The Hill Giant Chief - Nosnra's Saga - Part 5
"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 will 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 in a sarcastic whisper. 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.
Telenstil coughed. He'd wrapped a wet cloth around his nose and mouth to help keep out the smoke, but the wind had turned and the thick clouds blew south across the packs lying on the roof. The last pack he had to drag, what was light to Harald was heavy to any normal man or elf. The map still floated near the chimney top. The rain beat down, Telenstil was loathe to bring the map out from its safe, dry, place beneath the covering stone, but it would not float forever. He could cast another spell, but to use so many within such a short space of time, it bothered him. He left it where it was and used his ring; the last such use till another day at least had passed, and dropped down slow to the chimney hearth.
"Telenstil!" Talberth called. He rushed over to greet the elven mage.
"Is all well, everyone ready?" asked Telenstil. "We should depart in haste."
"Harold is wounded, but Gytha healed the worst of it," reported Talberth.
"I'm fine," the halfling said. "Telenstil, there is treasure below, maybe more of what you search for..."
"You've seen such?" the mage asked with a trace of suspicion and looked the halfling in the eye.
"Well... no, but I have seen the glint of gold, and a trap beyond what these giants are likely to have set. Put both together and it spells some other hand than Nosnra's. Protecting what, I ask?" Harold said, he spoke quickly and with an excited rising voice. "That wall of yours will hold," he nodded toward the sealed door, "give me another chance... and a little help to slay the manticores..."
"Manticores!" Telenstil almost laughed but the thief was serious and the elf respected his skill.
"Just a few, and iron bars, heavy but nothing more," Harold explained. "There is something there that we should find."
"No. We will return. This map, it is too important to be lost," Telenstil said loud enough for all to hear. "I have bad news. The wards that I have set are gone. The giants must have found the cave."
"What!" came a shout, the mercenary scouts both exclaimed as one.
"My horse!" Gytha cried. The ranger shook his head and Ivo frowned. Henri stepped back and cleared his head. He took a moment to commune with his jealous god.
"I set a ward as well," said Talberth, "and a trap among my things."
"They are all gone off, I do not doubt," Telenstil shook his head. "Another reason for us to leave as quick as we can."
"No, no, " Harold spoke up. "We should stay and find this treasure. We can hide. Will they search for us here, or think we have fled once more? Telenstil, you have means to return this map, some spell, I have seen such in Greyhawk that the city wizards use. Tell me you do?"
The elf stood silent for a moment. "Yes, but it is not a spell that I have mastered. I can send the map back, and one or two of us if any would like to go, but it will cost us our means of talking to our leaders, and an item of great power that I have been only loaned."
"Come, come," the halfling cajoled, "isn't the map worth the sacrifice?"
"What say you all?" asked Telenstil. "Shall we stay? Do any wish to go? Harold's points are true. This map is what I came to find, what those who sent us hoped to see. Our supplies are gone. Our work will only grow more difficult from here," he paused and no one spoke. "I think we need to send the map back, our job here is not quite done, and I see no other way to keep it safe. But tell me what you think."
* * *
The wolves all howled. Nosnra walked slowly back to the steading with Engenulf's lifeless body in his arms. Behind him the subdued warriors made no sound. They did not rush, but marched home in silent respect. The quickest two of Nosnra's clan had been sent out, running at a steady pace for Karnash's land, Nosnra's cousin who had a hall further up into the hills. Nosnra's mind was blank, he felt as if the ground beneath his feet had dropped away and now he walked upon a cloud. The land had changed as well, these fields which he had run and played upon in his youth, Engenulf always at his side, this land no longer felt the same.
* * *
"I say send the map away," Ivo spoke up first. "I will stay. These giants are the enemies of my kind. I will collect a debt that's owed before I leave."
"Yes, that's the spirit," Harold clapped the gnome upon his back. Ivo rolled his eyes.
"Stay," the ranger said. "I came to fight these giants, not run away."
"If the map is delivered safe my duke will be pleased, but I will not abandon those who are my companions," Gytha looked at all those gathered round. "I will stay if any others stay. Send the map back safe, most certainly, but let us do as master Ivo says. I would deal with them as they have dealt with mine."
"Talberth, what of you?" asked Telenstil.
The tall wizard remained silent, he stared at his shoes and only after a moment's thought did he look up. "Stay, yes stay. But I did not think they could find the cave. I do not know how simple hiding here will be."
"Edouard, Derue, what do you wish to do?" Telenstil turned to the silent pair.
"We go or stay as our employer commands," said Edouard. "Good Master Henri, we have sworn to serve."
"Where is Henri?" asked Harold looking around.
"I am here," spoke up Henri in a strident tone. He stepped from the doorway of the smaller room which contained the stairs. "These giants have done as you have said," He spoke to Telenstil, ignoring all the rest who stood nearby. "They have desecrated that place which I had blessed in the True God's name. The map does not interest me, but my superior so commands that any information found should be returned quickly and safe. These giants are beyond the True God's grace. I will smite them down," he nearly yelled, his voice shook with anger and contempt. "They are not fit to walk the Oerth; I will cast them into the outer dark."
