"Gather round," Talberth called them all together. "Reverent Henri, if you will, please lower the fire so we may all gather close."
The blind priest walked unerringly across the cavern's floor. The hood from his long, white robe hung halfway down his face; beneath it shown the glimmer of some golden mask, a benison from his radiant god. He did not deign to speak but silently held out his arms then lowered them with perhaps a wordless prayer. The bright flame sank until it danced across the embers of the wooden log, still bright and warm but less than half its former size.
"Edouard, Derue!" he summoned the guards from their post. "We have set a magic ward, no need for you to be apart."
The white-blond pair bowed head to head and whispered to each other first then nodded in agreement.
All nine now sat in a rough circle round the low blaze. The albino pair sat side by side, the Pholtite priest Henri, though only a foot or so away, sat apart, removed and distant.
"We did well," their high-elf leader began. "Now we must plan what our next step will be."
"I have said this to Telenstil," Talberth spoke up, "and I want to say this again to all. Last night I feel we could have done much more. Our surprise is gone and all that it seems we have achieved is to thin their number by two."
A grumble of voices broke out though none much louder than the rest.
"True," said Telenstil. "We took only our first steps, but this will be no easy undertaking, no simple task. Last night we could have stumbled upon more vigilant guards, or fought against the entire giant clan. Though each of us has proven their worth and comes upon this endeavor with royal support, these giants are very dangerous foes. This clan alone could smash a castle or defeat a small army. And these are but the vanguard. Nosnra is the head of a much larger beast."
"Nosnra is not the head!" a stentorian voice declared. The silent Henri spoke and all turned to see and listen to his prophetic tones. "He is but a hand, the first to reach out and smash into the realms below his hills. Holy Pholtus gives me sight. His light reveals a darker will that heads this giant chief."
"Yes," said Telenstil. "I misspoke. My lady queen says such may be as well. Were it simply Nosnra, though a mighty giant chief he be, this would be an easier task. His death may blunt a deadly sword but more than just his kind have been seen in the lands below."
"I have seen such," declared the cleric Gytha. "My flock dwells among the hills and outlands of my homeland, Geoff. I say my flock, as I am a shepherd to my people, but the wolves have come and my people are no more; empty homes where those who lived have fled, and burnt remains of those who would not. They died among their herds and fields or lie among the ruins of house and home. And some are simply gone. If any do survive perhaps they are kept within Nosnra's wooden walls."
"Tell them of these others," the greybeard Harald said to Gytha.
"My pardon," she bowed her head. "I pursued these wolves with Harald here and others, rangers of the hills and woods. We caught a drunken straggler, these giants love their drink. This one had swigged a barrel of three-winter cider thinking it but mild ale. It felled him like the Saint's own cudgel. We bound him tight, trussed him like a hog for slaughter then made him talk. The Saint pardon my deception, but even such as that giant, drunken lout I could not have slain helpless as he was, but I saw no harm in letting him believe his slow, painful death was near," she paused for breath.
"These others..." prompted the small Harold.
"I beg your pardon once again," Gytha gave a thoughtful frown. "I am no teller of tales. I know how only to begin and say what I have to say till I am done."
"Please go on, we will not interrupt," Talberth said and gave a dark look across the fire at both halfling and aging hero.
"My thanks," she said and smiled so to cause Talberth a painful fluttering within. "This giant, he talked; the ranger Arawn could speak and understand their gravelly tongue. He bragged and boasted, still half drunk, he cursed us vilely, but spoke of his great chief, a cousin to this Nosnra, Karnash he named his chieftain to be. He told how at their hall they had hosted strong allies for a war to come. They had cleaned out an ice-cooled cavern, a storage place for fresh killed meat, and made it into sleeping chamber for their blue-skinned guests."
"Frost giants," Harald, disregarding Talberth's word, broke in.
"Yes," Gytha continued. "And such, this giant said, had come along with him that very day. They could be no more than an hour or two ahead."
"A giant's step is very wide, no need to say, I know," Harald began his tale. "Two hours lead," he laughed, "we never would have matched their pace let alone overtaken them, but they were drunk, just like the one we'd caught. We found three giants, blond-haired and blue-skinned. They sweltered in the cool air, but sang and stumbled and passed a barrel back and forth. They made these giants here look like unshaven, untried youths. Half-blind drunk they fought and came close to killing me. They downed three rangers out of five. They fought with boulders and with bare hands, clumsy as any tavern drunk could be, but dangerous still like an avalanche, a force of nature, like a winter storm they were. We killed them all, no chance to capture. I brought back a splendid head," Harald smiled, "Pickled it in that three-winter apple wine."
"Frost giants," Telenstil said. "They've come down from their frozen heights before to raid. This is different. What did we find last night?"
"Those snow white pelts," Harold spoke up, "and chitin plates from an ice worm."
"How did you know?" asked Gytha. "I thought you but a city dweller?"
"I am a thief," Harold said proudly. "Where do you think your furs and precious hides end up? I know the goods that I purloin, such furs adorn the oligarchs and their kin, those chitin plates command high price. I know their going rate, as of a month ago," he sadly said; "Oh to be back in Greyhawk once again."
"So," Telenstil went on, "another link between these giants and their frozen kin. What else?"
"The cloaks of hill giants from many tribes," the large Harald declared. "I saw three sets at least from as many different clans."
"How can you tell? Their smelly cloaks look all the same to me," said the little Harold.
"You judge what weight in gold these skins can bring. I find more worth in knowing who I fight. The northern clans, they wear the skins of great brown bears, the same as Nosnra's kin keeps as pets. One tribe leaves the skull attached; they use it as a clasp. All others make a hooded cloak and cut the bear skull off. Another sews a second skin inside the first, so they can have soft fur against their own skin. Another uses an aurochs' bull...." Harald went on, but stopped at Gytha's laugh.
"I feel no shame at my poor telling now," she said.
"Will you make us sit through a lesson on giant's cloaks throughout the day?" Harold asked bemused.
"Such a lesson could well save your life," the greybeard firmly warned.
"And it is information we have come here for," Telenstil spoke up. "So hill giants of many tribes, those who wear the skin of bears are not welcome in these lands, but here they are. Frost giants are made welcome and guested at a hill giant hall; some gathering of giant kind or worse."
"You know more than you say," said Ivo.
"Guesswork and suspicions," Telenstil replied. "We need not share the private words that our patrons have entrusted us to keep. I can say that my queen suspects what our holy priest has said. Nosnra is the nearest arm of some grasping plot that reaches out toward our respective lands. If we cut it off... I will use plainer speech. If we kill Nosnra, if we destroy his clan, it will not be enough." From a pouch he pulled forth a wooden board, he slid a sharp fingernail between its sides and split it open in two even halves. One piece he put down and the other he held up to show the gathering. A silvered mirror it appeared, but no reflection could be seen within its face. "With this device I relay our discoveries to my queen, such as those things we found last night. She is sworn to tell your duke, and he the others in this alliance of realms that we embody."
"Pholtus knows all that I do, by his grace and radiant light," voiced Henri.
"The Saint hears my prayers," Gytha said not to be outshown. "As he hears all who seek his aid."
"But what good is such?" the halfling asked.
"We need not fear that all our efforts will be lost," said Telenstil.
"I for one plan on telling my tale before a gathered crowd back home," Harold did not like such talk of loss and fear.