awkward cast. They landed between the giants, behind their backs, as most fought the first elemental and the rest tried to crush the humans and the elf. It was a lucky throw. One fire-beast hopped onto a giant's back. The monstrous warrior roared, and as it did, Ghibelline stabbed it with his blade, driving steel in till the hilt was pressed into the giant's belly. The elf nearly lost his grip as the giant writhed, but Ghibelline had lost one sword to Nosnra's kin already, he would not let another go.
The second of the fiery pair tore into the giants who attacked his larger kin. Molten talons of living fire ripped across the sides of two giants. Teeth that were hotter than the coals of a forge bit down into an arm and took away a chunk of flesh. The wound did not bleed, burnt-shut by the elemental's touch.
The club in the giants hand lashed out, but the elemental was already gone, busy screeching in glee as it clawed and bit and blazed into another giant. The blow thocked hard into his neighbor's skull and brought the towering warrior down like a sapling felled with a single stroke of an axe.
Derue moved like a leaf fluttering from a tree. The smashing fists and lunging strikes of the giants came close, but it was as if the force of the attacks helped to push the scout just out of reach. The journey of the leaf is always to the ground, but it is the wind that guides its path. What guided Derue seemed like a wind, no effort could be seen in his motion, no force behind his hands and feet. Something beyond his mortal frame, always spare, but now with flesh stretched tightly across his bone, added a strength to his blows and a grace to his movements.
As a giant to his left brought a cask-sized fist smashing down, Derue extended his leg up to meet the giant's chin. The heel of the scout's foot met the bottom of the massive jaw and slammed it shut as if the giant had brought his head down atop a pillar of rock. There was a crack of breaking teeth and breaking bone. The giant's jaw hung at an angle and blood poured from its mouth. Derue spun, bringing his raised leg down and twisting his other leg horizontal till it met the giant's huge belly and sank ankle deep. The giant sprayed out blood and bits of teeth, then gasped for air, its face turning first red then blue. With both hands on its bruised stomach, the giant fell and landed heavily on its side, then rolled back and forth in pain. Each breath was a fight against injured muscles. It coughed out the blood that poured into its lungs from its ruined mouth. Derue faced only the one giant now.
A punch strong as a battering ram caught the scout a glancing blow. He let it send him flying through the air, but he was on his feet before the giant could strike again.
* * *
Human hands could do little against the giant's mighty bulk. Derue could shatter the bricks in a wall, crack stone and splinter wood, but the bones of the massive warrior that he fought were as thick as tree-trunks and wrapped in flesh, tougher than any man's. His feet were another matter and he used them to good effect. The giant tried to bat the scout aside with a backhand swipe.
Bending almost double, Derue ducked beneath the blow, but swung his arms up so that they hooked about the huge forearm as it passed. He was carried up into the air, his weight was nothing to the corded muscles of the giant's arm. As he rose, he slid, his own arms loosely circled around the giant's. Past the elbow he went, then letting go as he reached the bicep. Derue's arms went down to his sides and he spun, using his hips and his shoulders to torque his body. One leg pulled up, bending at the knee, his other extended heel first. He struck beneath the giant's upraised arm, the monster's own strength adding to the force of Derue's blow, as he spiraled his heel into the pit of the creature's arm.
A man would have been crippled, if not killed. The giant gave a grunt of pain, its arm spasmed, its clenched fist sprang open, fingers outstretched from the jabbing shock. The injured arm moved weak and slow, but the giant swept out with its other hand only to slash the air where Derue had been.
A few yards to the side, Ghibelline tore his sword free from a giant's belly. He staggered back, Gytha catching Ghibelline by the shoulder and keeping him from falling to the ground. Blazing talons had sunk into the giant's throat even as the elf's sword came free. The fire-beast still rode upon the huge warrior's back and reaching round sliced smoking cuts across the wide neck, setting beard and hair aflame. It was the giant's turn to stumble, but he had no one to keep him on his feet. Backwards he fell and buried the elemental beneath him.
A little further on found Ivo dragging at Harald's sword. The small gnome was half the size of the huge blade. Beside him, Talberth and Telenstil worked at moving the body of the ranger. Each mage pulled at a shoulder. Harald was human-sized again, but a mighty man, no less so in sleep, or death. A word from Talberth had taken away the spell that had transformed the ranger to almost giant-size. His weight was more than either mage could have hoped to budge alone, and together they still strained to drag him from the midst of battle.
