"Another failed attempt," Talberth complained, shaking his head in disgust.
"No!" Telenstil exclaimed with surprising vehemence. "I expected something of the sort. Again we return unscathed and this last attempt was just a prelude." He looked about at the gathered company. "Have you all rested enough from this night's excitement?"
"I don't believe it," said Talberth.
"You mean for us to go out again?" asked Gytha. She smiled, "Good, good, the iron is hot. Let us strike!"
"Yes, they are running about looking for us," said the old ranger. "If we can avoid their search parties then the steading itself should be undermanned."
"Under-gianted you mean," Harold said brightly, but his attempt at humor earned him only some sour looks. "But how are we going to get past these patrols?"
"With master Ivo's help and mine, if need be, and with the guidance of our good ranger, Harald," said Telenstil.
"Oh, not more magic spells!" moaned the halfling Harold. "This big clod nearly squashed me flat with those invisible size-twelves of his."
"That is a problem with invisibility," master Ivo said seriously. "I have never been able to teach the spell the difference between friend and foe, but it would certainly be a useful addition to its effects. Do not worry. I have other spells at my command. We will arrive at the steading unseen."
* * *
The night was lit by a river of fire. Nosnra had summoned forth the most trustworthy of his orcish slaves and each now carried a burning torch. Hundreds of orcs marched down the southern slope of the giant's hill. Between them went the most skilled of the giant scouts searching for each track and print left behind by their puny attackers. At the bottom of the hill, a narrow valley between their own and the southerly lower hills, Nosnra waited with the steading's wolf pack, a small band of his clansmen and his witan Engenulf.
"What foul enchantment is this?" Nosnra asked.
"It's the work of dwarves," Engenulf explained. "The wizened, hillish kind that call themselves gnomes."
"I've heard their name before," said Nosnra with a nod of his head.
"This is not real, but it fools the mind. It is done with great power. The effort to dispel it would be just as great or greater." Engenulf declared.
"The trail leads through the stream we need to pass, and this flood seems real enough to me," Nosnra said. "You must dispel it and quick. They flee, and they've cost us three more dead."
"It cannot go far either upstream or down. The stream is not flooding, we can bypass this and circle around," answered Engenulf.
"Alright. Gosfrith!" Nosnra yelled and the wolf master came running.
"My Thegn," Gosfrith spoke up.
"Take the pack north but have someone take six of the wolves south. Engenulf says that the stream will be clear to the south and the north. We will circle round."
Gosfrith eyed the crashing water, but nodded his head and did as he was told.
* * *
"We will circle round the hill," Telenstil explained. "And we will come from the north where they have no watchtower set." \
"Good," said Talberth. "I do not like leaving here when they are searching for us. What if they spot our trail?"
"I have an idea. An item which was created as an amusement for an emperor's child, ages past. It will come in very handy for us now," Telenstil took a small chest from his pack and with some reverence opened it for all to see. Inside, a ball of milky white, like some monstrous pearl, rested upon a cloth of red silk. He took the ball from its wooden case and as he did it appeared to grow so that what had been an apple's size took two hands to hold. He bent and breathed a word upon its surface, "Xsurjere!" he said and the ball began to glow. Telenstil pulled his hands away, and the ball, glowing white, remained floating in the air. "Now, reach over and put your hand on the orb. Harald, how about you?"
"I've had as much magic as I can stand for one night," the ranger said and backed away.
Gytha laughed, "Why Harald, you are as timid as a mouse. I would never have imagined."
Harald blushed but said nothing and made no sign that he would heed Telenstil's request.
"Here," Gytha said. "I'll do it," she reached out and put her hand to the glowing ball. "It tingles!" she laughed. Gytha did not notice as her feet slowly rose from the ground till she stood only upon the air.
"Harald, take Gytha's hand." said Telenstil. The ranger just shook his head.
"Oh you big baby," said the halfling. He reached up and grabbed the cleric's hand.
"Hey!" he cried, as his feet left the ground. "I'm flying!"
"A remarkable toy," Talberth said. "But what use can we make of it?"
"Talberth," Telenstil chided his former apprentice. "Why I am surprised that you do not see with this toy, and this," he held up his hand, a silver ring with a small white pearl was on one long finger. "We will leave no trail. In fact our feet need not touch the ground at all."
Outside the cave the nine who'd come to challenge Nosnra's might stood round the small glowing ball. Gytha placed her hand on one side, Henri on the other. Each member of the company held hands in two rows of four with Telenstil at the center, each floating row in line with his outstretched arms.
"Xsurjere-sublem!" Telenstil said. The company began to rise, quick but sure. "Do not let go!" he warned. "Kon-istare!" Telenstil stopped them far above the ground. "Vol-atel!" he cried and swiftly they took wing and sailed like a strange flock of geese, a great V across the night sky.
They swung out to the east and then turned north passing dark wooded hills below. The halfling, Harold, floated on the elven wizard's left. He held tight to the ranger's hand and let out loud "Whoop's!" and cries of glee as they flew through the air. Below, and further to his left, he saw a wavering line of fire, and then the steading, a wooden hall of monstrous size, as if a small town had been roofed over and enclosed with a massive wall of giant trees. They quickly passed it by, then turned, a slow wide arc that brought them round to face the steadings northern side.
