The Hill Giant Chief - Nosnra's Saga - Part 3
The retreating hill giant, or so the apparition appeared to be, stood facing the massive wooden doors, but as its hands reached out its fingers disappeared into the surface of the wood. It was a thing of no substance or solidity. Its form began to waver and the door began to move, creaking on rusty hinges and inching along wider and wider. As the door slowly opened Nosnra pushed himself to his feet, splinters of wood piercing his hand and arm sending a dozen trickles of blood dripping down to the floor.
Ursoth ran to his fallen master, but Nosnra ignored the brush of the bear's furry side against his leg and took a stumbling sprint forward. Ahead, the semblance of a giant had slipped through the narrow crack between door and frame, its chest and shoulders passing through the hard-grained wood like steam through an iron grate.
It took precious moments to cross the long passage from the hall proper to the double-doored entranceway. Nosnra swore vilely under his breath cursing the clutter of benches and tables which had slowed his pursuit and sent him tumbling to the ground. He reached out and grabbed the door by its edge and swung it open with great force, a hinge bolt shot from its anchor in the wooden frame and gave a dull thud against a nearby wall.
Beyond the passage lay a vast entry hall lined with cloaks hanging from a forest of pegs set in the wall. Below the cloaks, piles of skin-wrapped bundles and scatterings of carryalls and packs littered the floor. A cold, damp draft blew from the outer doors. The great ironbound portals let in the breeze, left open when they should have been shut fast.
"Eadnoth!" Nosnra shouted. The young warrior was nowhere to be seen.
"Eadnoth!" he yelled out the name but expected no reply. Was that the phantom spirit he saw, deaf to his entreaties, in the great hall? With quick strides he crossed to the outer doors.
The night was filled with noise, a constant patter of rain as its backdrop. Looking out into the starless dark he could see nothing, no sign of his errant guard.
"Eadnoth!" he called once more into the rain, but there was no reply. A fire built within him. This was no uneasy dream which sent him away from his bed and well-earned sleep. Where was this guard? What was the silent form he had come chasing after? He had no answer. Now he would rouse his people and set the steading astir.
The watchtower stairs were before him, he had but to cross the entry hall and follow them to the upper chamber. In his mind he could hear the clanging of the steel hammer on the iron bars, the alarm raised and the phantoms which plagued him chased into the night.
* * *
The wooden steps boomed beneath his feet, but they had been built with such punishing urgency in mind.
"Huon, sound the alarm!" Nosnra called ahead of him but there was no reply. His watchman lay silent and still, his back propped against the tower wall. A monstrous flagon sat overturned beside him, a dark pool spilled out over the floor where he rested.
"In your cups are you!" Nosnra swore and pounced upon the indolent form. His anger was great and he lashed out with a vicious kick. The blow landed with a dull thud and knocked the lifeless body over and about. Huon stared at his chieftain with eyes blinded by death, his head lolled at a careless angle, his throat opened from ear to ear.
The iron bar, twisted into an awkward circular hoop, sent a jarring dissonant clangor out across the steading. It resonated through the very timbers of wall and floor and roof. Nosnra struck it again and again, bringing forth an explosion of sparks with each relentless blow. Suddenly he stopped, a sweat had broken out across his face, his chest, his arms, and he stood red-faced and puffing as he breathed. He recovered quickly, but as the last of the echoing cacophony faded from hearing, the sound of approaching feet drummed across the floor below him.
Eadwig, bravest of his warriors, clambered up the watchtower steps and ran to answer the alarm. "Thegn!" he cried out, taken by surprise at the sight of his chieftain at the alarm. "What has happened? Where is Huon?"
"Dead," Nosnra said flatly and pointed toward the upturned face of the watchman.
Just beyond Eadwig, not daring to enter the room, a company of hill giants gathered. Sleep-lidded eyes and hair all astray, barefoot some, shirtless others, they lined the stairwell awaiting direction.
"Some foulness has come within the walls," The hammer dropped from his hands with a clang. The alarm raised, it made a poor weapon; its use was past. Nosnra walked toward the stairs empty-handed. "Is Eadnoth among you?" he called to the assemblage.
"Eadnoth!" The subchief cried out in much the way he had greeted his chief, both with surprise and alarm. "My brother! Thegn, what has happened here? Where is he?"
"Evil things," Nosnra answered. "Eadnoth watched the door as Huon the tower." He looked sadly at Eadwig. "Go," he said quietly. "Search him out. Take some of those," he nodded toward the stair, "and I will be in my hall. Return there when you have some word."
Eadwig did not delay, he lowered his head with a respectful bob then turned and called forth two of those gathered to follow him.
"Thiodolf," Nosnra called to a scarred and ancient giant whose pate was bald, ears notched and nose flattened from a crushing blow dealt to him long years ago.
"Yes, Thegn!" Thiodolf came forward without hesitation, he needed no further command. A tuneless whistle escaped from his lips as he eyed the body of Huon, but his attention snapped back in an instant, careful not to anger his chief by disregard. "Intruders are about," he stated the obvious.
