"Arise!" Nosnra commanded the assembled clan, "Arise and look upon your slain kin!"
A feast was laid out in the Great Hall. Above the roasting pit was spitted a monstrous aurochs bull, now a well carved skeleton charring slowly over the open fire. Barrels of ale, larger than a tall man, stood at head and foot of every table. Huge slabs of bread, served as edible plates set before each feaster, were buried beneath thick-cut hunks of meat, burnt crisp along their edge, but at heart raw red and dripping blood. Tubs of cabbage mixed with pickled dwarven heads, clean shaved, a rare delicacy among the hills. A dozen separate dishes, some hot and others cold, but most a charnel horror of sentient flesh, human, elven, dwarven, all fair game and sustaining meat among the giant-kind.
At the chief's command each giant rose, benches scraped back across the floor, then every eye, sad and with deep respect, turned toward the pair of dead set before the thegn's high table.
Huon's wife had brought their wedding shield, a huge kite of painted hide and wood, and placed it on his arm. Young Eadnoth had found no mate, instead his brother gave him a wanderer's staff, no runes carved upon it, his betrothal quest unlived, no tale ever to be told. A bread-plate of food was set for them, a huge flagon of ale beside their hands. Their bodies had been washed of blood, their wounds sewn tight and hidden, bloody clothes cut away then taken and soaked in oil. A torch would be made of these rags, wrapped round the wood then set aflame, a kindling wick to light the funeral pyre.
Then each giant was dressed again in their best finery and laid out with reverent care. Each member of the clan, from eldest, Ingigerd the ancient crone, to the youngest suckling babe, paced by the bodies of the dead; They stopped and took a bite of food or sip from flagon or snip of cloth, binding some fragment of their slain kin to the whole of the living kindred.
Engenulf approached them last. He placed the flagon to their lips and poured a tiny sip within, then took a pinch of bread and meat and put it on their tongues. He gently closed their jaws, reached up and shut their eyes then turned to face the gathered crowd and spoke the final words.
"They Sleep!" The witan proclaimed. "Eat, now that they have tasted their last food, drunk their final drink. We celebrate their life, and in their death they become one with all the kindred. All who have lived, all who live now, all who will one day come."
A roaring cheer erupted from every throat; it shook the rafters and the roof, and echoed down the hall. The feast began, the giants set to and soon there came first chortles then choruses of merry laughter. A snippet of a song erupted, flagons filled and emptied quick, a fight broke out, a drunken brawl, a table was overturned, a dozen meals upset.
Nosnra smiled at the sight, his people at play. It warmed his heart. This wrongness he'd felt was gone for now, the dead at rest, all was set aright.
* * *
The morning sun rose over the lowland forests. Its rays burnt away the mist rising from the damp valleys and steamed the fields around the steading dry. Smoke drifted lazily from the open gaps above the great hall and the smell of roasted meat wafted across the hill. Outside, a pack of dire wolves ran free then a trio of giants rounded the far corner wall, one stopped and called to the wolves. They bounded and frolicked, joyful in the warmth of the cloudless day.
Inside the hall the feast was done, the tables cleared, old sawdust and debris swept up and dragged away. A score of orcs, skeleton thin and showing signs of recent wounds, tossed a fresh layer of sawdust across the floor. Those giants who had not been conscripted for patrols or forced to help with morning chores had quickly fled. Most slept, but others readied weapons or dragged out bits of armor; rough hammered grieves, chain shirts, and brightly colored shields. The entrance hall had been washed clean, but up the stairs the dried black pool of Huon's blood was left, a grim reminder for unwatchful guards. Each gaping tower window contained attentive eyes, for now at least, unblinking in the morning light.
* * *
"Ver-find-ingan," Engenulf began his chant, crosslegged, upon the feasting table. Beside him Huon's body lay; one last service to perform. "Ver! Ver!" the magician-priest called forth. He drew a cryptic sign in Huon's blood, first on the dead giant's head, then another on his chest. "Sprek-ver!" the command came harsh and clear.
