Ivo put his book away. He closed it with a snap then rubbed his eyes. He would be better for a few hours sleep, but instead he stood up and walked over to the mage. The ranger had just settled down with his pack beneath his head, he was asleep before his eyes closed. Ivo had listened to the talk he'd had with the elven mage then waited for him to sleep before rising himself.
"Telenstil," Ivo said quietly as he approached. "You keep your Queen's instructions well."
"You have large ears my friend," said Telenstil cheerfully.
"Oh I listened in," said Ivo cheerfully. "You two weren't exactly whispering. "Impolite I know, but these are perilous times, and a perilous place in which we find ourselves."
"In some ways things have gone far better than I had imagined they would," said Telenstil.
He kept watch over the steep slope that was the only approach to the ledge where they camped. Ivo sat down next to him, the old gnome let his feet dangle over the edge of the rock and wished he had not left his pipe back at the camp the giants had destroyed.
"I've no fondness for those orcs but they are a improvement over that cursed priest," said Ivo.
"I regret the loss of Henri and the scouts," said Telenstil. "Henri will be missed. We will need the powers he possessed, I do not doubt. It is that map I am pleased with. It showed plans that Nosnra or any giants would undertake. They are not subtle, but whoever is behind them, they are subtle planners indeed."
"They weave a tight web, I agree," said Ivo.
Telenstil did not reply but looked down at his friend with an eyebrow raised.
"We delve deep beneath our hills, and we live close enough to your lands to know your tales," said Ivo. "And we have cousins, gnomes who never see the light of day, but talk of a world beneath ours, where many creatures of brightness have turned dark."
"Maybe you know more of this than I," said Telenstil. "What are these stories that your cousins tell?"
"They are like those that you tell your children when they are bad," Ivo said. "And we held them in as much regard. Not enough it seems."
Telenstil laughed very lightly and quietly. "It seems you also have your secret councils my friend."
"I am like you. I wait to find out more before I put my faith in children's tales," said Ivo.
"We have both come far to seek these answers. Talberth too has traveled far, and our halfling friend, who has big ears as well."
Ivo leaned back and looked at the top of the ledge where a shadow was disappearing back behind the rock.
"Why don't you come down Harold, if you are not going to sleep?"
The little thief came sliding down the wall of rock, then when he was a man's height from the ground, he jumped and landed lightly on his feet.
"You're the one with big ears old gnome," said Harold but in a friendly voice.
"I see it is time for our own council," said Telenstil. "Perhaps we should wake the others."
"Let them sleep," said Harold. "You two want to talk around this business and not through it. All this hogwash of children's tales. My own directions were simple. He called me in..."
"Caught you I believe it was," said Ivo.
"That was simply a misunderstanding. In any case, he said 'Find out what you can,' I'm known for gathering information." the little thief related, his voice growing deep when he mimicked what he'd been told. "About what? I asked. 'About anything' which is usually what his wizardly mightiness commands."
"So what have you found out?" Telenstil asked, his ears perking up with interest at what the halfling might say.
"I've found out to be more careful around this old gnome," Harold nodded toward Ivo. "I've been doing a lot of listening, ever since we left Greyhawk, I wish I was back there now. I've been listening. We are a strange bunch. I know why that old ranger and Gytha are here, but the rest of us..." Harold shook his head. "We have come a long way to fight giants."
"But what have you found out my friend?" asked Ivo. "Have you noticed anything that we have missed?"
"I can only guess what it is that you two know but won't even tell each other," said Harold. "I don't know giants or these mountains..."
"Hills," Ivo interjected.
"Hills, Mountains, a couple feet of rock and dirt. What do they matter. You want to listen or do you want to argue," the halfling said firmly. He looked from Ivo to Telenstil, but neither did more than smile. "Like I said, I don't know giants but I know locks and I know traps. Down there in that dungeon, those weren't made by the hands' of giants. That secret door, that lock which held it, those were some type of gnomish work. That trap, the one that brought up the gate which held the manticores, and the one before it that I disarmed, those weights and balances, that looks like a dwarven trick, and that treasure. I couldn't tell you how they magicked those traps, but that was a fair piece of work I'd say, magicwise that is." he paused then looked at Telenstil. "Are these giants that spellcrafty? Can they wield the magic that fools the eye and mind like master gnome?" he asked turning to Ivo.
