"I can fit between," said Harold.
"No, it's too dangerous," Gytha declared. She looked at the huge bars set so close that a youth could not squeeze through. Not so a halfling pared down by hard travel and poor fare. Harold showed her what he meant, with a sideways step he fit between the bars and only had to hold his breath and pull his stomach in.
"See," he said standing on the other side and holding out both hands. "No problem."
"Harold," Gytha warned, "Come back here! This is no time to play a foolish game."
"I'm hurt," he said. "You doubt my skill." Harold approached the bars and whispered to both Gytha and the ranger. "What have we come here for? I will be quick and who else can find out what lies ahead?"
"We should go back," Gytha said half-heartedly.
"I may be smaller than your young brothers Gytha but I am older than I look, older than your father no doubt. You humans live so short a span." The halfling sadly smiled. "I have thieved for longer than you have lived, in Greyhawk, greatest city on the Oerth, I learned my craft and paid my dues in many ways. I have faced a wizard's wrath and merchants' guards and wards and traps a dozen times a dozen. These clumsy backwards giants would not cause a raw apprentice a moment's worry. I will be right back."
Gytha did not say a word, she hadn't had the chance, before Harold turned away and slowly crept across the floor. As he had checked the hall, he checked this room. Sliding careful hands along each square of stone he made a slow advance.
'This would never do,' he thought. He pulled a pouch from inside his vest and poured a handful of silver dust out upon the floor. "Lat!" he said and a magic wind that he could not feel blew the dust out across the room. He saw no sign that the dust had worked, perhaps that nomad shaman had traded him a bag of silver ash, but Harold doubted that. Those idolaters of cats were cruel but seldom lied, and when they did they lied like children in an artless way.
Far out against the western wall a sparkling point of light had caught his eye. He'd seen it from the open door, now blocked by the fallen iron bars. From where he stood the light caught a dozen sparkling things apparently fallen and lying on the ground. Now they shined with a silver nimbus dancing back and forth from point to point. A trap, the magic bag of dust just told him what he had known since he first saw the glimmer from the open door.
"What children these giants are," Harold tsk'd and began to jog across the empty floor. "No one but another giant would fall for a trap like..."
Something skimmed past his head then another object sparked against the stone and made him jump aside. To the south a set of iron bars like those that he had released and now blocked the eastern door kept a pack of howling manticores at bay. They shrieked an almost human tongue and spat with anger then barked as they threw themselves against the bars that kept them from the halfling whose flesh they craved. Their barbed tails swung back and forth and like an expert with sling and stone they sent long needle spikes flying through the air.
* * *
Nosnra swayed, he nearly fell; all around him lay unconscious bodies of his fallen warriors. The howling of the magic spell increased and in a flash of blue the cave collapsed. The forces had proved more than stone and rock could bear. A wave of of air, speckled with a glowing line of sparkling blue, rolled out. It washed across the clearing and crested high above the chieftain's head. He leaned into the wind and let his body rest against its strength. His hair blew back and its color bleached away, Nosnra screamed, his mouth opened wide, the flesh across his face rippled but any sound he made could not fight free and died unsounded behind his tongue.
* * *
"Yee!" Harold screeched and rolled across the floor. A stinging pain slapped him against the leg. He sprinted for the eastern arch, a half dozen spikes caught him as he ran, three cut all to close, one struck the leather vest he wore and barely scratched his skin, but two sunk deep into his arm. He groaned, and another spike caught him in the leg.
"Harold!" Gytha yelled.
The ranger grabbed the bars and heaved; the massive portcullis did not budge.
* * *
"What did you find?" Ivo asked the mercenary pair.
"Nothing," said Edouard.
"A waste of time," chimed in Derue.
"That giant chief's armory, nothing but swords longer than I am tall and shields big as a wagon bed."
"Some nice fur hides," Edouard said, "but it seems we will be busy carrying that," he pointed to the map that Talberth and Telenstil were busy rolling up.
Talberth puffed as he hefted the rolled map from off the floor. "This thing must weigh a ton," he said to Telenstil.
"You are out of shape. You spend too much time in books," the elf had a wiry strength and moved the rolled map aside with ease.
"Show off," Talberth mumbled when Telenstil had walked on by.
"Ivo," Telenstil said to the gnome, "Time to retrieve our wayward thief." The elven mage looked toward the hidden door left open along the western wall. "I will secure this in the fireplace," he tapped the rolled up map. "No need to put another hole in Nosnra's roof."
Harold nearly fell. He'd not been this badly hurt in years. The iron-barred arch seemed far away, his leg felt stiff and reaching down he felt the sharp point of the manticore spike sticking through his thigh. His hand was red, he hated blood. It should be flowing through his veins not dripping on the floor. A fierce determination warmed him and wiped away the pain. He ran, the manticores howled, but now out of range they threw their hollow darts against the northern wall. The ranger's hand reached out and plucked Harold from the ground and pulled him through the iron bars.
"Gytha, quick, heal him!" Harald put the wounded halfling in her arms.
"I can stand. I am not a child," said Harold.
Gytha put him down. Harold stumbled. A cold, clammy sweat soaked his brow.
"Well, maybe I can't. Gytha, that healing sounds like a good idea."