"I slept," the sepulcher voice exclaimed. It came from Huon's bloodless lips, no muscle stirred, no breath, just a distant speech summoned at the witan's call.
"Ver!" demanded Engenulf.
"I drank, I did not watch. They came... small, children... humans, olven, dwarf... two, three... two, then two, they came... the pain, pain, can't breath... cold, dark... Ogiva, Ogiva...." the voice gave one last plaintive moan and then was silent.
"Rest now," Engenulf kindly said and closed the staring eyes. "You heard?" he asked but did not turn.
"I heard," Nosnra replied. "It's as I thought; the human scum, olves, those foul dwarves from down below... They have killed us in our own hall. Our dead are dishonored."
"No, they died. That is all," Engenulf moved to face his old friend and looked him in the eye. "They are not dishonored in this death."
"I feel it here," the chief pounded on his chest. "The foulness of these creatures, it has washed over them. Their deaths were bad."
"Do not do this..." pleaded Engenulf.
"They cannot rest, they did not watch in life, the will keep guard in death. We will bury them just beyond the outer doors. Come," Nosnra yelled and several warriors appeared. "Take them to the entrance hall, bring picks! And Engenulf... prepare yourself. They will earn their rest, but you must wake them first."
"I obey. No pyre for them yet," Engenulf replied, shaking his head sadly.
* * *
Eadnoth and Huon were not buried deep. Instead they were set beside the wide dirt path at the crest of the hill. The lowlands lay below them, a forest that spread out far as the eye could see, but beyond the trees, the human lands. These two failed watchers would now keep a ceaseless vigilance.
"Nen-slfen, nen-rast, nen-friden," Engenulf cried aloud. His face was drawn and gray; this rite sapped at his spirit and blackened his soul. His voice started high and clear but fell to no more than a whisper. He set upon each grave a brazier filled with a powdered bone, a sliver of flesh cut from each dead giant's hand and marked with a drop of their own blood. As his voice began to fade, a magic fire, white-hot and shooting high, burst forth. It consumed the powdered bone, flesh, blood and braziers too. The flame burned deep within the ground, burned its way into each giant's chest and from the burning hole arose a spirit-cloud that swayed above their shallow graves. A soft whispered moaning word upon each ghostly lip and then as if some breeze took hold, though no wind was blowing across the hill, each wavering form turned into a thinning mist, and then was gone.
"It is done. They guard," Engenulf said and swayed upon his feet. His strength was gone, run out into the spell.
"My friend..." Nosnra said, and reached out a supportive hand, but a howling angry voice broke in upon his words.
"Nosnra! Nosnra! What have you done!" Eadwig came running toward them, a small crowd of giants following close behind.
"Eadwig!" Nosnra shouted back. "Do you command! The right of life and death are mine to choose!"
"My brother, you have dishonored him. Engenulf how could you curse him so?" Eadwig fell to his knees before his brother's grave.
"I, Eadwig, I had no hand in his dishonor. You step too far, your grief is no excuse," The thegn was in a rage. "Your brother died beneath a human's hand. He failed, he slept, like Huon there, he brought his dishonor upon himself!"
Eadwig flushed, his face went pale then suffused with red. His anger was so great he could not speak; a vein pulsed along his neck. He breathed great painful, sobbing heaves. A wordless scream broke from his tortured throat. It hurt the ear to hear. He stood then threw himself at Nosnra.
The chief screamed back. He charged as well and crashed head to head with Eadwig. They collided with the sound of bone on bone, like two proud horned-rams upon a mountaintop.
Eadwig won that first encounter; he knocked the thegn from off his feet and sought to crush his head beneath his broad iron-nailed boot. Nosnra rolled aside and grabbed him by the ankle, then made a sudden twist that tore muscles with a popping sound. Eadwig yowled in pain and fell hard upon his side, but as Nosnra crouched, preparing to rise, Eadwig summoned up more strength from rage, and, with his uninjured leg, sent out a kick that caught the chief across the face.