Harold would have cheered, he was happy to have the whole group stay but the haughty cleric's angry words did not encourage mirth or glad replies.
"Then let us fetch the map and be on our way," said Talberth. "That iron wall keeps out the smoke and flames but it will bring the giants down upon this room."
"Talberth, can you ascend and collect the packs, I will bring the map down and send it to my queen," Telenstil did not wait for a reply but went to the chimney and lowered the rolled map down. It drifted slowly as a feather for most of the flue's length then twenty feet above the ground the magic faded fast, the bundle dropped and sent out a dark choking cloud of soot.
"Good thing it's all rolled up," Harold looked over the blackened bundle.
Telenstil flashed him an almost angry look. The elf was covered from head to feet across his front with a layer of soot. He'd protected his face with his upraised hands but his hair was grey-black and the ash rained down from it as he turned his head. He muttered a small cantrip, "Pu-Das," he said and the soot jumped from his hair and clothes and from the map as well.
"That's amazing," the halfling smiled. "It's that type of magic that has always impressed me."
Telenstil smiled as well, happy to be clean again and more than glad to see the map undamaged and free of soot. "That was an apprentice's trick, but useful. A mage cannot mend a rip or tie a knot with a lightning bolt. These small magics have their use."
"I have no liking for all the bangs and booms," Harold told him, "but many of these small magics would be handy in my trade."
"Master thief, Talberth should be back soon," said Telenstil. "It will be safest if I am alone to send the map to my queen. Please begin your search below for some means for us to escape these rooms or some better place to hide."
"Right you are, but we may need that magic dust of yours if we can find no other way through the iron bars," said Harold.
"I will be along as quick as I can manage, and I will send Talberth down to you as soon as he can," Telenstil turned and called to the old ranger. "Harald please give me a hand, this map is more your size than mine. Can you take it and move it from the hearth?"
"This little thing," the ranger laughed and hefted the map over a broad shoulder. As they left the chimney a voice called from above. "Look out below," and a pack came down quickly, but lowered on a rope.
"Talberth will not be long," said Telenstil with a cautious glance up the chimney. "Henri," he called as the halfling went to gather Gytha and Ivo.
"Yes," the cleric replied.
"Harold is going down to find some way for us to pass, please help him if you can?" asked Telenstil.
"The Blinding Light will show the way," said Henri and gestured to his servants. "Come," he commanded the pair of scouts and left the room heading for the stairs.
Telenstil had Harald leave the map inside the weapons' room and spoke to him before he left to join the others down below. "Harald, please stay and help carry the packs away from the hearth as Talberth drops them down. I will be here, but do not enter, this magic is not safe."
"Do not kill yourself over this map, my friend," Harald said.
"No, I think the risk is small, and less than we have all taken coming here, but thank you, my friend."
Telenstil half-shut the door and removed a flat case from his robe that he had taken from his pack. He touched the mirror and spoke a word to make it live, "Pu-Ha," he said and the silvered surface flowed like liquid metal.
"My queen," Telenstil spoke into the moving face, "you will not like the destruction of your gift, but this map... It shows our dark kindred's hand, as we thought it would. The giants have proved more canny than expected. I will search for more proof and do what damage that I can, but it seems possible that I, or any of our group, will not return alive from this venture."
Telenstil put the mirror down atop the map and drew a dagger from his belt. Crying aloud "Mik-Ka!" he smashed the mirror with the pommel and sent the enchanted glass flying all to bits. He took the largest pieces and placed them around the rolled-up map, then pushed some fragments beneath and laid the broken frame on top. He drew a connecting line from bit to bit with a colored stick of wax and using the power of the mirror's magic he cast a spell he did not know himself. "Mat-Kus-Ta!" he said and a silver beam shot from piece to piece. They formed a glowing web and then burst forth, the light encompassed all within and then was gone. The lines of wax were all that remained to show that either mirror or map had ever lain upon the floor.
* * *
"All done in there?" Harald asked as Telenstil left Nosnra's armory.
"Yes, the map has been sent," Telenstil looked toward the chimney and saw a pair of legs descending. Talberth floated down, the last two packs in his arms.
"The fire is still burning up there. Lots of smoke; the giants are running around the yard trying to put it out," Talberth chuckled.
"Fun for you, not so much fun for them," Harald said.
"I hope it stays that way," Talberth replied.
"Me too!" the ranger agreed wholeheartedly.
"We had best grab these packs and join the others," Telenstil picked up his own.
The ranger slung his heavy pack across his shoulder and carried two on either arm. The wizards struggled with their load, two packs each was as much as they could carry with any ease. All three brushed past the dangling hide of the manticore and headed for the stairs.
* * *
"You are right, Harold," Ivo said to the halfing. "This being carried down the stairs is undignified."
"These big folk start thinking you're a bit of baggage," Harold told the gnome. "A habit I don't want them to fall into on a regular basis."