The bodies of giants formed a waist high wall for the man and elf. A wall almost higher than Ivo's head as he passed the unmoving blackened, chest of a slain warrior. They had not gone far, no more than half a score of feet, when a voice groaned from the throat of a giant. Ivo looked over to see a pair of white eyes flash open amid a face charred black and lined with raw red cracks. Hairless, the fire had eaten all the skin of its head, burnt ears to stumps, nose to a lump of coal-like flesh and the giant's mouth scorched into a dark pit no longer ringed with lips.
"Lppphhh," came a voice like a deep moan of wind. A hand shot out with a shocking speed. Telenstil had half turned. He still held Harald's upper arm when the hand caught him by his neck and shoulders. Nailess fingers closed around him like bands of steel. Flakes of skin broke from the giant's hand, but the monster had passed the point of feeling pain. The giant pulled himself to his feet. Fjolver, strong among his people, but stronger in will and heart than even his own kind would have believed. With a casual flick of his hand, he tossed Telenstil behind him as he would toss a bone at mealtime to the floor.
* * *
"ome! usshhh!" moaned Fjolver. The giant had his eyes locked on Ivo but he lashed out and struck down Talberth as casually as a man would slap away a beggar's hand. The mage had dropped Harald's shoulder and fumbled for his lightning-wand. He'd not been able to draw it before the back of the Fjolver's hand cracked against his chest. Knocked aside, Talberth fell as he struggled for balance. He stumbled over a giant's lifeless arm, his own wrapped about his ribs, and crashed in a flurry of motion as he tried to brace himself for the fall. Ivo stood perfectly still as the giant reached for him. The monster's hand engulfed the old gnome and lifted him from the ground. Fjolver raised Ivo to his face, the burnt fingers of the giant's hand gripping him around the middle. Fjolver smiled, his huge, yellow teeth soot-stained, but silhouetted amid the horror of his face.
There was a broad, silver buckle on Ivo's belt. Its front embossed with a symbol of a moon over a hill. Ivo slid two small clasps aside with his hand and pulled the buckle free. A pair of silver needles were revealed, the buckle a square shaped hilt. The old gnome smiled back into the giant's face and jabbed the needles deep into Fjolver's wrist where the veins showed beneath the blackened skin. Fjolver opened his mouth to howl, but the giant froze in place, even his eyes were stopped and glazed. Opposite the symbol of moon and hill, a spider was carved into the silver of the buckle, the two needles were its fangs. The outline of the spider bulged. A head rose from the metal, bent down, pushed into the giant's wrist. One by one the legs pulled themselves free, then at last the bloated body. The metal liquefied and ran like quicksilver into the spider, then through the needle fangs into Fjolver's veins. In an eyeblink the metal was gone and then the silver spider followed, turning into a stream of metal venom, rushing through its own fangs till nothing was left but two dripping holes in the giant's wrist.
"Death take you!" hissed Ivo. The gnome looked old and grim. He drew a small dagger from his belt, one sided and razor sharp. Ivo climbed up the giant's arm and cut Fjolver's throat, then threw his knife away.
The giant's broke. They'd swept the first elemental apart with their blows, but the mad fire-beast had hurt them all. When a second appeared with a third behind it, the giant's said enough and peeled away.
A young warrior, his hair burnt down to a greasy smudge, was the first to run. Then an older giant with his fist and arm blistered all along its length. The last six, all warriors of Fjolver's band, turned and ran for the path, the elemental in hot pursuit. One living giant stood within the camp. His left arm was half-numbed, but he fought on with his right. Derue circled him, weaving closer in a spiraling dance that kept the giant pivoting, trying to keep its injured arm away from the human who struck with the power of a hammer behind his feet and hands.
* * *
"Cllaaannn-Gggeeddd-IN!" screamed Nyradir. The dwarf had found his axe, jumbled carelessly with the equipment of his slain companions, and now raced across the camp to attack the giants.
But they had fled, the last of them already on the trail and heading up, to escape the fire-beast that chased them. His head whipped round as he scanned the camp. Behind him one giant stood, the monstrous warrior facing an unarmed man. Galar gave a whistle, drawing Nyradir's attention, and pointed to the giant. The dwarf gave a shake of his head,
"Cursed priests," he muttered, then turned back to the man and the giant.
He expected to see the man dead, crushed beneath the giant's heel, or smashed by a huge fist. Instead, the giant backed away as the man came forward. The giant lunged, but half-heartedly, a weak, brush with his hand that the man easily avoided. There was a solid thump. Nyradir couldn't see what had happened, but the giant limped back, favoring one leg, and the man swirled aside and to the giant's left.
"Clangedin!" Nyradir shouted, then ran with his axe brought to one shoulder.
The giant kept shifting, trying to keep the man in his sight, and the man kept moving to the left. They had turned so that now the giant's back was toward Nyradir.
