Celo stepped back behind the dubious protection of a young tree, then threw himself to one side as the greatsword, wielded lightly in one hand by the dark-haired giant, sliced straight through the tree in a spray of splinters, bisecting the air where a moment ago the young rogue had stood!
“We need to clump together!” Bardic shouted, as with his return run, the giant ran over the top of Alleto rolling him over and over in the undergrowth. As the giant began his run back, most of the six clustered near the only reasonable-size tree for protection. Vorel and Celo watched their chance to loose from safety, and Morath his chance to take the giant unawares.
“Ishtar’s tits!” Alleto swore; staggering back under another mighty blow. Seeing his chance, Bardic ran in – ducking below the giant’s swing – bellowing a war cry and slamming his broad-axe into the giant’s flank!
Morath closed in, ramming his short sword to its hilt in the tough hide protecting the giant’s thigh. Vorel and Celo sent shafts humming through the undergrowth, finding their mark. Edric ran in to join the melee, his quarterstaff smacking in! Alleto powered a two-handed blow into the giant and with a last arrow or two the monster uttered a despairing cry and fell, writhing in his death-throes.
Morath swiftly and brutally made sure of the kill, blood gouts spattering the foliage around the corpse. Bardic picked up the two-hander. He grunted with disappointment: the grips were thick-bound with rawhide strip, making it near-impossible to wield. Edric joined him eagerly.
“Hmm, fine quality. But see: this socket on the pommel ought to have a gem.”
“Probably shattered on some poor fool’s helm,” guessed Bardic.
“It’s an Aquilonian great-sword,” Vorel observed. “Nothing ancient or mysterious there Edric. But excellent craftsmanship.”
“Alleto’s already gone to get his gear – are we going back to the horses or what?” Celo asked.
“Hush!” Vorel urged. A pause ensued. “No – all’s quiet!”
“But the giant did call his brothers as we set to,” reminded Morath. “We do need to decide what we’re doing.”
“They could be many hours away,” Edric mused, “but some of us are hurt again.”
“And these woods, though good for ambush, favor the giants,” Bardic adjudged. “What say you, Vorel?” Most of the crew had grown to respect Vorel’s eye for ground, scant though he admitted it to be. After some brief debate they gathered at the horses and began slinging gear on their backs.
“Take all that you would not like to lose,” Bardic reminded the others, “we may not be back for days.”
All were weighed down with costrels, ration bags, armor, weapons and other gear. Alleto in particular was festooned with weapons while Vorel had three quivers bumping clumsily along with his longbow. Ears were pricked: Vorel and Bardic had heard the sound of large things moving quickly, north and south of their path.
About half an hour away from the horses, they heard, faint on the wind, the screams as the beasts were butchered. A dejected feeling came over even the most optimistic.
“So, we’re afoot from here on,” Bardic stated flatly.
The Fight at the Ruins
Vorel gazed around from his strong-point atop the crumbled wall. Beside him, Celo stirred uncomfortably, sleep eluding him despite his tiredness. Outside the walls and upslope about 20 feet, a bonfire burnt, acting as both balefire and lure to the giants up in their stronghold. Below inside the ruin, Edric Bardic and Alleto rested or slept some feet away from a good size fire. Morath – though Vorel had to take the Zamorian’s word for this – was stationed immediately below the strong-point, watching the inner fire.
Then with mighty roars, two giants – one red-haired, one blonde – burst out of the nearest stand of trees and raced down to the balefire! There was no need for Vorel’s warning cry, sent as he arced an arrow into the blonde-headed giant. He dropped flat as an answering rock whipped out from the blonde’s hand and above him!
The red-headed giant angled his run on, around the ruin’s corner and below the archers. The blonde, mighty axe raised, vaulted over the crumble abbey walls, and closed with Bardic, smashing him down and across, skidding by the fire, blood gushing from his mouth!
“Mitra!” Edric gasped, half-inclined to flee. But Alleto, cursing horribly, raced in to avenge his fallen comrade! The giant’s axe, back-swung, smashed him back, shattering his targe: but incredibly the Zingaran kept his legs pumping, two-handing his sword but off-balance, merely nicking the giant’s pelts. Edric sidled behind Alleto so as to use his staff’s reach. Morath sprang from cover like a dark-clad weasel, his short-sword biting deep behind the giant’s knee! From the strong-point, arrows thudded into the giant’s back!