"Harold," Gytha had come back to the stairs while Henri and the mercenary pair went on ahead. "Henri had his hirelings tell me, to tell you, that there is something wrong about the wall."
"What wall?" Harold asked. He'd checked that corridor and found nothing but the trap that sprang the iron bars.
"You had best go see. Ivo and I will come along as well. I do not care for those three," Gytha gave a nod toward the Pholtite and the scouts.
* * *
"That rope in the chimney should make them think we've escaped," said Talberth as they dropped down the stairs.
"Maybe," said Harald, "but they'll search down here as well."
"When the fire is out it will not take them long to knock down that iron wall," said Telenstil, "but I do not believe that these stairs lead nowhere."
"Maybe we would have been better off escaping and coming back," Talberth said morosely.
"Do not be so glum," Telenstil told the downcast mage. "It would be worse if we were caught out in the fields or along some hillside. This will be for the best, and I have some idea of what lies below."
"Your mapmaker?" asked Talberth.
"Yes," Telenstil admitted to the failings of his source of information. "My mapmaker proved to be turned about, but it was he who first spoke of that map, and that alone is worth all our efforts."
"Is that map worth our lives?" Talberth did not wait for an answer but hopped down the final stairs and looked about the empty passage.
"Where have they gotten to?" Harald dropped the last of the packs and pointed down the hall. "That arch and those bars are at the end down there."
"Well they can carry their own packs from here," said Talberth dropping the packs he carried to the floor with a grateful sigh.
The hall was long and dark, though a glowing square of light could be seen where Harald pointed at its far northern end.
"If this is all there is then these giants will make short work of us here."
"This corridor does not seem to offer much in the way of hiding places," said Telenstil. "Come then, let us find the others and a better place."
"To die?" asked Talberth,
"To hide," Telenstil replied, "perhaps to fight. Dying is not among my plans."
* * *
"What is wrong with this wall?" Harold asked the cleric.
Henri did not even look down at him. "Thief, this wall conceals a door, this I know, but the lock must be opened or destroyed before I can pass through."
"What! Let me see," Harold bent and ran his hands across the ground, then along the edges that the cleric Henri pointed to. He still didn't see a door among the stones, but then he felt a small groove along the wall. This was no magic door, but hidden with great skill. "This is no giant's work," Harold said. "Yes, there is a door. Where is this lock?"
Henri pointed far above the halfling's head.
"I thought as much," said Harold. "Edouard, you will have to lift me up."
"Alright then," Edouard bent down and put the halfling on his shoulders like a child being lifted up to see over a crowd. Even standing on his toes Harold still could not reach the lock.
"You will have to get me higher up," he said.
"Derue, your sword." Edouard commanded. "No, leave it in the sheath. We'll make a shelf out of it to hold up the halfling."
"Right," muttered Derue. He gave the thief a glare, but just a glance, then put his false face back on again.
The two brothers held up the sword as high as their arms could reach. Harold climbed from Edouard's shoulder and balanced atop the sheathed blade.
"That's better," he said to himself.
"What?" Edouard called up to him.
"This will work out fine," Harold called back, and with a few deft clicks and turns of steel wire and pick he opened the lock. "All done. You can let me down now."
"That was quick," Edouard said as he lowered the halfing to the floor.
"It was nothing," Harold said with pride. "But that is not the work of giants. That lock was dwarven work, but flawed."
"How is it flawed?" asked Ivo.
"It's finely made and has a few subtle tricks, but any thief can see that the tumblers are notched. My guide wire fell right into place and the pick turned them like a key," Harold laughed. "This lock was made to be opened."
"By design do you think? Could it be a trap?" questioned Ivo.
"I see no sign, but I did not see this door either," Harold told him. "I will have to climb to the top and check."
"We waste time," Henri complained. "Stand back. The cleric pointed toward the door. A white burning light passed through it and left no trace except for glowing spots dancing before their eyes. "The door is safe. Edouard, please open it."
The scout blinked several times and rubbed his eyes, then leapt quickly to obey. He looked about him but could find no handle. "How?" he asked the Pholtite priest.
"Push against it near the lock," suggested Harold as Henri looked on and said nothing but projected a sense of anger and exasperation at all around him.
Edouard stretched and pushed at the door. It made a clicking sound and then opened from some pressure with a slight whisper of escaping air.
"That door was sealed tight," said Harold. "That air is stale."
"Look!" Gytha called and pointed to a glowing square of floor. Henri's white light had found something after all. "A trap."
"Obviously," Henri said with some contempt.
"Is that it?" Harold wondered aloud. He edged his way across the wall and around the glowing square. "There is room for us to pass, but do you think I should trigger this trap?"
"No," said Gytha. "The last time you ended up blocking off the other room."
"It could have a spell or some infernal mechanism that would be released when the trap is sprung," Ivo warned.
"Henri," Harold said to the cleric. "What does your spell say to you?"