The roof came up and landed on their feet. Harold gave a laugh, happy to be safe with something solid beneath his legs once more. "Shhh!" hissed the ranger with a finger to his lips. The halfling grinned and stuck out his tongue but made sure no other sounds escaped his mouth.
Telenstil said, "Kon-fisere," and the glowing ball went out and leaf-like drifted down. At his touch it shrank, dwindled to a pearl the twin of that set upon his ring. He scooped it up and dropped it in a small silk bag and placed it in his pouch. With a soundless gesture he opened wide his arms then placed a hand before his mouth.
The cleric Gytha gave a nod, understanding what he meant. "Let the Saint's power be felt," she quietly prayed. "Grace me with your power. Let a holy silence fall upon this place," a beatific glow shown from Gytha's eyes. She clapped both hands together, but no sound rang out. She laughed, always happy when the Saint heard her prayers and granted her bequests.
There seemed to be an endless supply of pockets in Telenstil's dark, wizard's robe. He had no sooner put away the now shrunken orb in one pocket than he reached into another and pulled out a flat glass flask. Soundlessly he unscrewed the cap and with great care poured out a viscous green jell across a square of roof. From yet another pocket he removed a small leather case, inside was a crystal rod flat on one end and with a scalloped spoon on the other. He spread the jell till it was even, a single layer in a four foot square. The rod he set aside then drew out a tinder box, set flint to steel and set a twig aflame. This he touched to the jell. It hissed and smoked and turned to grey and spread out. Suddenly the square of roof was gone, a grey powdered ash rained down onto the floor below.
Edouard and Derue stepped up, they had come prepared. A coiled length of rope in hand, they tied one end round a jutting beam at the roofs eastern edge then dangled it down the gaping hole. They played it out as if in a pantomime, cautious not to make a sound below the holy Saint of Gytha's faith had silenced the roof above.
Edouard saw the rope's end reach the ground and looked below into a huge and furnished hall; he shook his head and tapped on the elven wizard's arm. Telenstil nodded then looked down himself and grimaced at what he saw. He drew out an ivory tube and pulled from it a small rolled map, then glanced down into the room again. His shoulders shrugged and he motioned for Edouard to descend, but with both hands he gestured for the scout to take great care.
Several torches burned along the walls and in a fireplace big enough to roast a horse, a bed of glowing embers cast a hazy light. The rope lay across a giant table, wide and round and tall, like some stage that actors could use to give a play.
Edouard moved the rope aside so that it would reach the floor, seven or eight feet more below the table's edge. Before he dropped further down he gave the rope a tug and held it still so that his brother Derue could make a quick and safe descent.
Telenstil touched down, he'd followed close behind his two scouts, unwilling to let them face alone what might appear. He looked around the hall and silently cursed the one-time merchant, lately slave to giants, who'd drawn this useless map. The light was dim, but this was no kitchen's larder as he'd been told, instead they stood within the chief's own trophy hall, the gruesome heads upon the eastern wall said as much. Monstrous chairs and tables were scattered about, across the western wall were a row of giant shields, each painted in great detail and crafted as a wedding gift. The giant maidens would take their betrothal year and paint them with what love and care they felt for their future mates. Telenstil knew well the ways of his foes.
Henri descended last. He heard his heart beat once again halfway down. It had been an effort to restrain his desire to dispel the pagan's spell, but the true God blessed this work so he set his distaste aside and accepted the harlot's magic tricks. The Holy end justified the use of such godless blind creatures as these.
All nine stood beneath the giant table, not even Harald needed to stoop to fit, they looked like children playing dress up and make believe.
"Master Telenstil," Talberth began, "What is our plan? This is not where we were supposed to be."
"Obviously my friend," Telenstil said unhappily. "It is a lucky plan which survives intact beyond the first few steps, but yes, we have gone far astray. First we must hide our entrance and our rope. Talberth, please assist our master gnome to ascend." He then asked Ivo, "If you will be so kind, please take the rope and make the roof appear once more to be as it was before we came."
"A simple thing," Ivo replied. "Talberth, if you will."
Talberth took out a length of leather strap and with flick of his wrist tossed it toward the roof, "Oki-Var-os," he said and the strap vanished in the air. He pointed to the gnome and said "Epe-no," and Ivo rose slowly to the roof.
Ivo placed the rope atop the roof and quickly cast a minor spell, the gaping hole became wooden beams once more, but as he stood above the chief's trophy hall he felt fresh drops of rain. His illusion would not hide the leak, still, better to have it appear solid than as a great star-filled gap, he thought.
Ivo dropped back down but floated near the ceiling top. He waved a hand to show he was ready to descend.
"Ca-to." Talberth pointed again and Ivo wafted to the floor.
"It begins to rain up above. That will fool the eye," he told them all, indicating the now whole roof, "but it will not keep the water out."
"It will do," said Telenstil, then holding out their map, "I do not know if we can trust any of this map, but at a guess it has simply been drawn backwards, right is left and left is right."
"Or it may all be wrong," said Talberth.
"Even so. But if it is right to any small degree, then that way," said Telenstil pointing north, "should take us to Nosnra's private chamber and the giant chief's map that I have come to see."