The wolves began to give barking yips as they ran, their tongues lolling from their mouths, flicking in and out as they opened and closed their jaws. Gytha called down the power of the Saint. She waited for the wolves to close with her. As they came up the trail she could see the feral gleam within their eyes and hear the low growl beginning in their throats.
"Sainted one, let not these evil hounds give voice, let not their warning cries be heard, I ask of thee for calm, for blessed silence, now."
A buzzing like a thousand bees sprang up. A swarm of white-golden lights swirled around the wolves and dissipated in a wide circle about the forest and the trail. The wolves snapped briefly at the lights, their ears rose and they began to bark and howl. They jumped in a frenzy, their voices mute, their ears that could hear a leaf fall from a tree, now deafened by the silence called into place around them.
Talberth and Telenstil stepped onto the trail. They raised their hands together.
"Noituus Istaa," intoned Telenstil.
"Zimee-ari-Kno," Talberth voiced beside him.
Bolts of blue magic light shot from their hands springing from the fingers of each mage. Telenstil's struck one wolf about the head and neck, it leapt and fell in a crumpled heap. The bolts from Talberth's hand brought another low, one burnt into a leg and the wolf tumbled forward as it ran, a glowing greenish ball whizzed by and struck it as it tried to rise, Ivo had used a magic sling that threw enchantment as a normal sling would throw a stone. The last wolf charged with its mouth gaping wide, determined to sink its teeth in one of these who had slain its mates. Telenstil sent out another set of magic bolts, the beast shrugged them off, hurt and badly so, but with both a will and fierce anger driving it on.
Talberth was roughly shoved aside and Harald met the wolf with his claymore stabbing like a spear. The steel point sank into the wolf's chest, through its lung and out its bowels till it dug into the ground. The beast was mad with pain. It blew out a bloody froth and bit at the blade which impaled it to the oerth. Harald drew his knife and put his foot upon the snarling head. With a flashing sweep he cut its throat, the wolf's legs pawed briefly at the air, then relaxed in death. The ranger drew out his blade and wiped it on the dead wolf's coat of fur. He opened his mouth and said something that none could hear.
"...off the road," Harald called to the others, stepping beyond the edge of Gytha's spell.
"What?" asked Gytha.
"What were you shoving me for?" Talberth asked angrily.
"We need to get them off the trail," said Harald, "and cover up the blood."
"Quick now!" Telenstil ordered. "Pull them into the underbrush, someone sweep the road, grab a branch."
"I could have been casting a spell!" Talberth went on, but Harald had turned away.
The ranger grabbed the wolf he killed and slung the body over his shoulder and back heedless of the flowing blood which poured from the gaping neck. With a few steps and a mighty heave he threw the body off the trail. It crashed into a thick bush and disappeared among the brambles and the vines.
Ghibelline cut a branch free with his sword, he used the leaves to sweep dirt over the blood and obscure the trail. The bodies of the wolves were dragged away, the orcs had just run behind the trees when the sound of many feet came drumming from the far side of the trail. From where he lay within the underbrush, Harald could see the top of a giant's head rising into sight. It was a youth, half-again the height of a tall man and thin as a pole. This lanky giant held a wooden staff, the bole of a tree stripped down, big enough to hold up the roof of a peasant's hut. He put his hand to his mouth and called out to the wolves which had run ahead, but received no reply. He shook his head, shouted something to those behind him and waved back toward the way he'd come. Another head appeared, this one was wide and brown, and a pair of horns wider than Harald's outstretched arms was on the set to either side.
The giants raised beef, but an ancient breed of bull and cow, larger than any that man would think to tame. As they watched from the southern edge a small herd of these cattle were prodded down the trail. There were at least two dozen of the beasts, and three more giants moving them along, though these were not so young, each was old enough to be the father of the boy. The last greybeard might be his father's father. Each bore a staff of wood such as the youth possessed and used them to guide the cattle, but the herd was calm and walked at a steady and unhurried pace. The boy called out again as he passed the bottom of the slope. He stopped and stared up at the southern edge, Harald felt the searching eyes pass through him and move on. One of the older giants gave the boy a shout and jabbed him with his wooden staff. The youth turned and yelled back and shook his fist, the giant struck again, this time a strong stab to the gut and the boy was doubled over. A huge foot swung up and none to gently rolled him aside. The boy fell into the bushes.
"Told ya not to bring the fleabags," the giant laughed and the other two joined in. "When you've got yer wind back you can run after us or run home."