Henri sniffed at such familiarity, "The trap is revealed, that should be enough. Only a fool needs to stick his hand into a hornets' nest to see if they will sting."
"No need to get snippy," Harold called back. "Let me just see what is around this corner."
"Be careful!" Gytha told him. "I don't think Henri's spell covers the entire room."
"What! Harlot! The God's light illuminates what he wills, he knows no limits," Henri exclaimed.
"Harlot!" Gytha shouted back. "Why you sanctimonious stuck-up pr..." She could barely restrain herself from striking Henri.
"Now stop this!" Ivo yelled at them. "In Nosnra's dungeon with no way out, and you two want to fight each other! Save it for the giants."
"He started it," Gytha complained and cast a dangerous glance at the blind priest. "Henri you did. Is this the way that your liege the Theocrat would have you behave?"
Ivo looked up at them both. "Children, big as houses you are, but you act like children."
Harold had paid their argument no mind; instead he continued exploring the room. "Trust that pompous cleric," he said to himself, "not likely."
Against the eastern wall were several chests, some giant-sized but others that must have been crafted by smaller hands. Harold was drawn to these like a moth to a flame. He circled them; even crawling behind to check for hidden traps. He climbed atop the largest one, he felt along the sides and carefully examined each hinge, but he found nothing other than plain wood and iron bolts. Gytha came up to him while he searched. Her eyes still shone but she had kept her temper in check, a most notable achievement for a follower of the cudgel-wielding saint.
"I take it that these are safe?" she asked Harold.
The halfling was sitting atop the largest one. He had climbed over the other coffers and chests as if they were a set of stairs.
"It's safe. This big one looks to be at least." Harold gave the broad lid a pat.
Behind them came Ivo, then the scouts. Henri walked in last and looked at the southern alcove he walked over to the southwestern corner and reached into an area covered with a yellow mold.
"Hey!" Harold yelled. "Careful there, that stuff could be dangerous!"
Henri did not reply or stay his hand. He pulled a quiver full of arrows from the mold. "I do not fear weapons hanging on a wall," he said.
"An illusion!" Harold cried. "Ivo, I am surprised that you did not spot it first."
"I would have done," Ivo said, "but before I waste a spell..." he began, "What is it that your metal mask lets you see Henri?"
"The True God grants me to see what is," Henri told them all. "No illusions can cloud my sight."
"Oh gods and magic," Harold cried. "This coming from a blind man who speaks of sight. Well my eyes still see a moldy wall. What else do you see?"
"A spear, and two sheathed swords hanging here before me," Henri turned to take in the rest of the room. "Over there," he pointed to where the thief stood atop the giant wooden chest. "There is a large wooden trunk and several smaller ones."
"I see these as well," said Harold.
"And here," The cleric stared looking with his golden mask at the southeast corner of the room, "A stout cask and a large box of black stone."
"Ah-Ha!" Harold almost clapped with delight. "Something else they did not want us to find. Ivo, you are a master of this magic," began Harold graciously. "Have you ever heard of giants who could hide their treasure thus?"
"There are giants and there are giants my friend," said Ivo. "Some of the cloud dwellers are as skilled as any of my kind."
"Oh. I pictured them all like these," said Harold.
"No, these are hill giants. There are others bigger, fiercer and more skilled," Ivo told the halfling.
The two scouts approached Henri and the cleric handed a sword to one. "Careful," Henri said to them. "These are fine blades. They may be more than just steel. Do you take them in the name of the True God?" Henri asked.
Edouard held out his hand and crossed his fingers in his mind. "I do," he said aloud, but wordlessly said a prayer to Syrul. He gave an honest smile as he held the sword. A fiery voice spoke in his head. "It speaks to me!" he cried out, and regretted his momentary lapse of discipline.
"What does it say?" Derue exclaimed.
"It says that its name is Kalfashow," Edouard answered in a subdued voice.
"Magic!" Harold cried. "That would be worth a chest of gold."
"It will serve us better in a swordsman's hands, thief," Henri rebuked the halfling.
"What of the other?" asked Derue, eager to claim it as his own.
"Do you swear..." Henri began.
"I swear, I swear..." Derue burst out and grabbed the sword from Henri's hand.
The cleric flushed and would have redressed his hireling but Edouard spoke up.
"Master Henri, my apologies for my brother's haste. Derue!"
"It speaks as well! It says that its name is Ardare and it will burn with flame!" Derue was as delighted as a child.
"What of yours Edouard?"
Edouard rolled his eyes. He would have struck his brother for such a careless tongue but not before the others in the room.
"Your sword seems to be more talkative than mine," Edouard gave Derue a hard shove to break him from his reverie. "Apologize to master Henri," he commanded.
Derue flushed redder than the cleric. He bowed his head and knelt as a supplicant craving his master's pardon. "I beg your pardon master. I acted without thought."
Henri was pleased at such diffidence. He smiled and like a theocrat or a king touched the scout lightly upon his bowed head. "Your haste is forgiven," he said.