* * *
"Manticores!" Harald said looking at the spikes which pierced his halfling friend through leg and arm. "That pelt was not just decoration."
"Harold, Harold," Gytha gave the halfling a shake. "Harold, do not sleep. I will heal you, but you must make a pledge to mend your ways."
"Ohh..." Harold groaned. "Not a pledge. Don't you just have a potion handy? How about a donation? I can pay in gold!"
Gytha laughed, "Saint I ask for your healing strength. Heal this misguided soul whose spirit is akin to your own," Gytha pulled the spikes from Harold's arm and legs, as she did, a golden glow suffused each wound and closed it with only a small dark scar to show that it had ever been.
* * *
Nosnra lifted Engenulf in his arms. The witan was light, more than just blood had been drained from his body, some spark or vital force was gone. It felt as if the very bones had been scraped hollow.
"Thegn," Engenulf said in a weak voice. "Thegn, their powers were too great, they have vanquished me."
"Old friend, you have defeated them," Nosnra told Engenulf. "Their hiding place has become their tomb."
"No, no, they are not dead. My eyes now look beyond this veil and into the spirit land." Engenulf stared up into the starry sky. "They have not crossed from this Oerthly plane. Look to our home, these ones have flown, but they have not done with us, though they have done with me."
"You talk nonsense," said Nosnra, "I have seen you bleed more upon fishing hook."
"No," the witan said and raised his voice. "My time is past. I will not rest; you must set me within the hall. Place my body upon the tower. You will need no other guard and I will never drink or rest."
"I will do so," Nosnra said. "And I will have my vengeance on this mixed pack of puny swine. They will face me, and they will have no easy death, I swear, my friend, this I swear."
Engenulf gave a gasp and a creaking breath escaped his lungs. His body shuddered and his head rose one last time. "Do not forget, do not be proud," the witan's voice spokes as if from far away. "Your kindred, summon them. Karnash, Karnash will heed your call"
"Yes my friend. I have no more pride. I will call for help," Nosnra closed the witan's eyes.
* * *
Ivo stood atop the stairway and looked down its curving length. Below some clumping noise steadily sounded, someone was climbing up the stairs. "Tell our elven mage that someone comes," he said to Derue.
The scout looked at his brother who gave a nod before he left the room. Henri the Pholtite stood beside the gnome and peered down as well. "They are not in sight, but I hear the thief's voice."
"Your ears are very keen," remarked Ivo.
"I will go to the other room," Henri said and walked away.
"They may need help," said Talberth who'd come up to them as they talked. The lanky wizard dropped down the stairs. "They may need more than mine. Come on," he called to Edouard.
The mercenary shrugged and followed after.
"I'll just stand here then, shall I?" Ivo said to the empty room.
* * *
Telenstil had elf-handled the map over to the chimney and used a spell to rise with it up to the roof far above. The stones were layered with soot but the chimney was immense, he had no trouble staying to the center away from the blackened walls. At its top a large flat rock capped the opening but the sides were vented, more than space enough for the elf to step through. He left the map floating in mid-air; the spell would last for quite some time. To the east of him smoke was billowing out, luckily the wind was blowing in that direction, away from where he now stood.
The yard below was filled with giants. They were busy trying to stop the blaze. Huge buckets of water were being brought by hand from inside the main building, while in the yard other giants were digging with pick and shovel, throwing spadefulls of dirt against the burning logs. A steady rain beat down and the wood was always damp, more smoke than fire was produced.
"Good," Telenstil said to himself. The maximum of confusion but he did not want the steading destroyed, not yet.
A gonging alarm beat out a steady rhythm but it was muffled by the high peak of the great hall's roof. Telenstil stood on its most northern edge, on the opposite side the guard tower had only a blind wall but would be out of sight in any case because of the blocking peak of roof. Around the corner lay their bags and the hole cut through the beams over Nosnra's trophy hall. Telenstil trotted off to retrieve his pack.
A small but thick and dark plume of smoke rose from the square hole that his magic had burned through the wood. The smoke must fill the hall below, the elf thought. "Better and better," he said. Most of the packs were fairly small; they had brought just the bare minimum of supplies. This was only a quick raid, not a long campaign, but a small voice spoke from a pendant on his chest. "Veer-Res," it said. "Guests," Telenstil voiced aloud. These supplies might be all they would now have. A ward had gone off back at their camp. He touched the pendant and said "Var-Tio," but it did not respond. That was bad, he thought.
The rain was cool and the wind was shifting south. Telenstil grabbed three bags, Talberth's, Ivo's and his own. He would leave them by the map then go back and gather the rest, so that they could depart in haste when the others returned.
* * *
"Harald held the halfling on his shoulder as he started up the stairs.
"What am I?" complained the halfling. "A sack of grain?"
"A sack of grain wouldn't weigh half this much," Harald answered, "or be so noisy." Each step was twice the height of a human-sized tread and although Harald was large enough not to be unduly bothered he ascended them carefully, not wanting to jar his friend more than was necessary.
He climbed step by step upward and met Talberth and one of the albino scouts coming down.
"What's this?" asked Talberth. "Is he hurt?"
"Only my pride..." Harold called out from Harald's shoulder.