"Send for Engenulf. Have him come to my hall."
"Yes, Thegn," Thiodolf dutifully replied.
"Have Huon taken from here," Nosnra continued, "bring him to the Great Hall. Leave two here, let them see Huon, let them know I expect them to watch and not rest."
"I'll make them understand Thegn." Thiodolf said. He ticked off each command on his fingers and held them stiff to make sure he did not forget.
"Good," Nosnra had a faraway look in his eyes, "Good. Guard the door, summon the Keeper, scour the hill..." he mumbled.
"Thegn," Thiodolf asked quietly, "should I summon the Keeper?"
"What?" Nosnra shook his head. "No, no, set the guards then bring the rest out to the Great Hall. There will be much more that needs to be done. There will be no more rest this night."
Ursoth padded unhappily back and forth disregarded by the gathering company of giants. The odor of man lingered about the entrance hall, he snuffled it out from among cloaks and piles of skin, but the smell of blood, giant's blood, overwhelmed the human stink. He followed its trail, a scent like burnt copper mixed with fresh oerth, and pawed aside a bundle of hides damp with blood. He pushed and nosed till the bare floor was revealed. Beneath his paws he felt a lump of lifeless flesh cooling but not yet cold. He could not see it, though he smelled its presence.
There was a stir among the ranks of giants filling the stairwell, a gap was made, some backing down, others flattening themselves to either side, and Eadwig, came rushing down. He summoned two burly warriors from the pack and set off across the hall, heading for the outer doors. Ursoth came bounding to him; the bear brushed against the giant's legs and gave a roar as Eadwig passed him by. The sub-chief had no time for his thegn's spoiled pet. His brother must be somewhere out in the night, wounded or more likely dead.
It was Gosfrith who, stopping to pull a hide cloak over his shirtless chest, brushed a hand against the insistent bear. His fingers came away wet, and stained a dark red. He looked closer at the dumb beast and eyed the red-streaked muzzle and paws coated crimson.
"Eadwig! Eadwig!" He called then chased after the pair who'd just disappeared out into the night.
* * *
"Make way! Back to the Hall!" Thiodolf yelled to the aimless crowd. "Curse you, make way!" he pushed those standing at the top of the stairwell back down. Most turned and forced their way through. Thiodolf prodded any stragglers and sent a youth tumbling, knocking giants down the stairs like ninepins. He would have laughed but his joyless chief followed close behind.
* * *
Gosfrith ran out into the night. A steady rain was turning the path to mud, the fields around were slick and sodden already. It was some time before dawn and the cloud-blanketed sky hid the stars from view. Eadwig had disappeared completely; he needed only to run a few score of feet ahead before he was swallowed in the utter pitch of the rain-streaked night. Gosfrith turned and stared out along the path, then right across the field away from the steading, and, seeing no sign, revolved and looked out along the long wooden wall of the steading itself.
Nothing, yet he had been delayed only a moment and could be only a short way from the other two. He ran a bit further out along the muddy path then stopped again and called out "Eadwig!" in a loud frustrated shout.
From out of the dark, somewhere to his right across the marshy field, away from the steading a voice called back in glad reply, "Eadnoth! Eadnoth! Is that you?"
"Eadwig, it's me, Gosfrith. Where are you?"
"Gosfrith!" the voice, Eadwig's, called back angrily. "What are you playing at, curse you."
"Eadwig, come back to the hall. Where are you? Come back. Stop running around in the dark," Gosfrith shouted back.
From out of the night two giant figures emerged jogging across the field. They had gone far, Eadwig running out ahead chasing after the image of his brother lying gravely wounded, fallen among the rain-soaked brush.
* * *
The entrance hall was lined with giants as Nosnra came down the stairs.
Thiodolf stood talking in earnest with a pair of warriors, one turned and, at a quick pace crossed to a side door, departed on an unknown errand. Ursoth sat leaning against his leg while Thiodolf absentmindedly reached his hand down to brush the bear's head in a kindly gesture. He heard the sudden hush which first took hold behind him, then flowed across the room on a breath of silence. Thiodolf gave a dismissive nod toward the second of the giant pair who lingered for some final word, then turned to face his Thegn, bad news at the forefront of his thoughts. Ursoth turned around as well and, glad to see his master, rushed over to him in a joyful bound.
"Ho there pet," Nosnra chided his bear as it playfully rolled round his feet, rose to a four legged stance then rubbed its soft and furry shoulder against its master's legs. Its antics brought a wistful smile to the grim Thegn's lips and he rubbed a loving hand along its back, thankful for the moment's distraction from this terrible night. But the moment passed quickly by, as moments do, and raising his head he looked toward Thiodolf then gestured for him to speak.
Thiodolf blinked and cleared his throat then gave sad tidings to his chief. "Thegn, I think it is Eadnoth's body we have found."
"You think. You do not know." Nosnra said, but at his heart, which dropped, weighed down with grief, he had expected such sorrowful news.