"Two magic swords!" Harold moaned. No chance, he thought, of ever parting them from those pale-haired scouts.
"That was not here before," Harald pointed at an open door where only stone wall had been.
"Looks like they may have found us another way out," said Talberth.
"Perhaps only another way further in," Telenstil replied.
"I thought I was the one with the gloomy thoughts," Talberth said to his old mentor.
"I hear voices," Harald interrupted them. "Sounds like Harold but I can't make out what he is saying."
The ranger stepped around the half open door. The halfing stood upon a man-high wooden chest against the eastern wall and looked toward the south, which was out of Harald's sight, while the red-haired cleric, Gytha, stood nearby. Someone spoke from where the ranger could not see then Harold spoke again.
"Hey!" the ranger called. "Have you found a passage out of here?"
The halfling turned and with wide eyes shouted for the ranger to stop. "Don't Move! You Fool! Don't Move!"
Harald paused his foot lifted, about to take a step which might have been his last.
* * *
Harold dropped to the ground and ran down the hall.
"You big buffoon, one more step and you would have been in it."
"In what?" Harald asked. "I don't see a thing."
The floor looked to be made from solid stone. The entire area seemed to be resting on a single slab of rock.
"Our holy Henri spotted it. He has a great talent for seeing hidden things," Harold explained. "It's some sort of trap, though what kind I do not know."
"Is there a way around?" Talberth asked as he stood in the doorway.
"Of course," laughed the little halfling. "How do you think we got across? Just hug the wall on either side. The giants have left a space big enough for us to pass."
"Harald, please help shut the door before we proceed further," Telenstil asked the ranger for his help.
"Sure, you go on, I can shut this by myself."
Harald walked over and grabbed the edge of the giant's door. One side was made of wood. The other looked and felt like stone but weighed far less. The hinges, which Harald could not see, made no noise, and the door clicked as he closed it shut.
"Telenstil!" Gytha called pleased to see the mage.
"Gytha, Ivo, what have we here?" the elf asked.
"Is there a door?" Talberth looked around the corner of the room. His hopeful smile disappeared. The room ended in a long southern wall, the priest Henri stood there among a covering of yellow-colored mold and pulled forth a spear, its blade shinning like polished steel.
"Where did that come from?" Talberth asked surprised.
"These giants are craftier than we had thought," said Ivo. "They have cloaked their treasure with magic spells."
"Henri here can see right through them with that golden mask of his," Harold said irreverently.
"We haven't opened up those chests over there," the halfling pointed to the eastern wall and the many wood and iron chests.
"Are they trapped?" asked Telenstil.
"Not as far as I can tell," Harold shook his head.
Telenstil watched as the cleric handed the spear to Edouard. The scout bowed his head and said some word of thanks that the mage could not hear.
"Henri," Telenstil walked over and called out. "Your faith stands you in good stead. Do you see an exit to this room?"
"No." Henri turned his gold masked face to Telenstil. "I see no hidden doors only these weapons hidden beneath a spell."
"And those chests, where we see broken boxes?" added Ivo. The old gnome went to the southeast corner of the room and waved his hands and spoke a powerful word. The broken barrels wavered as if seen through heat above a fire, they faded and were gone. In their place a large black box made of stone and next to it a barrel bigger than a man.
"Harold," Telenstil waved a hand toward the box and the barrel. "Please be so kind."
"My pleasure," the thief replied. Harold walked around the chest and examined it with care.
"I do not like it here," Talberth glanced around the room. "We are trapped if the giants come."
"Yes," Telenstil agreed. "Yet this hidden room bears searching out. Can we spare the time, Talberth; who can say, or even if it is worth the risk. No we won't rest here, not yet."
"Is this place on your map?" Talberth asked the elven mage.
"No, and it was never mentioned by the one-time merchant, more recently Nosnra's slave." Telenstil reached into his robe and removed an ivory tube. He took out the copy of the escaped slave's map. "As you see, somewhere below the steading there is a holding cell, a smithy, and orc pens, but no sign of secret rooms or treasure chests. Not surprising."
"The two ways may not even connect. How did this merchant escape?" Talberth asked.
"Somewhere there is a stream. See it marked here," Telenstil pointed to a roughly drawn symbol on the map. "The merchant was lowered on a rope and had to unclog the giants' garbage chute. The rope broke and by luck and fate he survived his ride along the stream and washed up on the banks of the White Oyt river. Hunters found him half-alive and when his tale was told he was brought before the duke where the first copy of this map was drawn."
"Telenstil!" the thief almost shouted, "This barrel! You won't believe it but I've found you another of those giant maps."
Harold found a latch and pulled up the barrel's tight, sealed lid. It had hinges down the center and the top opened up, split down the middle, opening in a semi-circle. Inside was a roll of hide, Harold reached down and bent back an edge, he saw the same markings he had seen before upon the map which Telenstil had transported with his magic to the land below.
"So what is this? Another map?" the mage asked amused. "Do these giants keep all their plans in duplicate?"
