Vorel changed his mind as the reaction from the pork battle set in. His limbs were weary and his clothing ragged. Right now, a long rest on a nice comfy bed of ferns sounded a lot better than pushing through the undergrowth on the trail of nine scattered horses! And it seemed Alleto and Morath were in the same condition.
Celo accepted the amendment in good spirit:
“Oh well, I’ll back you up, Bardic. In any case, the porkers have run off.”
Vorel stolidly set about the bivouac, helped by Alleto, who was limping from the pain of a gash. Edric rose and moved over to the weary Zingaran, extending his hands to let Mitra’s healing power flow through him. But to his consternation, instead of a mellifluous incantation, what emerged from his mouth was a squeaking rasp!
“Have you turned to the worship of some evil god, Alleto?” he croaked.
“By Mitra, it is not so!” Alleto protested.
All Edric could do, having tried and failed at a simple incantation to summon light, was pray for Mitra’s guidance, and hand out a couple of potions he had kept for emergencies.
Bardic and Celo returned, leading Blest, Bardic’s horse.
“We found a deadfall trap – my horse was under it!” Celo burst forth. Explanations followed.
The round-up continued, and by evening, all horses had been accounted for: they had four riding horses, three pack-nags onto which two saddles could be transferred, and the remaining riding horse – Edric’s – had been found dead down a pitfall.
“So we must decide whether to follow the game trails – on which this giant seems to have set traps – or make our way back to the road before continuing,” Vorel summed up. After a short debate, he and Bardic agreed, with some hesitation, to work west using the game trails, walking the horses.
Out of the woods
Bardic, leading the file the next morning, stopped and looked back over the line. The ground had been rising very gently and the woods, thinning again. It was a warmer day, and a few butterflies played in glades and meadows. They could now see most of the canopy of the woods behind and below them. Ahead to the north and west, the ground rose toward a line of low hills. And behind those, a far blue line of more jagged peaks:
“Why, we must have travelled clear across the Border Kingdom!” whispered Edric, guessing that the mountains were those that border Cimmeria.
Bending their course south, the six easily found the lost road. Goats rather than deer seemed to be the main wildlife, keeping their distance but showing little fear of the intruders. As they followed the road roughly north-east, the noise of a stream could be heard, and eventually its line traced, coming from the right, where it seemed to spring east from a low hill then bend its course south across the road. A line of deeper green showed that its bed was home to thick bushes.
On reaching the near bank of the stream however, they realized that – whatever its state in times past – its bed was now too deep and its sides too sheer to cross with horses. Bardic and Vorel decided to search uphill for a crossing-point to begin with. The others rested, on guard. It had not been a particularly restful night, listening to small predators scavenging the pig carcasses.
The two found a gravelly ford well up the hill: goat prints were well in evidence, but other prints as well:
“Look there! – You see – he’s stepped on the stones, but his foot, too large, leaves its mark! We have found a hill and we have found a giant – our quest is nearly over, I think,” Bardic predicted.
They returned, to find the group uneasy and very willing to move away from the road. Having crossed the ford, they followed a thin goat-track onto the upper slopes. Not far away and below, several lines of young trees ran along the hill, the older lower down. It was a natural phenomenon but the trees provided good cover, should there be unfriendly eyes watching.
“Here, Celo, you have sharp eyes: take this cordial, and look carefully about,” Edric croaked as clearly as he could. Having swigged it down, Celo stared about him. “I do see something – manlike, but big – hiding behind those trees!”
It was midday. Bardic and Vorel once again scouted, this time up the hill, to see if they could link anything there to the Tale’s “stronghold” now that they had located a hill that possibly belonged to Astola itself. Sheering away from the trees, the pair worked their way up, Vorel with his mighty Bossonian longbow and Bardic with his hunting bow.
Nearing the summit, the pair now saw, spread below, the course of the stream running off east of the hill they were on and away into the woods. On the lower slope a half-mile below them, a suspiciously regular rectangular patch seemed to pitch out of the hill-slope. Judging by its size, it could surely be a ruined town!