Nosnra coughed and spat out blood. He shook his head to clear it and the time it cost let Eadwig close, and with both hands he grabbed Nosnra by the throat.
The stunning blow had left him dazed but at the grip of Eadwig's choking hands Nosnra's mind was clear as crystal. He saw a look of manic glee behind his sub-chief's eyes, but with both hands he struck a hammer blow that cracked against the temples of Eadwig's head. The look of glee was wiped away; the crazed eyes rolled up and showed bloodshot whites, the strangling hold was broken. Nosnra struck again, his knuckles thick with scars broke tooth and nose, burst forth in blood themselves as stone-hard skull and jagged teeth rocked beneath the chief's relentless fists.
Eadwig, stunned and gushing blood from mouth and swollen eyes, struck back, but his force was spent, the chief now had the upper hand. Nosnra stood, with two bloody hands wavering above Eadwig's prostrate form, but he did not stop. He used his feet to kick in ribs, break hands and head, till his breath was gone. He paused. Engenulf came to his side.
"Enough?" he asked.
Nosnra spat red frothy blood. He let his breathing calm. "Enough," he answered back. "Does he live?"
"Yes, thegn, but he is badly hurt."
"Take him to the Keeper," Nosnra said in a raw growl.
A pair of young warriors grabbed Eadwig beneath the arms and carried him away.
"He will live or die as fate decrees."
"It is sad work done this day," said Engenulf, watching as Eadwig, still senseless from his beating, was dragged off to a dark bare cell.
"It is evil that has come among us," Nosnra stated flatly to his witan. "It is evil that breaks Eadwig's spirit. You are strong Engenulf, and you know much, but you are not your father." he caught the angry flash in his friend's eye. "And I am not Tofig, but I tell you, he would have done as I do now, and Engulfen would have stood beside him."
"I stand beside you." said Engenulf.
"No my friend, you obey me," Nosnra said sadly, "There is a great difference." He cast a lonely eye across the hilltop. The crowd of warriors had dispersed. The majority followed the pair that carried Eadwig to a cell. They were young, as was Eadwig and while loyal to their thegn, the sub-chief was as an older brother to them. Nosnra did not doubt that had the fight gone against him it would be his body, lifeless most likely, that the warriors would be dragging away.
The steading looked peaceful enough; no harm had come to the walls or roof, or to most within, just two of his kindred dead, like his own sons that he could not allow to rest.
* * *
Once again the chief's hall was filled, but a sober calm had silenced the gathering. Word of Huon's and Eadnoth's fate had spread, as well as the tale of Eadwig's fight, defeat and imprisonment in the dungeon of the Keeper.
The chief saw defiant looks here and there, but these were an older bunch than those who lionized his sub-chief. Many here could have been Eadwig's sire, but even those, older in years, had a fondness and respect for their youthful leader. Few male giant young were of the sub-chief's age, a sickness had come that defied the spells of the aging witan, Engulfen, and babes and mothers both had died. For five seasons young brides had joined the ranks of kindred dead, the pyres burnt on and on. Yet matrons who had birthed before survived, and girl children lived, though only one in three, but each year would pass and not a single son would see an hour's span upon the oerth.
Engulfen aged a year for every kindred dead and in the end he set a pyre, he offered up himself, his life, so that one son might live and break the curse. A wailing babe was born that day, Eadwig, Tostig's son, though he soon became the son of all the clan. His birth saw the end of the deadly spell. Engulfen's sacrifice had proved its worth.
* * *
"Yes," said Nosnra to the leaders of the clan. "Eadwig has fallen too."
"But chief..." a bald greybeard began.
"There is nothing to be said. It's done, his fate is set. He lives or dies, but his time among the clan is over."
"Exile!" cried Engenulf.
"Had I lost and lived, such would be my fate," Nosnra replied. "Enough! He will be given time, but when he rises and walks again, he leaves."
"But..." Engenulf sought to change his old friend's mind.
"No!" His voice was harsh. "I said enough, I will not hear more. Those who wish may share his fate. Speak now and leave this hall, or raise their hand against me. Who challenges my right to rule?"