"I don't know about that, but this has the same spidery scrawling on it," said Harold.
* * *
Above their heads the alarm kept sounding. Giants fought the fire which blazed and spread throughout the hall. The roof was damp and sent black choking smoke out into the sky. Nosnra would not be pleased, his sleeping chamber was afire, his trophy hall blackened by smoke and licked by flame. The iron door, magicked into place by Telenstil, glowed red, the wooden frame blackened and charred. Suddenly the crack of splitting wood resounded, the lintel parted, the burnt wood revealed its untouched heart, but too little was left to keep the iron valve in place. It swayed back and picked up speed then slammed against the floor with a boom heard throughout the hall. Flooring shattered revealing the stone beneath, and a cloud of smoke lit orange by the flames came rushing in. No one would notice the missing map, within minutes the chief's private meeting hall was covered in flames. The great chimney acted as the flue and the table, chairs and many tapestries burned for moments and then were gone, like a lantern wick. Out across the fields and still far off, Nosnra came walking home, his warriors still weak and dazed, even the wolves were silent and withdrawn.
* * *
"What was that!" several voices said at once.
"Sounds like the giants have breached that door," said Talberth. He had been waiting for the sound.
"Then they could be down here at any time!" cried Harold.
"Don't worry," Ivo called to him, loud enough for everyone to hear. "I can mask us all from their sight."
"What if they find us as they found the cave and our camp?" questioned Talberth.
"Then we will fight, and they will die," Harald answered him plainly and unconcerned. He had come up after shutting the hidden door. "But we'd best get those packs we left behind by the stairs."
"Too late for that," Talberth looked around the room, at its empty floor and doorless walls. "We're trapped."
"Nonsense," Telenstil spoke up. "Talberth you are too worried. The giants have not found us yet, but those packs might be a help to us, remember, they are all that we have left from our supplies."
"I remember," said Gytha thinking of her and the other's horses left back at the cave rather than any supplies. "I'll go, how about you Harald?"
"Telenstil, looks like I have nothing else to do here, and I can carry half."
"Good," said Telenstil. "Edouard, Derue, please go along as well."
The scouts looked first toward their master Henri who gave to them a nod before they followed the ranger and cleric out into the hall.
* * *
"Smell that smoke," Harald said.
"Yes, it is thick," Gytha replied.
They'd run down the hall and stood by the stairs which went back up to Nosnra's private meeting room. The smell of burning wood was overpowering but so far no smoke had come drifting down.
"I am going to go check on this," said Harald heading up the stairs.
"Harald, no! What if the giants are heading down?" Gytha called to him.
Harald sniffed at the air. "I don't think we have to worry about the giants, but I am worried about the fire."
The two scouts noted the ranger's words but said nothing. Each slung two packs over their shoulders and started back to the hidden room.
"Harald, you be careful. I will be back as soon as I have talked with Telenstil." Gytha ran after the departing scouts.
The black box, obsidian stone, smooth and sharp cornered, chipped all along its length, was heavier than the small halfling could budge. It took Talberth, Telenstil, Henri and the wiry old gnome to shift its lid. The top slid aside and smashed against the floor, a corner shattered into fragments and the lid itself split in two.
"What do we have here?" Talberth asked himself aloud.
Inside the box was a white, fur hide wrapped into a roll. The mage reached down and pulled, but it would not budge.
"Something inside," Talberth answered his own question, "heavy as this box."
"Can you unwrap it?" asked Telenstil.
Talberth gave it a half-hearted tug. "No, I will cut it away," he said and reached for his knife.
"Are you crazy!" the thief exclaimed. "That hide is worth its weight in gold."
"Not here it's not," said Talberth. "Here it is just in the way."
"Well, give it a chance at least," Harold climbed up over the tall sides of the box and hopped within. He grabbed the edge and gave the hide a pull with all his strength. He strained and tugged it back and forth till he had drawn some slack. "You can help," he said to the others.
Telenstil laughed and took up two handfuls of the furry hide, Talberth did the same, but Henri merely stood back and watched them work. Ivo would have climbed into the box, but, though it was large, there was just not enough room for the gnome and halfling both. When they had unwrapped a length that he could reach, Ivo grabbed hold and pulled as well. Soon the hide was hanging over the box's lip, part of it still weighed down by what lay within. A black metal chain, its links thick and finely made, with a huge scroll tied around a section of its length. Talberth drew up the links and untied the scroll; a cured skin, the blockish giant script written across its face.
"Hah!" he said. "If this scroll speaks true then we have our door!"
* * *
The ranger coughed, the smoke was a hazy mist before his eyes but thick and dark above his head. He stood within the small room that held the giants' firewood, the door to Nosnra's meeting room was hot beneath his hand.
"Yes, as I thought," he said then quickly dropped back down the giants' stairs.
* * *
"What do you mean?" Harold asked the mage.
"This chain," said Talberth. "From what this scroll relates, it is a magical device of teleportation."
"Wonderful!" the halfling cried. "Can it take us to Greyhawk?"