Harald crawled backward till he was out of sight and edged over to where Telenstil crouched beside a tree. "Do we take them or let them pass?" asked Harald.
"I would let them go," said Telenstil, "but when they find the bodies of those other two, Nosnra's messengers, they will either alert Nosnra or their own chief and maybe both."
"Good," Harald smiled, a cruel unfamiliar look came over his face. "I will enjoy cutting these monsters down."
Telenstil grabbed the ranger's arm. "Now I wish we could let them pass. Harald, do not enjoy this. That is how these giants think. That is why they are monsters, and why we are here."
The smile passed from Harald, "I will keep what you say in mind, but my heart cries out for vengeance."
"Did you hate those wolves?" asked Telenstil.
"No, you are right." said Harald. "No use hating wolves or giants, it's like hating time for making you old, or a rock for tripping you while you walk. They are near, what is your plan?"
"We are well dispersed," Telenstil looked over his shoulder to check on the others in the group but most were hidden even from his sight. "I will throw fire into their midst. It should at least scatter the herd. We will only close after our magic is spent. If they should charge, then you and the others will hold them off or bring them down."
"Do the others know this plan?" asked Harald.
"Yes, Talberth commands the orcs," said Telenstil, "Gytha and Ghibelline are prepared as well."
Harald was watching the trail as they spoke, his hand tightened on his sword-hilt as they giants approached. "Here they come," he warned.
Telenstil stood and cast his spell, "Pall-Ot-Ull," he intoned and flung a small brown-yellow glob. It began to burn, flying through the air fast as an arrow, straight into the center of the herd. It exploded into flame, a huge sphere of yellow-red burning hot as a blacksmith's forge.
The ball of fire roared out, it swallowed the giants near the center of the herd and set the trees and underbrush ablaze. Outside the confines of a room or a dungeon's narrow halls the spell spread out to its full limits, a huge spherical burst of flame. There was a second roar, this time from a score of voices and it went on and on. The giants swirled as if they were huge candles being spun like tops, their greasy hair and beards aflame. They screamed out a terrifying bellow of rage. The cattle were worse, they cried out in terror and in pain. Half had their hides ablaze, they gored those ahead and like a fan they left the trail running through the woods and underbrush, up the southern slope toward the places where Telenstil and the others hid. One knocked a twisting giant to the ground, another trampled him underfoot, a third was struck by a massive fist and fell, still afire it lay across him burning like a torch. They struggled together, the giant tried to rise and throw the huge steer from off his legs while hooves scraped and dug into his flesh. The two became a living pyre. Another steer crashed into them both and ran off, blinded by the searing flames.
The monstrous beasts came bellowing up the slope, tore bushes up by their roots and knocked down small trees. Up the trail ran a burning cow, its head blackened, eyes rolling wildly, a froth coming from its mouth surrounded by skin cracked and raw.
Telenstil cursed his spell, he'd thought to kill them all with a single strike and scare the rest. He stepped out into the road to meet the charge. "Az-Trapa!" the mage yelled out and sent a bolt of magic lightning booming down the trail. It struck a dozen of the cows and steers, a streak of bluish white that leapt from one beast to another. Many had been badly injured from the flames, the power of the bolt was too much, every beast it touched it killed. They dropped in a dreadful row; their cries were drowned out by the snap of thunder that accompanied the spell. Some fell to one side, others took a few steps, stumbling on legs already bereft of life, but Telenstil had not killed them all. Half a dozen of the beasts ran to the right, while two broke off through the brush that was on the lefthand of the trail.
Harold dived between the hooves of a cow that had come up on the lefthand side. He moved fast as any cat, faster than the cow or the stamping hooves. Once through he tackled the young orc who stood frozen before the second cow. They rolled clear, Little Rat breathing hard lying on his back still paralyzed with fear.
On the right Harald ran out and swept his blade low across the legs of a charging steer. The creature fell and with a quick and merciful second stroke the ranger killed the beast with a blow that would have pleased a master of the Butcher's guild. Talberth used his wand, drained a charge, the silver glow fading from a rune along its side. Three cows fell, but a forth brushed the mage aside. It flung him into a tree like a child's doll.