"No," Ivo replied. "I don't believe that they have such craft."
"I think they are aided by someone," Harold went on, "Evil dwarves or gnomes gone mad. I mean what gnome with any sense would aid giants?"
"You feel that it was a gnomish mind behind the traps?" asked Telenstil.
"The work is very fine. I would have liked to take that lock away with me and... Curse me for a fool!" the halfling growled. He grabbed at his wrist and felt the two empty sheaths in the set of six that he wore upon his arm. "Hells!"
"What is the matter?" asked Ivo, alarmed.
"I've left two of my magic spikes behind. One in that ogre, the other in the wall of the garbage chute." said Harold. "I'll never find their like again. Curse that Henri. I would have drawn up that rope if not for him. And curse my bad memory."
"That was a hectic moment, be glad that they served you well," said Telenstil. "They were spent in a good cause."
"We will be going back won't we?" Harold asked, cheered slightly at the thought.
"I will, even alone, but we will need to discuss our plans together," Telenstil said. "I cannot speak for any of our companions."
"I will be going along," answered Ivo, "but we will need to get rid of those orcs, and what are we going to do with our captive scout?"
"We will have to do many things before we return to Nosnra's steading," said Telenstil. "We will need to find a better camp for one."
"I thought our last camp was good," said Harold.
"As did I," Telenstil agreed, "but I underestimated the giants. Our camp should have been further off, and a smaller place found nearby where we could retreat to."
"Yes," Ivo agreed. "Several small camps, things like this ledge... Well better than this ledge," he said after looking around. "But many small hiding places where we would go to once then abandon."
"What is done is done," said Telenstil. "I placed too much confidence in magic wards and spells, and thought the giants' shaman just an unlearned practitioner of the arts. Now we may have to raid the steading for supplies and not just for revenge or answers to our questions."
"Speaking of questions, did you get any answers from what I've seen?" asked Harold.
"Only more questions my friend." laughed Telenstil.
* * *
Nosnra returned. His pace did not quicken at the sight of his burning hall, he had strength enough only to put one foot before the other, his warriors were twice as weary. Some fell along the way and were left lying in the dirt. They would make it back on their own feet or die where they had fallen. The wolves were scattered, a few had died, their spirits shriveled at the cave where the witan was destroyed. Only a young wolf called Harechaser kept up with the staggering line of giants. The canine was of a simple mind, the chaotic torment of the magical and unholy backlash had made it cower, its head buried beneath its paws, but it had passed the ordeal unscathed.
When he saw the fire from the far hill, Nosnra's heart sank, he misstepped and nearly fell but caught himself and shifted Engenulf's body in his arms. Behind him he heard a groan, too heartworn and bone weary to raise a shout or cry, the warriors stumbled to a halt. Nosnra stopped himself, below him the path lead down, a narrow valley, a small stream then the final slope.
There was a gasp, a sob, with a flash of angry strength Nosnra spun around. "Who are you!" he shouted. A wave of dizziness and nausea swept through the giant chief, a dark curtain came down across his eyes, but he fought it back. "I do not know you. You are not my kin. What are you, those feeble children of the lowlands, human scum? You are too tired, you moan and cry because the kindred calls us to their arms?" he shouted at his warriors. "Stay here and die, or run, or swallow your fear and swear an oath. I will find the ones who have brought this doom on us; I will have vengeance no matter what the cost!" Nosnra shouted at the night.
A giant forced himself to walk forward and face the chief. "I swear, my chief, I swear my life, my blood and my strength. Vengeance." the giant placed his hand upon Engenulf's brow and swore. One by one the others came forward as well. A knife was drawn; each gripped the blade and swore again with blood, then painted their faces red, first across their brow, then across the cold lifeless witan's head.