"Hmmm, well no I don't think so," Talberth read through the scroll. "It gives instruction for its use but says nothing about the destination."
"Oh great. It probably'll take us back to Nosnra's trophy hall," moaned Harold.
"Yes," said Telenstil, "that does pose a problem. Talberth, that chain seems very heavy. I doubt that we can take it with us and I am loathe to use an unknown device."
"How else are we to get out of this pit?" Talberth asked with vehemence.
"We are not trapped just yet my friend," Telenstil said kindly. "If we cannot take that chain with us, or this other map, and we dare not use it yet, then perhaps we can hide it."
"In here?" Talberth said and looked around at the empty room.
"I can render it invisible," said Ivo.
"Yes, but not insubstantial," Talberth replied. "The giants already are using illusions to mask these things in the first place. I can't see them believing just their eyes if they find them missing."
"Hey!" called Harold. "The others are returning."
The concealed door opened up and Gytha came running in. She quickly passed by the trapped floor and ran up to Telenstil.
"We smelled strong smoke back at the stairs and Harald has gone up to see how the fire is spreading," she said in one long breath.
"That big fool," Harold shook his head.
"Harald is no fool, but your concern speaks well of you," Gytha chided. "I do not think we need worry about the giants coming down from those stairs just yet."
"Good, then we have a bit more time," said Telenstil.
"To do what?" asked Talberth.
"To hide the chain and map," Telenstil replied. "You are correct, just masking them with invisibility is not enough. And I want a chance to study that map at the very least."
The two scouts returned while the others spoke. They dumped the packs they carried to the floor although they were more careful with their own.
"Where is mine?" Henri asked them.
"Oh," Gytha said and smiled at the haughty cleric. "I brought it for you."
Henri looked aghast. He stood there with his hands at his side and Gytha, seeing that he would not take the pack from her, let it fall to the floor.
"You're welcome," she said and turned her back.
"I have an idea," said Harold. The thief looked back down to the trap set in the floor. "I'll spring that trap and we can hide them inside."
"I don't like it," said Talberth. "We don't know what that trap will release; poison gas, set off some alarm, who knows."
"Harold, is such possible?" asked Telenstil.
"Sure, anything is possible, but giants aren't normally so subtle," the thief argued.
"No, and they don't normally use illusions to hide their treasure," said Talberth.
"I agree with Talberth," Ivo spoke up. "Best thing to do with a trap is to avoid it, not set it off."
"Well, it was only a suggestion," Harold crossed his arms and looked a little peeved.
Harald came running back down the hall. Inside the room the others stood and argued about what next to do.
"Telenstil!" he called to the elf. "The fire has spread above us. The room where you found the map must be burning."
"That is good news," Telenstil looked pleased.
"What do you mean?" asked Talberth. "We are trapped down here then."
"Nonsense," said Telenstil. "My friend you have become gloomy and hidebound since we last met. There is that gate and beyond that some beasts which we can tend to. I feel sure there is some way out beside those stairs. And worse comes to worse we can use the magic chain that you have found."
"What is it that you want to do?" said Talberth. "It is this map, isn't it?"
"You read me like a scroll," said Telenstil. "Yes, now that we need not worry about giant visitors from above let us unroll this map and see what it shows."
Harald came over to the stone chest and looked inside. He lifted out the chain letting the cold links run through his hand. "Strange treasure this," he said.
"Careful there!" Talberth nearly shouted. "That's a magical device."
"Looks like iron mongery to me," the ranger said. He held the long chain in his two hands and put it carefully back into the box.
"Look at that," Talberth called to Telenstil. "He can carry that chain easily. We need not leave it behind."
"Yes, one forgets that heavy is a relative term," said Telenstil. "Harald, that chain, would it weigh you down?"
"That?" Harald glanced into the stone box at the metal chain. "Oh, it's heavy enough, but I can carry it if you like. It's magic you say?"
"So it seems," said Telenstil. "Harald, while you are there please pull out that map from the barrel next to you."
The ranger grabbed the tall barrel and pushed it to its side. It crashed to the ground and rocked back and forth. He pulled the map out, it was rolled up like a carpet, and spread it across the floor.
"What does this say?" Harald asked.
"I thought you understood the giants' tongue," said Talberth.
"I can understand, yes, but I only know a little of their writing. Some of this I can make out," the ranger pointed to a symbol here and there. "That means cold or snow, and that means bear, that's the symbol for guard, and that," he pointed to the center of map, "means big bug. It looks like some kind of valley with ledges and caves all around it. That symbol means slippery and next to it means ice."
"This is the home of a frost giant lord," said Telenstil pouring over the monstrous map. "A Jarl, Grugnur, lord of the north, it says. This must be Nosnra's ally to the north. Those giants you fought before, they must have been sent from him."
"This map, it is for Nosnra," said Talberth. "It's written in the hill giant script and there, look, it is a guide to guest's chambers and an audience hall, but it shows little else."