With a bellow of pain the giant turned and grabbed Morath up, up – Morath’s blade cut into the massive forearm – then the Zamorian was flung against the ruined wall, ending upside down and dazed but still full of fight.
Alleto’s next blow was telling, and Vorel’s arrows thudded home. Celo shot a last arrow then looked for a tactical withdrawal: the red-headed giant had entered the ruins and could soon run up to the strong-point! He faded back behind Vorel, then stared wildly about with white-rimmed eyes: Vorel had jumped off! A thump and a gasp of pain from below suggested the landing had gone badly.
Edric raised Bardic’s head: the Cimmerian blinked painfully up at him! Grabbing his costrel, Edric dribbled strong, life-giving wine down the barbarian’s gullet.
“More… wine… by Crom!” Bardic gasped, tipping the costrel up and letting the contents sluice down his throat. “Dying is thirsty work!” He heaved himself to his feet, throwing clear the remains of his chain shirt. On the opposite side of the fire, Alleto dodged a wicked cut and cut back. Morath darted back in. Bardic let the red mists of fury feed his strength, grabbing up his axe and racing in again!
As the blonde giant, badly hurt, attempted to break free, he was cut deep again and unable to navigate the wall this time, killed like a coward, scrabbling at the ground and biting the rocks in his agony.
Racing up onto the strong-point the red-headed giant found his opposition gone – or at least so it appeared! Unnoticed, two hands grasped the crumbled, worn edge of the prominence. Hanging grimly below, bow slung about his neck, Celo waited for his chance to resume the defense.
The giant, seeing his brother dying, bellowed his war cry and leaped off! But the tricky light and uneven ground proved as difficult for him as for Vorel, and he fell prone. Vorel, raising himself painfully to his knees and still sucking in precious air, sent arrows thumping into him as did Celo from above. Alleto and Morath closed in and as he struggled to regain his feet, the last giant was done to death!
The Treasure of Astola
Edric worked on Bardic again as the barbaric rage that had fuelled the last effort ebbed. Vorel and Alleto, tired though they were, fashioned a lean-to near the old crypt, and dragged Bardic into it.
Morath scouted briefly up to the giant stronghold, and being sure there were no more giants, returned to suggest the group stretcher Bardic up there. And so it was.
The pit-dwelling, for so it could rightly be termed, was broad and deep for human scale. Bardic, rolled comfortably in some pelts, lazily inspected the interior in the reviving firelight and the light from a pewter candelabrum at the rear of the hold. Edric was inspecting a squat black lump, highlighted with a patch of silver, set to the left of the inner entrance as Bardic looked at it. Vorel and Alleto were cautiously testing some liquid found in hanging earthenware vessels. Morath and Celo were inspecting the giantish ornaments, including some beads dangling near Bardic’s over-size cot.
“This is a solid silver idol!” Edric exclaimed. He grunted as he attempted to move it. “It’s set deep – hard to say how deep – but has no supernatural antecedents as far as I know.”
“Meaning what?” Vorel grunted, spitting out the sickly-tasting beer he had been sampling.
“Meaning, no demon attached,” Edric explained.
“Bear claws, feathers, antler-horn… we took better loot in our first foray together against the Picts,” remarked Morath sourly.
Bardic’s gaze was drawn to the splendidly regular square hearthstone on which the fire now blazed. It was a dull gray-yellow. A small pulse began to tick in his neck.
“Edric,” he called, “perhaps that hearthstone has lost runes on it…”
The scholar needed no further urging, hurrying over to scrape some of the fire back. At first glance the stone was a disappointment, mottled with ash and grit. Edric flicked a pebble out from where it has become embedded… then rocked back on his heels, laughing gently.
“’And then he took every penny of the town’s treasure, and went and sat on it, back up on his hill’” Edric quoted, still chuckling. “Well boys, seems to me there are two questions…”
“I mean I know we’re all attached to our gear and hate to leave it…”
“How do we carry a three-foot square of gold out? And where do we carry it out to?”