He faced them all, defiant and without fear. No voice called out, no giant moved, though some lowered heads or looked away, torn at heart between thegn and kin.
Thiodolf spoke up, "Thegn, none stand against you here," he turned and glowered at some who could not meet his eyes.
"Engenulf," Nosnra called to the witan, "tell of what you have divined."
"Yes, my thegn," he said quietly. Then in a louder voice began his tale. "Human, elf and dwarf, have come among us. Yes, this most of you will already know. I saw nine crows fly past the steading's walls and the spirits of those who died cried out as they went overhead. There are only nine who come against us, nine, but not farmers or herdsmen, not the weak children we have raided and brushed aside. Three crows called out to me and one disappeared. Then another turned into an eagle, then a mighty dragon, and then I saw Eadnoth's face before it too was gone. The last spoke in an eldritch tongue of power and cast a bolt such as a storm cloud makes and burnt at me though only in a vision. Behold!" He held out a black-streaked arm, blistered from palm to chest. "Such power is very great to reach from that spirit realm where visions walk as we do here on oerth."
"What of the other birds?" a wide eyed warrior called.
"Two others called to me and it seemed that each was carried in a great and mighty hand, one blazed with light, a white hot blinding fire that did not scorch the feathered wings it held aloft. The other was a plain sturdy fist, a hand of flesh and bone, but strong and rough, this bird cawed and screeched as any of its oerthly brethren might. The final four were a varied lot, one old, but large, the mightiest of its kind that I have ever seen. A warrior spirit I have no doubt. Two others that wore the shape of the crow but at heart bore a serpent's soul, their tongue and eyes were red as blood. Before they passed out of sight I saw them both set upon the elder bird and strike him by surprise. They fell, all three in a tangled heap beyond the horizon's edge and then they too were gone."
He paused and drank deeply from a pot of ale set by his side. "The last was small, full grown but stunted or from a smaller breed of crow. It weaved and wheeled across the sky, sometimes it lead the flock then fell back and hid behind the others. It was last to disappear but in its beak I saw the glitter of some gem or jewel, and my vision ended there."
"What good does hearing all this do?" asked Gosfrith, keeper of the wolves. "We waste time sitting here."
"You ask such questions?" Nosnra said, "I thought better of our huntsman."
"Huntsman, yes, and that is where I should be, not wasting precious time..." He paused then bowed his head to Engenulf, "I ask your pardon, witan. I mean no disrespect, but the trail goes cold."
"Your wolves found no scent upon the hill, these foul, human scum have hidden their tracks well, ensorceled them no doubt. They're put to better use as guards than running blind down valleys and over hills."
"We will find their scent," Gosfrith said. "Hidden trail or no, I do not believe they have covered every track. My pets will sniff them out if you will but allow it!" His voice ended in a shout.
"Watch your tongue! My patience is worn thin. I have had enough rebellion for one day," Nosnra shouted back. "Hear what Engenulf has said. This was no flock of birds that sit and peck upon a field of grain. He has all but named them. We know their number and have heard and seen something of their strength. Wizards, yes, and servants of some mortal gods it sounds, and warriors, brave and bold enough to hunt us in our own domain. They have killed by stealth and dweomencraft, I have no doubt that they will come again, and soon. I will not have you chasing rabbits when you should be here."
He stopped and watched the faces of his warriors. In some he saw his words sink in but others looked incredulous or showed sour disappointment. "Some here have fought such as these before down below in human lands. Some have broken dwarven halls and squashed the burrowing rats beneath your feet, but also felt the stings of spears or lost a finger, toe or hand to an axe's edge. I have seen them call upon their stunted gods or summon powers of the oerth or walking walls of fire. Yet many here have never faced the like and cannot know the strength within these tiny childlike beasts."
"Listen to your thegn!" Engenulf said, commanding their obedience. "This gap between the young and old, between those who fight now for the first time against a dangerous foe and those of us who have bled beneath a human's sword or elven spear or been cut down by a dwarvish axe, this disunity must end!"