"It is disappointing," said Telenstil. "No need to worry about leaving it behind. Talberth, you have a good and steady hand, please copy what you can of this."
"But Telenstil, we do not have the time," the mage protested.
"We have a little time, and I will lend my hand to opening that gate across the way and putting down those manticores if need be. That will give you some time to make a rough copy of this map."
"All right. I have a charcoal stick and a blank scroll sheet in my pack," Talberth said and went to retrieve both.
Harald and the two scouts heaved at the gate but could not lift it.
"Is it locked in place?" asked Ivo.
"No," the thief answered. "It's just heavy as a horse."
"It's not going to budge," said Harald. The ranger stood up and stretched, they could hear the bones in his back give small pops. "Uggh! That's better, worked the kinks out at least."
"I see no other way than to use a spell. It is one of the most powerful that I know." said Telenstil. "Please stand back."
The others all moved away from the metal bars. Telenstil drew out a small dark stone from his belt and pointed it toward the gate. "Tee-Ja" he said and a pale green light shot out. It played against the bars and in an instant they were gone. Nothing remained but a purplish dust on the floor. A section higher than their heads and wider than a man lying on the ground had disappeared, destroyed by the mage's spell. "Now let us see to those manticores," said Telenstil.
"I've seen enough of them already," Harold replied emphatically and rubbed his wounded arm.
The room beyond was vast and dimly lit. Harold told them all he'd seen, the piles of chests and coffers against the western wall, the sign of traps his shaman's magic powder had revealed and the second metal gate closed along the southern wall. The manticores had sent their spikes from behind the bars and wounded him near to death.
"I'll go help Talberth with the map," he told them and slipped back across the hall into the hidden room.
"We may need him yet again," said Telenstil. "I will need to rest before I can cast that spell once more. If we are to enter into that southern room we will need to find a way to remove those bars."
"Shall I go and get him back?" asked Gytha.
"Not yet, we will deal with these manticores first... hmm..." the elf became lost in thought. "No... I can hold them frozen with a spell, I think, but only for a short time. There is no way that I know of short of slaying them outright. What of you? And Henri, is there any way to immobilize these beasts without harm?"
"Manticores, they are an abomination in the True God's sight. They can only be cast out and removed from their existence on the Oerth," Henri intoned.
"That would be a no, I'd say," said Gytha. "And I can do nothing that would keep them from harming us except to harm them worse."
"Henri is right," said Harald. "These are evil beasts, if I found one sleeping in the woods I would kill it quick before it could do anyone more harm."
Telenstil gave a sigh. "I have no love for such creatures myself, but I never kill unless I have to, I have seen too much death in my life already. But I have the means. I will try to make this quick. Stay here but prepare yourself, just in case my magic fails."
Telenstil removed a small turtle shell from his belt, he had the leather ringed with pockets; each held some component for his spells. "Em-En-Et!" he intoned and the shell became a mist which surrounded him then disappeared. He walked out to the center of the room and called to the manticores behind the southern bars. They howled and screeched and shot their spikes, flung from tails and barked out curses when they saw that they could not strike the mage. Telenstil approached, he saw that four of the man-faced creatures were within the room. They lined the bars; their lion-bodies flashed out razor claws and tried to reach beyond their prison door. The mage backed away and when he had moved far enough he drew out a small crystal rod, "Sa-La-Ma!" he said. The rod became a streak of blue, the air burned as it passed. The bolt was a wide blue-white, living thing. It struck the manticores and froze them to the metal bars. They crackled beneath the electric pulse and sagged as it flashed past. Their hair ignited into flame but before they could voice even a single howl the bolt came back. It struck the cold stone wall behind them and doubled round and lit them up again. Telenstil blinked and walked to the southern gate. Four burnt bodies lay against the bars. He turned and looked away. "Go get our thief. Tell him all is safe."
* * *
The hammer fell from Ansgar's aching hands. Atheling watched out the southern window and Hugolin had run down the stairs to get help, but Ansgar could ring the warning alarm no more.
"Atheling, take another turn," said Ansgar. "My arms are burning."
Atheling did not reply, Ansgar had to give him a shove. The giant turned and took two rolled up bits of cloth from his ears. Ansgar did the same.
"What is it?" Atheling asked.
"Take a turn at the alarm," said Ansgar. "My arms are about to drop off."
"I don't know why we are bothering," Atheling picked up the hammer with one hand and put his earplugs back in. "No one seems to be listening. Smell that smoke? The steading's on fire! What is going on down there?"
"I don't know," Ansgar shook his head. "Hugolin will be back to tell us, but the orders are to ring the alarm till we are told to stop."
"If that fire comes any nearer I'm not going to stand around banging on some metal bar," replied Atheling.
He raised the hammer and sent out the jarring sound again while Ansgar hastily filled his ears with rolls of cloth. Ansgar wondered what was going on as well. They had heard nothing since the maid Alditha had come to tell them of some disturbance in the hall. After the pretty young giantess had run off they had waited for some time then sent Hugolin out to find out what was going on.