The Hill, Giant Chief - Nosnra's Saga - Part 4
Four sets of hands lifted the transparent body, its weight so ponderous in death, ungainly and slick with blood. Four shoulders set to bear the sad burden, four sets of legs to move it from its hiding place and bring it forth for all to see. The clan would feast round their dead, a table in their midst, the bodies laid out upon it. But this sightless corpse, now unseen, enchanted so by some cursed mage, would have no witness of sad-eyed kin to hold it within the grave.
* * *
"This is Eadnoth?" Nosnra reached out a reluctant hand and touched it to the corpse. The chilling flesh beneath was tacky with a coat of blood. He held a bony shoulder in his grip and brought his other hand to hold the lolling head.
"Here," he said to the nearest bearer of the dead, "put an arm about his neck. He is your kin, not some slab of meat for the kitchen block!"
He brushed the bearded face in passing and felt the gaping wound, a throat laid open wide by a coward's knife, and drew his hand away. From the outer doors a thunderous approach came pounding and Eadwig, soaked and dripping, ran with a manic speed to confront the mortal shell of his most hapless brother.
* * *
The Chief's private hall was crowded, filled with the base rumble of angry giants. Across the passage the Great Hall itself resounded with the noise and bustle of several dozen booming voices.
"Close that Door!" Nosnra commanded from his padded chair within his hall and a warrior leapt to obey. The din inside the Great Hall surpassed that of the celebration the night before. Huon's wife had begun a keening wail at the sight of her dead husband. His son, only a few years short of a warrior's age, sat with his father's sword across his bony knees and Huon's two young daughters hid their faces, crying into their mother's skirt.
Eadnoth's corpse lay upon the high table; Nosnra had the bearers set it there by his command. Eadwig sat nearby and held his brother's transparent bespelled hand between his own. He made no sound, no movement but the steady rise and fall of his vast chest. His head was bowed and his eyes were closed.
A clatter rang from across the hall. The Chief's wife Estrith summoned the matron of the kitchen, an ancient giantess, but one still possessed of an indomitable spirit and wiry strength, and ordered her to begin a second feast; this one a celebration for the dead.
Ingigerd the Old, such she had been called when Nosnra's father, Tofig, had been a babe. She had seen the sun rise upon this hilltop before the steading's first timber had been set. She was the eldest of the kindred here, and perhaps eldest of all the halls and manors, huts and hovels, eldest of all her kind that still breathed upon the Oerth.
Estrith, proud as her husband's father Tofig, blinked her eyes beneath the stern gaze of the willful crone. Though she was mistress of the steading, second in power and will only to her husband, and some would say that it was he who was not her equal but second to her forceful will, here, among the pots and pans, among the firepits and scurrying slaves, here she was overawed and outmatched. Once, years ago, in a fit of temper, Estrith had struck Ingigerd, the insubordinate fossil, a cruel blow that might have felled a young warrior or a small tree, but Ingigerd simply endured and shrugged away the pain. Without a word she turned her back to the red-faced chieftainess and walked away. Estrith, in a silent rage, shamefaced, stood and suffered the humiliation of her ineffective wrath.
The matron had won and Estrith proved the weaker of the two. Now her orders were accepted but not obeyed, as if they were mere suggestions and not commands. Ingigerd need only look to her underlings and they would rush to their duties. Her dictates needed no shouts, or threats of dire consequence, only a silent nod or gesture.
Without awareness, Estrith sought to emulate Ingigerd's noble bearing, but her unruly nature escaped her attempt at quiet dominance time and again. The women of the steading left their places among the tables of the Great Hall. Some gathered the young and lead them to a far corner, others returned babes and toddlers to the relative safety of the creche where each member of the clan was raised, mothers taking such care in turn, and many followed the matron into the kitchen to prepare the feast that would last till the mourning was done. Estrith looked on in silence, arms folded across her ample bosom and watched with unconscious envy the deference paid to this decrepit churl, deference which rightly belonged to her alone.
The Chief's private hall was filled, hill giants for the most part, but a trio of grey-skinned stone giants stood against the outer wall, silent and still as their name implied. Most noticeable, though, was a round-headed, bull-necked ogre. He stood only shoulder high to his giant masters but no one would mistake the scarred and heavily muscled figure as a youth or question his right to stand among them.
"All the elders of the kindred are present, my Thegn!" Thiodolf declared.
"Where is Engenulf?" Nosnra demanded.
"He is here!" A powerful voice replied.
A cold wind swirled around him and a pair of monstrous dire wolves cavorted at his feet, puppy-like.
"Well close the cursed door!" Nosnra shouted back.
Thiodolf gestured and the youngest warrior among the gathering jumped from his seat and ran to shut the outside door.
"What is this?" Engenulf questioned. "Holding a witenagemot without the witan!"
"You're late is all," Nosnra yelled back. "We have serious business. Have you heard?"
"I've heard some, and I sense some, but you tell me," Engenulf replied.
"Huon's dead," Nosnra said abruptly as he had said it before in the watchtower,"and Eadnoth, but he is bespelled as well. His body is there but none can see it."