The dwarf smiled. The best way to attack a giant was from behind, or with a boulder dropped from a very high cliff. A dwarf had to strike at what he could and whittle an opponent down to size.
Nyradir brought his axe up from his shoulder and slashed open the back of the giant's knee. There was a gout of blood, shooting out as the giant stiffened, the monstrous body going straight as a board and tipping forward. Then the injured leg gave way and the huge warrior dropped to one side with a rumble like an avalanche. Nyradir chopped at the giant's neck as the man seemed to flow toward him and crush the barrel-sized throat with the heel of his foot.
"Well-met!" laughed Nyradir.
The man said nothing, but gave the dwarf a nod.
Nyradir's smile faded from his lips as he nodded back. "A grim one," he thought to himself.
There was a clap like thunder and a blinding flash of light. Something screeched, its voice fading off as if it fell into a deep, deep pit.
* * *
"That thing still lives," said Ghibelline. The elf pointed with his sword as he spoke to Gytha. From beneath the body of the giant it had killed, the fire-beast clawed itself free. It tossed the carcase of the huge warrior aside, the back of the giant had been burnt to the bone and almost hollowed out by the elemental it had lain upon.
"I don't think that it is on our side," Ghibelline said over his shoulder. He lunged and put the point of his blade through the creatures throat. He might as well have tried to stab a bonfire. The creature hissed, a bright red tongue, the color of a sword-blade fresh pulled from the forge, licked out.
It hurt the eyes just to look at the creature. The elemental rose, and Ghibelline's sword passed down through its body. Stepping forward it engulfed the blade up to the hilt and would have kept coming up the arm, till it could sink its white-hot, molten teeth into the elf's throat. Ghibelline pulled back, giant's blood sizzling on the edge of his sword, cooked by the body of the elemental. He ducked a slash from the fire-beast's claws, but they left three deep burns across his forearm.
"Back to the flames beast!" commanded Gytha. The Cuthbertine priestess strode forward with her iron staff held in both hands. "By the strength of the holy Saint, send this fire-beast, this nameless elemental of fire, send it back to the place of its creation. It is not of this Oerth. O Saint, cast it out!" she screamed and brought her staff down on the creature's head.
* * *
There was a ringing in his ears. Nyradir opened his eyes and blinked them, but the purplish blotch was slow to fade. The dwarf lay on his back, looking up into the clear sky. A heavily bearded face bent over him and a hand slapped him lightly on his cheek.
"...stunned," said Galar.
"what?" Nyradir asked, but his voice sounded like a whisper. "WHAT!?!" he yelled.
A pained expression shot across Galar's face and he put his hand to his ear.
Nyradir opened his mouth to speak but Galar quickly placed his hand across the warrior's mouth before he could shout again.
"Quietly," said Galar. "Quietly. I can hear fine, its you who are a bit wonky."
"mmpgrhmm," said Nyradir.
Galar took his hand away.
"What happened?" the dwarven warrior asked.
"Deific abjuration," Galar told him. The dwarven priest raised his eyes when he saw the blank look on Nyradir's face. "Human priestess make fire-elemental go away," he pointed behind him.
Nyradir looked about, propping himself up, but the body of a giant blocked his view. He reached out an arm and Galar helped pull him to his feet. The after-image from the flash of light had faded from his eyes. No more purple blotch. Nyradir scanned the camp, no giants moving about, only a cluster of humans a few dozen feet away.
"You must have hit your head," said Galar. "Strong rocks they have around here," he mused, "I'd'ave thought your head would be the one to put a dent in things, not the other way round."
"Very funny," Nyradir rubbed the back of his head and found a lump the size of a chicken's egg. He pulled his hand away as if he'd touched a burning coal and winced at the pain, his breath whistling through his teeth.
"Take a helm next time," Galar advised.
"Well I wouldn't wear one now," Nyradir answered him. "Not with this lump. Can't you do something?"
"Berronar's aid is for heroes," scolded Galar. "You've got a knock on the noggin. Teach you some sense, like wearing a helmet."
"You don't wear one!" snorted Nyradir.
"I'm a priest," said Galar, "besides, they make my hair sweaty."
"So what is going on?" asked the warrior.
"Picking up the injured. Collecting the dead," Galar shrugged. "I wasn't invited and we haven't been introduced. You're the one that speaks these lowland tongues, not me."
"You could have asked Berronar's aid for that," Nyradir reminded him.
"You are Truesilver's servant now?" asked Galar. "I don't go wasting Berronar's time when there are other means at hand."
"You mean me," said Nyradir.
"I mean you," Galar nodded in agreement.
