Chapter II - Nine Against The Giants
The cave was cold, no matter what that pious, pompous, Pholtite said to the contrary. Harold Goodwine shivered though he was wrapped in a thick-furred blanket of a cape. The halfling was not used to these damp and freezing climes. He had been born in Geoff but raised in the hub of the Oerth, the gem of the Flanaess, greatest of cities; Greyhawk. Eating a hot meal in a warm house was what he should be doing and where he would rather be on such a day as this.
"Watch that cape, and your feet. You'll have them in the fire next!" A deep bass voice called. Harald Hardhand towered over most men but he was a true giant in the eyes of the other Harold.
The two were as different as they were fast friends. The halfling, painfully thin, by his standards, small even according to his people, no warrior but a sneak-thief, an unrecognized master of his craft. He dressed in the most appallingly garish colors, and, besides a desire for wealth, had an overwhelming fondness for jewels and gems of all sorts.
Harald was broad, almost of dwarven build around shoulders and chest, but on two tree-trunk legs. He was a head taller than the wizard Talberth, a skinny youth, at least as viewed from the distance that thirty or so years had put between them, but the young mage was tall and thin as a sapling. Harald's hair, what was left of it, was brown with thin lines of silver-grey running through. He had it pulled back in a long tail and tied it with leather cord. His whiskers and drooping mustache were streaked with age among the reddish-brown. A long white patch went through his beard. It followed the course of a scar that ran from edge of jaw to top of hairless pate. His other scars, a crisscross of old wounds, did not show. He wore a dark brown-green pair of trews, a brick-red stripe edging the tartan blocks. A wondrous silver-metal shirt of chain, enchanted with a smith-wizard's spell, he hid beneath a much patched tunic, a grey-green cloak thrown over both.
"At least I'd be warm for a change," the halfling grumbled back, but pulled his feet and cloak away from the smokeless yellow flame.
Across the fire sat another unlikely pair. An ancient gnome, his long broad nose projecting from a face hidden in a thousand wrinkled lines of flesh. Bushy brows over deep set eyes, a wave of long white hair sprouting from beneath a metal cap; Ivo of Pondsend, a magician of great power. He talked in earnest with a red-haired warrior-maid, a cleric of staunch faith who wielded a stout length of wood, her patron's choice and talisman. Gytha Fireheart, St. Cuthbert's loyal shepherdess. Beyond them the holy priest of Pholtus, Henri, blinded by his God's shining light but gifted with a blank-faced sun-rayed mask that let him see among the realms of men. He sat still and silent, communing with his deity. To his side, near the far wall, a stable had been improvised; a line of horses, a small pony, and some hearty mules exhaled steaming plumes of frigid air and huddled in the cold. Two wizards, cloaked and robed in black with silver edge, both appearing young, the one from lack of years upon the Oerth, the other a high-elven face that looked both youthful and ageless, no mark of passing time but a sense of sorrow that time can bring even to a carefree heart. Talberth, young but of some renown, a human mage, he rested a long-fingered hand upon a shivering horse's flank. With a small spell, a cantrip of no note, he sent a pulse of warmth from his palm and soothed the wordless plea for heat. Telenstil, a high-elven wizard, pale-haired and fair, he stood at Talberth's side, his head reaching only to the shoulder of the young mage, they talked of the past night's work.
"That was Nosnra, I am sure. We could have killed him there, Edouard should not have fled," Talberth complained.
"I disagree, my friend," the elf began. "Nosnra it might well have been, but he is no easy one to kill. I have met him before and I will meet him again, but with all that I have learned, what deadly spells and charms that I have here, I would not face him alone, not by choice. Our brave scout would have been slain to no effect, had he summoned our help, so the giant chief would have summoned his, and it is no pitched battle that we have come to fight."
"You are my master and I but your apprentice," Talberth humbly bowed.
"Come now, no need for false humility. I taught you well, but that was some years ago, you are your own master, and though I lead this expedition you are a colleague and partner, an equal among our group," Telenstil waved a graceful arm to sweep across the room.
Talberth could not help but glance, he saw them all, the two Harry's, Henri, Ivo, fair Gytha, his heart gave a trembled beat, and the albino twins, their scouts, Edouard and Derues. An angry thought stirred within him at the sight, he had a strong dislike for the white-skinned, pink-eyed pair.
"We are nine against a giant brood," Telenstil continued. "We must stay together to face their strength. It will take our united skills to accomplish what we must."
"I would see them dead, but I know as well as you that we seek a cause for their newly well-thought-out attacks, their gathered strength and cautious raids. These are not the giants that I was taught of in school."
"We are far from the Grey College's halls," Telenstil said smiling. "There is much that a book or scroll will say that is no more than the guesswork of some nameless sage. Here we will see what is not and what is said to be. Prepare yourself, and because I have seen these things before, please watch where I may lead."
"I will, have no doubt," said Talberth, "but what have we learned that was not known before? They bleed, a torrent in fact, a sharp blade can end their life as easy as any man's."