The orcs had been behind the mage, they ran as the two remaining steers came rushing on. One went down beneath the hooves of an enraged beast. Another lodged upon a goring horn and was carried off still yelling as the steer ran through the trees and out of sight. The remaining steer stamped the orc into a red and bloody pulp. Ghibeline ran up and stabbed it with his sword, it did not seem to feel the blow, but a second cut made it turn its head. Four of the orcs had not run, all were armed with weapons they had taken from the bugbear guards back in the dungeons of the steading. Boss, the leader of the orcs held a scimitar, Meatstealer had a rusted longsword, one orc held a ball and chain the other had a long-bladed axe. They charged the beast and struck it from horn to hoof, a weak swing of the morningstar barely grazed its flesh, while the axe clove deep and dropped the steer. The swords stabbed in and ended the poor creature's life.
Telenstil shook his head, their strength and power used against a cattle herd. Below him two of the giants survived. They'd beaten out the flames, burnt stubble all that remained upon their heads, and with angry shouts were charging up the slope as the herd had done.
* * *
Nosnra had not slept. His eyes were red, his face drawn and pinched. White streaks ran through hair that had been black and grey just a day before, his ruddy skin was burnt brown and the spare flesh on his ample frame was gone. The giant chief sat upon a rough built throne, his kindred had raised a frame and stretched a canvas overtop his head. He had not moved since the pyre for the dead had been lit. No one would approach him, not Thiodolf who spoke with Nosnra's voice, nor Estrith Nosnra's wife. A dozen warriors sat near to Nosnra's feet, they had returned with him the night before. They were just as weary but not all had Nosnra's strength, some collapsed, others leaned back and closed their eyes. As one would drop others would come and take them away then another would take their place. They were a grim spectacle.
As the sun reached its height a pair of giants came from the ruins of the hall. They stood taller than their rural kin, broad shouldered, thick thewed, skin like charcoal, hair orange as the embers of a blazing fire. One carried a sword that burned with flame; it looked like a dagger or a child's toy while it was held in the massive palm. The other giant lead a man, the scout Edouard, he was weighted down with chains roped over his shoulders and across his chest, but his arms were free. An iron collar was welded closed around his throat, a smaller chain stretched from below his chin to the giant's hand. Edouard walked like a man half-asleep, he tried to watch his step but his eyes kept drifting back to the sword in the giants grip.
The pair of fire giants approached the throne, the warriors sitting before their chief jumped up, some moved stiffly, still sore and strained from the power that had been unleashed when their witan died. They had taken a motley collection of weapons from the ruins the armory left untouched by the fire within the steading. Some held swords with blades ten feet long, or javelins that could have been ballista bolts, maces with heads like a blacksmith's anvil or axes that could fell a tree in a single stroke. "Turn back." called out one warrior
"Harthac, tell Nosnra we have brought him a gift," called back the giant with the burning sword.
"The chief is to be left alone," said Harthac, "he will call for you if he wishes, go back to your forge."
"It is cold out here, so I will speak to Nosnra now," the giant said and took another step forward.
Harthac placed a spear point to the giant's belt. "You will go back."
"This is foolishness," the giant swore. "Nosnra!" he yelled, Nosnra!!" his bellow hurt the ear.
"Speak," came a sepulchered voice. "Harthac stand aside."
Nosnra spoke but he did not rise. He turned his head and with eyes red veined but burning with an internal light he stared at the giant who approached.
"Nosnra it is I, Suttung, son of Gilling. I have brought you a gift. I return a treasure taken from your vault, and the one who took it and wrecked such havoc upon you and yours."
"Suttung, I will gift you with what you seek, the blade you desired shall be yours," said Nosnra. "Bring me this cur you have upon the chain."
"He is enthralled by the blade we brought for you," laughed Suttung, "It was meant for other hands." he said to Edouard. "The dark ones did not mean for their trinkets to go to one like this."
"Hand me the blade as well," commanded Nosnra. "Give me the chain that leads this dog."
Suttung stepped up to the throne and handed Nosnra the sword. Edouard moaned and ran for the magic blade as it passed from the fire giant's grasp. The other giant pulled back the chain and yanked Edouard from off his feet.
"Ylgr watch what you are doing!" Suttung yelled. "You'll break his neck."
"Bring him here," Nosnra told them. "I want this one to live."
Ylgr lifted the scout by the links across his shoulder and handed him to Nosnra like a butcher passing the carcass of a chicken over a countertop. Nosnra held the sword before Edouard's eyes and clasped his other hand around the man's collared neck. "You will serve me, you killed many of my wolves, human, you will take their place."