"Any dwarves among them?" asked Nyradir.
"Not that I could see," said Galar. "There is an old gnome, an elf or two, a couple of humans."
"I saw a halfling," offered Nyradir.
"Good for you," Galar replied. "Now, times wasting, go find out who they are and see if they know anything."
"Maybe they can help." Nyradir said.
"They certainly saved our bacon," said Galar. "Our spirits as well, if I don't miss my guess."
* * *
"Is he dead?" Harold asked, fearing the answer would be yes. The halfling had made his way to the others, weaving around the bodies of the slain. Little Rat, he supported with great effort, the young orc's good arm over his shoulder.
"No," Ivo answered him. "Almost, but no. Talberth and Telenstil made it to him in time."
"Help me here, would you?" Harold asked
The two small companions stood just beyond the circle of their friends. Gytha knelt beside the body of Harald. The ranger did not move, did not even seem to breath. Nearby were Talberth and Telenstil. Ghibelline hovered over Gytha's shoulder and Derue had his back to the halfling and the gnome. With care, Ivo and Harold lowered Little Rat to the ground. They propped him up against the arm of a dead giant, but the young orc was in a daze, he might as well of had his head on the stones or in a fire.
"That arm looks bad," said Ivo.
The bandage that Harold had wrapped around the mangled forearm was soaked through and it was tight against the swelling flesh.
"I'll have to loosen it," Harold grimaced, "it's starting to swell, and it is still bleeding. Gytha!" the halfling yelled as he unwrapped the blood-slicked cloth. "Gytha!" he yelled again.
"I am here," the priestess said as she approached.
"How is Harald?" Ivo asked her. "Does he live?"
Harold did not turn his head, but his eyes shifted to the side.
"He lives. He sleeps, but he is grievously hurt still," said Gytha. "Do you need my aid?"
"Little Rat," Harold turned now and his face was streaked with tears, "this wound may kill him, take his arm at least, can you help him. Will you?"
Her touch was light but firm on the halfling's shoulder.
"You should know me by now. No need to ask. I will do what I can."
"Hrrmpphh!" came a deep growl. Nyradir had come up to them, the priest Galar standing just behind. Ghibelline had his eyes locked on the dwarven priest.
"You be Ginnar's kin?" he asked in a dwarven tongue.
"My brother! What do you know of him?" Galar spoke with a rising voice and great emotion.
"Slow, please," Ghibelline held up both his hand palm forward. "Little your tongue I know."
"Nyradir! Ask him. Ask him," said Galar excitedly.
"You speak trade-talk?" asked Nyradir.
"Ask him, curse you," interrupted Galar.
"I will, I will," Nyradir snapped back in dwarvish. "You know Ginnar, Galar's brother?" he nodded toward the priest. "I be Nyradir."
"I am Ghibelline," said the elf. "Ginnar was my friend, but I could not rescue him when I myself was rescued from the dungeon's of Nosnra."
Nyradir translated the words to Galar as quickly as he could and the priest responded with a long stream of questions. "He ask much," said Nyradir in common. "But this place look bad. Giant's run, run home, but they be back. Bring more kin."
"I agree," said Telenstil. The elven mage was bloodied and battered. One arm and shoulder he held stiff, and he winced with pain with every step he took. "We should be away, but where would we find shelter from the giants?"
"How would we get there?" asked Ivo. "You need healing if you are going on a trek," he said to Telenstil, "and Harald, and Little Rat, and Talberth, you look none to well."
"I'm fine," weezed the mage. He had both arms wrapped tightly round his chest.
"Galar help," offered Nyradir. "Berronar, healer, Galar serve Berronar." The warrior turned to the priest and spoke to him in their dialect of mountain dwarf. "These are friends Galar. Friends of your brother too. You can call on Berronar to help them can't you."
"You're quick. Enemies of giants doesn't mean friends to dwarves," said Galar. "But let Berronar judge the truth as he will. I'm not healing that orc, you can tell them that," the priest said firmly.
* * *
Day was coming to an end, and the ranger still slept. Harald had been carried away from the carnage and now the group, grown larger by two dwarves, had gathered themselves by the edge of camp that was furthest from the path. The bags of the giants had been plundered. Any loot that caught the eye was snatched up, but Nyradir and Galar took away only their own possessions, taken from them by the giants, and that of their slain companions. The bodies of Nyradir's warriors were carried away with reverence and solemnity by the two dwarves. It was a cheerless and grim circle, all were hurt or weary, save the halfling, and he had put himself on watch, a little distant from the others.
"We go, Nosnra's Hall," said Nyradir in broken common. "What news?"