"An unlucky stone thrown by a passing cart can end the life of most men," Telenstil replied, "Those two last night, they died beneath a magic blade, drunk and spelled to sleep, a prayer of silence surrounding all that transpired. Had they woken it would have been a fight worth telling of when we return to civilized lands. No, last night we had the Lady on our side. It took just minutes for the alarm to sound and the entire steading to be roused and set to search."
"We saw only the entranceway, their tower and a few feet of that monstrous hall. I do not feel the Lady looked at us in kindness," Talberth shook his head.
Telenstil laughed, light and mild, a cheery pleasant sound, "Oh youth, you expect too much. We came, we went, and no one died; no injuries, not even a pursuit of any kind. That is kind fate indeed. I will not argue that we could have discovered much more, but what we saw, it proves our information right. The map that we have, it tallies with what we have seen. And of much more import, we worked well together. Look at us," he waved his hand again. "A Cuthberite sits near a praying Pholtus priest, a city bred halfling thief, a hero of renown, a pair of mercenary scouts, a gnomish master of deceiving spells, you and I, what an unlikely gathering."
"Working for an alliance of kings," Talberth said with a doubtful tone, "we are a mismatched group as you say. I for a duke, you for your queen, though her interest here seems far astray from her own lands."
"We elves have eyes that see quite far," came Telenstil's good-natured reply. "Or didn't they teach you that in school?"
"How did you cause Edouard to change into that giant's form," Gytha asked in a light, alto voice.
"It was the simplest of spells," answered Ivo with pride, replying in a deep grating rumble, each word a rocky sound, but clear and sharp like the edge of fresh cut stone. "Back home, among the hills, we live by such masking spells. Our warriors are doughty but our enemies are large and many. Such illusions are but a word, a gesture and a speck of colored dye."
"They are a wonder to me," she said wide eyed. "I have a simple faith, and with the Saint's boon I am granted such answers to my prayers as he deems me worthy to receive, but I have never seen the like of spells such as yours."
"Have ye not?" the old gnome asked surprised.
"Oh," she laughed, "I have seen mage's spells before, and druids' cause the oerth to rise and take on human form, but not these magics which trick the eye or blind it. And more, I do not trust my senses now that I have seen you cast your spells."
"Hey there!" called Harold from across the fire. "Don't let him deceive you with his simple talk. I've seen him on a midwinter night casing spells from upon a stage set at the center of Greyhawk's High Market. He lit the sky with colored lights that swirled and changed, then came alive. First monsters walked from roof to roof, great dragons danced in pairs above then a rain of sparkling mist chased them all away. Next a land formed, the empty curve of the Selintan before a brick or stone was laid, then against the river a small wooden house, a wall of wood then stone sprang up around it. Then a castle keep, and like a season's growth of grain shown from seed to harvest in a moment's time, the city grew and grew until mirrored in the sky above were all those below upon the ground." The halfling gasped for breath and laughed at his memories of such a spectacle. "Then it all changed and there was Zagyg's face, laughing down at us, he blew us all a kiss and stuck out a tongue that could have lapped the river dry. Oh what fun it was, the Fool was crowned and the mad night begun."
"Now, now master Harold," the old gnome almost blushed at the praise, "no need to tell old tales."
"You need some of that gnomish stonesweat brandy you drank that night," Harold laughed.
"Just a small drop is all I had, to keep out the night's chill," Ivo replied.
"A small drop for one of these giants, maybe," Harold turned to the Cuthberite priestess. "I take it you have never seen the grandest city of the Oerth."
"Oh, I've been to Gorna," Gytha answered innocently.
"Gorna, oh you poor, untraveled lass," Harold cried in a pitying voice. "Greyhawk would fit a dozen Gorna's within its walls and have room to spare."
"I've heard bard's tales of course, but a city's greatness is more than just its size," she replied.
"Well said," Interrupted Ivo. "Greyhawk holds many wonders, but the hills of my homeland are much more dear in my eyes than any of the city's halls or palaces."
"Oh, the shame, that such a wonder worker as yourself fails to recognize the greatest wonder of the Oerth!" Harold despaired.
"That's enough of that," Harald's bass voice declared. "Pardon this little Harold's unrelenting love for his adopted home. He was born in Geoff, same as you and me," he told the red-haired cleric. "North of the Hornwood, was it not my friend?"
"I was but a lad. I had no choice!" the halfing Harold replied.
"Careful there!" The bigger Harald warned. "You do not say that Geoff is a birthplace to bring on shame!"
"No, no..." Harold stuttered, raising his hands in mocking fear to ward off his old friend's wrath.
"Yes, you were too young to be taken away from such a noble place of birth. No better land to raise the young exists," declared Harald.
Gytha laughed. "No wonder such an unlikely pair as these two are such friends. You are as just as bad," she waved a playful finger at the greying hero. "What can master Ivo here think of us; I'm sure his own Kron Hills are just as fair."
"My apologies, Master Gnome," Harald gave a deep formal bow.
"And mine as well," the halfling stretched out a leg and doffed an imaginary cap, in a graceful gesture of respect.
Both Ivo and Gytha laughed at the ridiculous sight of the huge ranger and the tiny halfling thief bowing together like the most unlikely twins.