Gazing ahead at the scrub covering the hilltop, they perceived a darker patch, at first mistaken for a holly bush. Drawing closer they realized it was an opening about 30 feet below the summit itself, covered over with timber rounds! Drawing close still, Bardic could see a split-timber door dividing the logs, standing ajar. He crept softly closer… then threw himself aside, just in time, as a length of log hurtled down from the summit! A large manlike being had sprung erect there, flinging the log and crying a mighty shout! It reverberated off the dales around, summoning… who knew what?
Tumbling back to the party, no time was lost in agreeing to gain the regular shape, as it seemed to offer some defensible chances. Looking off to the woods, Morath saw a number of goats trot briskly away from their edge. Glancing back at the trees on the slope, Celo again saw a suggestion of movement…
Astola at last
Arriving at the lower slope, the six found a path – perhaps natural – leading up onto the long oblong. Granite blocks could be seen peeping from grassy humps and mounds. Against the northern or “uphill” side, a more definite rectangle of blocks and paths could be picked out. Vorel made his way to the highest point, finding grass-grown steps leading to a stone platform of some sort, perhaps the corner of a wall. He could see Edric picking his way alone to the east of the area, and kneeling to pray. Off in the smoother centre of the ruin, the others were tethering horses. Closer to hand, a shadowed depression attracted his notice. When Edric at last stood, he waved and guided him to it by calls and hand-signals.
Edric and Bardic, who had joined the scholar, gazed down a steep, root-tangled slope at timber rounds, blocking off some underground entrance. “It should lead under the Abbey,” wheezed Edric in his ragged whisper.
Bardic’s battleaxe hewed into the timber, and Edric joined him in prizing away first one then a second. The gap revealed a musty, earth-and stone-smelling cellar. Bardic returned with a torch, and eased his way in.
The cavity proved more than a mere cellar: it was a long, vaulted crypt, extending most of the way under what must have been the Abbey. The vault was dominated by an altar, on which rested dusty bones – but what bones! As Edric joined the Cimmerian they gaped and murmured: the massive skull, the mighty thigh-bones – these surely were the remnant of a giant! The glint of gold drew Bardic close: a necklace of pierced gold coins and bear-teeth moved swiftly into the barbarian’s pouch. Edric turned over the other ornaments curiously, but decided they were of scant worth.
Around the vault walls, reliquaries and stacked naked bones showed that the monks had used this as an ossuary. Edric explained the concept of ossuary to Bardic as he stooped and fingered loose bones on the floor:
“Something’s nibbled on these after they were dry. Huh.” The Cimmerian cast about for spoor, but the vault seemed deserted. “I think we have a safe haven for the night,” he remarked.
A fair-size bale-fire was built at the top of the root-tangled slope, and the horses tethered near the fire. They seemed restless. After a meal of simmered iron rations, the watch stood to.
Alleto’s shout was superfluous: the second watch had been interrupted by the noise of a horse being slaughtered, another fleeing, and the remaining horses neighing in fright. He extended his crossbow towards the entrance, and let fly at a dim great shape: the bolt smacked into the timber harmlessly.
Outside, Vorel was clearly stunned by the impact of a mighty blow. Virtually helpless, he was lifted into the air. Bardic squeezed out then leapt forward to drive his sword into the giant’s thigh, only to be smashed to the ground as Vorel was slammed onto him! Clearly enjoying himself, the giant repeated the exercise, and another giant swung a mighty length of timber!
Morath, slinking around the outskirts of the pit, dropped out of sight to wait his chance: there were three giants gathered around the defenders! The third, nearest the horses, clutched a massive broadaxe of some type.
Alleto swung his bastard sword lustily as Edric and Celo pulled the dazed Cimmerian back into the dubious safety of the vault. Seeing his chance, Morath darted up out of cover, slamming his short sword in behind the giant’s knee: with startling results: bawling with pain like a youngster, the giant fled, the other two following!
Back into the woods
Morning found the six, two of them the worse for wear, pulling back to the denser woods where they had found traps. Taking counsel, they had decided to lay for a single giant and attempt to bring one down. The stray pack nag had not returned, nor had Bardic caught it up. They were now a horse short.
Two days later, sitting quietly in wait with Morath and Vorel, Bardic’s keen ears detected a susurration through the trees near the game trail trap they were watching. The three slunk out, spreading out into a triangle formation. This time, the boot would be on the other foot!