"Ahh..." Engenulf intoned. "Yes, I know that spell; Easy enough to break."
Nosnra felt a wave of relief. How could Eadnoth's spirit join with the kindred when it could not be seen by them.
"Is there more?" Engenulf asked.
"Isn't that enough... but yes, there is more," Nosnra replied. "Come," he stood and walked over to the witan. They were of an age, though Engulfen had been much older than Tofig, he had sired a son that was born within days of Nosnra. The two had been fast friends and boon companions, one destined to rule and the other to counsel. Now they buffeted each other verbally as they had pummeled each other physically in their youth. "Eadnoth needs to be cleansed of this vile enchantment and honored by the feast."
He led Engenulf by the arm toward the long passage and the Great Hall. "Thiodolf," he called back, "Bring everyone but the outer guards to the Great Hall."
"Yes, Thegn!" Thiodolf nodded respectfully and sent an unhappy young warrior on another errand.
"What else has happened?" Engenulf asked quietly as they walked down the passage. The witan looked concerned. Something had greatly disturbed his friend, much more than the death of two warriors. Always unpleasant, but death and life intermixed. Giants did not often die old, especially the warriors of the kindred. He reached out and gripped the chief by his shoulder lending his own strength.
"I felt this," Nosnra said, "as I lay asleep. I felt the wrongness come to the steading. I did not know then, but now... I felt the death of Huon and of Eadnoth. Why? Many of the clan have died, some by my own hand, most obeying my commands. I felt nothing like this before."
"How many have died inside these walls, or even upon this hill?" Engenulf gestured, sweeping his arm out from under a long fur cloak. "Your father held this hall against the last of those who would challenge our clan. None have come against us since." He stopped Nosnra before the wide double doors that opened upon the northern edge of the Great Hall. "This steading, this hill, it is part of you, as you are a part of the kindred. But what else is there? I sense something more?"
Nosnra paused then looked into his advisor's face. "I saw a phantom..." he began, "It appeared as a giant, one of our own kind, but insubstantial. It did not heed me when I called to it."
"There are magics involved," Engenulf closed his eyes to see beyond the mortal veil. "I can feel them. If there is something more, some touch of the spirits upon our world, I do not feel such, but I will cast the bones and we shall see."
The Great Hall blazed with light. At its center a fire burned high within the stone-lined pit, and along its walls and wooden pillars, dozens of torches smoked and sputtered. The double-doors at its northern side were opened and Engenulf walked through, Nosnra at his side. All eyes within the hall turned to watch the witan's entrance.
Eadwig raised his head but held tight to his brother's inanimate hand. Ogiva, Huon's wife, held back her tears and with a stern command muffled her daughter's sobs and her own as well.
Nearly all the giants were gathered in the hall while ogre servants and orcish slaves were scattered here and there. A hush fell over them as Engenulf made his way to the high table. He was an imposing sight, tall as a forest tree, thin but possessed of a wiry strength, and corded with muscle detailed beneath his skin. His hair was long, no razor-knife or shears had ever cut it, instead many braids had been woven, twined with polished rune-carved bone, feathers from a dozen winged beasts and dye-stained cord, some creatures hide, now colored red and green and a dark rich blue. About his waist a belt of bone, the ribs of man and monster strung together with lengths of centaur hair, the buckle carved from a dragon's tooth. He wore a cloak of deep, soft fur thrown back from off his chest, its clasp, a human skull, eyes now cuts of amber ages old. Between its teeth it clamped a silver tang, held firm by jaws that iron rods kept closed.
"Friden, slafin-tif," Engenulf pronounced so softly the words almost went unheard. He stood upon the raised wooden floor, the high table at his side, and gently made the troubled Eadwig close his eyes and rest. From a fetish pouch he drew a careful measure of a grey-white ash, the harvest of a sacred pyre, and scattered them above the sub-chiefs head. "Friden, friden, friden..." he intoned and Eadwig gave a snore.
From his brother's hand, Eadnoth's hand was taken and Engenulf held it in his own. Then, as if to warm the death-cold flesh, the witan chafed its palm between his rough hands and held it to his lips.
"Sauber-ghen," he breathed the words upon the unseen skin, "Sauber-ghen, uss-ghen-ets!" he commanded. The translucent flesh obeyed, and in a wave that started with the hand within the witan's grasp, Eadnoth reappeared.
The giant's corpse was grim indeed, now visible once again, with open eyes that held a startled look and a throat slashed from ear to ear.
"Good that he sleeps," Nosnra said and looked sadly at Eadwig's recumbent form.
"Death comes to us all," Engenulf replied and bent to search the gaping wound. "The kindred claim their own."
"Death such as this," the chief pointed to his slaughtered guard, "should not have come at all."
"This cut was from a very sharp blade," the witan lowered his head, and, with braided hair covering the sightless eyes, sniffed along the severed neck. "An ensorcelled blade; It smells of magic," he turned and spat upon the floor. "Bring me a cup of ale!" he called "I need to rinse this wizard stench away."
He pulled a needle of splintered bone from a folded pouch of black, coarse cloth, and, with a length of resilient gut, sewed razored flesh together once again.