"Can't you speak their tongue Ghibelline?" asked Talberth.
"Nyradir, he speaks better common than I speak dwarven." Ghibelline confessed.
"That is no dwarven tongue I have heard before," said Ivo. "I thought I knew them all well enough. And yet it is a little like all the languages of the dwarves I have learned or heard."
"We have been to Nosnra's hall," said Telenstil. "Ghibelline and one other we took from the dungeons, but we left behind two of our own. We saw no dwarves."
"They kept Ginnar chained to the forge, unless they had him out to work widening the tunnels and the chambers below the hall," added Ghibelline.
"You friend Ginnar?" asked Nyradir.
"Yes," said Ghibelline firmly. "I would call him friend, but he was a greater friend to another, and Jalal was like kin to me."
"Jalal?" Nyradir turned and spoke to Galar in their own tongue. The dwarven priest raised his hands and shrugged.
"A man," said Ghibelline, "not of war, but a braver spirit I have never known. Most of what I know of Ginnar comes from him, and he is why I live now." the elf lowered his eyes to the ground and Gytha put her arm about his shoulders.
The two clerics could barely sit without swaying. They had expended all their strength and the healing bounty of their gods on the injured. Gytha even more so than the dwarf. She smiled, a wan, tired smile. Her face was lined with care, and her flesh was shrinking, pulling tight across her muscles and her bones. The cadaverous look of Ghibelline nearly matched her. The two, as they sat leaning against each other, looked like male and female of some species that was neither man or elf.
Galar's eyes were red, but wide awake. Any news of his brother stirred up the fires within his spirit. He would not sleep or rest till he had heard all that there was to tell. Ghibelline spoke quickly of his capture, but little of his time within the dungeons, only telling what little he could of Ginnar. When he finished, the light of day was failing and twilight would soon be upon them.
"Time for talk be done," said Nyradir, looking at the sky. "We go Nosnra's hall. Any here go too?"
"I go," croaked out a voice. Harald had been set near to Gytha, his body was bruised and hurt. Fresh scars and even open cuts, that were beyond Gytha's present strength to heal, could be seen on his face and arms. Beneath his clothes the wounds were just as bad.
"You can't even walk!" snapped the little thief.
"Then I'll crawl," growled Harald. "But I won't run anymore."
"I will go as well," said Ghibelline. He released Gytha's hand, but she caught it again.
"I would go with Ghibelline, but I will abide by Telenstil's decision," she said. "I will not break my oath."
Telenstil sat for a moment. Everyone watched him silently. "All oaths are ended here," said Telenstil. His words at first came with a great pain and weariness, but as he spoke them, a weight dropped from his spirit and he smiled. "We have wrecked great havoc among the giants. My queen has been given the answers to many questions, and through her, those you have made your pledges to as well. We have done what we could. I would do more, and if I could have it so, I would have all of us strong and rested. I would have the giants scattered or asleep, or in their cups. But I see no rest for us now, and what strength we have is perhaps more than we will have a day from now."
"This is madness," said Talberth.
"No," Telenstil raised his hand, palm forward, to the mage. "This is best. Nosnra has seen us run, will receive word of our flight, of this..." he gestured to the camp filled with the bodies of giant dead. "He might suspect that we will return, but I doubt that he will know for certain. This is best, but each is free to make their own decision. Nyradir, I will go with you," Telenstil said, and his hand dropped to his side.
"Then I go with Ghibelline." said Gytha.
"What of Little Rat?" Harold objected. "I can't leave him here. I agree with Talberth, this is madness, but I'll go. But I'm not leaving him," he gestured to the young orc, "like we left those others back in that cursed cave."
"I will carry him if I have to," offered Ghibelline.
Gytha smiled. "Listen. He snores now, his arm is healed, though it may be a little weak. His feet should be fine."
Harold narrowed his eyes as he stared at the young orc. "Why that little..." said the halfling. He reached over to give Little Rat a shake.
"No don't wake him," said Gytha. "Let him sleep while he can."
"That leaves me," said Ivo. "No need to ask, I'll go."
Talberth gave a deep sigh. He cast a quick glance at Gytha but quickly looked away. "I should have stayed in that 'cursed cave'. I have given my word," he pulled his shoulders straight and gave a small wince, though the pain in his chest was only a memory. "I will go."
"Good," said Nyradir. "Good." he looked again toward the sky. "Rest little now, then go."
"Rest," said Talberth. "Maybe it will clear some heads," but he knew in his heart that they were bound once more for Nosnra's hall.
* * *
(The End For Now...To Be Continued in, The Frost Giant Jarl - Grugnur's Tale)