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Against the Giants

Against the Giants

Ru Emerson Against the Giants


    The morning of 14 Harvester dawned muggy and too warm in theremote Keoland hill village of Upper Haven. The newly risen sun cast a ruddy pall over a crossroad just beyond the last huts as Yerik, the sturdily built, gray-bearded village headman, emerged from the hut that he shared with his mother. They had shared the small dwelling ever since his father and young wife had died of fever twelve years earlier. His beloved Aleas had been heavy with their first child, and the grief over their loss had hit him so that he hadn’twed again, taking the village as his family instead.
    So far, Upper Haven’s year had not been a good one. The youngbaron had died of fever the preceding winter, leaving no heir. Since his death, there had been none of the usual hunting parties through the area. Baron Hilgenbran, who had paid in silver for all supplies needed at his lodge-fromfowl and eggs for his table to wood for the enormous firepits-had been a sternbut fair ruler. Without him, there had not been the usual drain on Upper Haven’slimited resources, but there had been no coin either.
    The village’s chickens hadn’t increased properly, thanks tothe icy winter that had hung on well through Readying, and spring had been unusually cold and wet, lasting well into planting season-in mourning for thebaron, some said. Whatever the cause, the grain hadn’t sprouted until nearlymid-Wealsun, and some of it was still underground at summer’s longest day. Bythis late date, the wheat and oats should have been threshed and stored in watertight clay jugs down in the communal root cellars where they would keep the winter.
    Now, with the grain barely ripe, even the youngest farmer of Upper Haven could look at that ruddy eastern sky and predict heavy rain by nightfall.
    “There’ll be lightning,” Yerik predicted gloomily, his eyesfixed on the ruddy sky where the sun would soon rise, “and fires down where wepasture the goats and horses. It was too wet all spring, and it’s been too drysince.”
    His mother stepped on to the small porch just behind him, deftly working her long white hair into a thick plait. Gran seemingly had no other name-at least none that the villagers could remember. Old as she was, hermemory was astonishingly sharp. She nodded. “Like the year-was it almost fortyyears ago? — year 546, yes. A bad one, everything on-end. It was too wet allsummer, too dry in fall, and a poor harvest because of it. What grain there was rotted when rain fell before we could reap.” She fastened the plait with a bitof faded blue ribbon. “At least the rain put out the fires that year. And it’sour good fortune that you were clever enough to call on High Haven to come in and stay last night, should the grain be ready today.”
    She glanced toward the low stable, usually empty this time of year since the herds grazed out all year except snow season. At the moment, the stable threshing floor was packed with High Haveners-twenty men from the uppervillage, who would exchange labor now for flour and fodder come winter. Fifteen young women who had come down from the mountain with them had taken over the common house for the night.
    Yerik sighed heavily. “The grain will have to beready. We’ve no choice.”
    “Yes. The crop is your business today, son. Remember that ifwe go hungry this winter, those who like placing blame will blame you. Worse still, we’ll lose Bregya, and she is a fine tanner.”
    The headman nodded. “We’d also lose her father. Digos has notbeen well the entire year. A better b’lyka player we’ve never had.”
    “True.” Gran flipped the braid over her shoulder and camedown the step to stand beside him. “Organize everyone able to help in some way.The herders are a sturdy lot. They’ll give you good time, and old Haesk and hisbrother can help keep watch over the babes. Get little Adisa to help Bregya tend her small ones. Take blankets so they can sit under the trees and weave us wreaths from the stems for good fortune. Make a game of it for the youngest. The children are useful at finding all the loose wheat-heads, if you plan it right.”
    Yerik nodded and smiled.
    Gran patted his arm. “Yes. I see you remember the game I madeof it, when you were a small boy. Leave me Mibya and her sister. I’ll need themto start pots of soup for everyone. We’ll eat together once the crop is safelyinside.”
    “Good.” He rubbed his hoary beard and nodded. “That will freeup more of the women to help. The rain may hold off until middle night. It has that look. Still, we’ll get the crop in as quickly as we can. Remember Lharisand his son are out hunting. They should return with meat.”
    “Should,” she agreed with a smile. “We won’t count on it,though.”
    “No, but old Mikati swears he saw an entire herd of deer onthe northeast plain two days ago. You know Lharis. If there’s a herd anywherenear, he’ll bring in at least one.”
    “I will count deer only when I can touch them,” Gran replied.“I’d welcome meat, but if not, we’ll manage. We always do.” She gazed at theeastern sky with visible misgivings. “I wish I liked the look of this morningbetter.”
    “You”-he eyed her sidelong-“recall a day like this?”he asked tentatively, emphasizing the word that also meant accessing the oral village history passed down to her, mother to daughter, wisewoman to apprentice, for all the years Upper Haven had been a village.
    She shrugged. “No. I’m merely worried. We know the weatherhas been erratic all year, and it will play us foul if it can. Go, shoo.”
    Yerik nodded absently. His eyes were fixed on the horizon, and she doubted he’d heard her. “Do you see an omen?” he whispered.
    “None of that!” she hissed. “They’ll not take it well-ourpeople or the highlanders-to hear you say ‘omen’! Keep everyone busy asyou can. The other women and I will bring midday food to you. Why”-she laughedsoftly-“we’ll make a picnic of it, and then a holiday tonight, especially ifyoung Lhors and his father bring us game. Offer your reapers a proper harvestfest, dancing and music and a feast, good barley and beet soup with honeyed flat bread Filling stuff, even if there isn’t venison. A chance for theyoung men of the highlands to properly meet our girls.”
    “And the other way about.” Yerik smiled. His young wife hadcome from High Haven at just such a small harvestfest. He patted his mother’scheek. “What will we do,” he murmured, “when you finally leave this world for abetter?”
    She clasped his hand. “I do nothing special. I’m simply awoman with long years and a good memory. The village does as much for me as I do for the village-just as we keep an old warrior like Lharis happy by making himhuntsman for all of us and letting him teach his skills to our boys. I can still cook, and I can see patterns that repeat over time.”
    “You make it sound so… so ordinary,” he protested.
    “It is ordinary, thank all the gods at once,” she assuredhim. “Certain things occur, now and again-like a too-wet planting season.” Shereleased his hand. “Get everyone out there. We’ll bring black bread, apples, andale at midday.” Her gaze moved beyond him toward the sunrise, and she lookedbriefly troubled. Before her son could question her though, she shook off the mood and shooed him away.
    Yerik straightened his tunic, settled the thick belt around his middle, then strode off into the midst of the village, rapping on one door and then another before he vanished into the stable to waken their visitors.
    Gran watched him go, nodding approvingly. The harvest would be in and safely dry before the storm hit. Nothing else mattered, except keeping the morale of both villages high.
    She drew a thread from the ragged hem of a sleeve and wound it around her finger so that she would remember to have the common room readied after the soup was simmering. There’d be no dancing in the open square thisnight-not for long, at least. The ache in her bones told her that this would bethe kind of storm her long-dead husband had called a giant killer.
    An interesting name, she thought. Why it was called that, however… She didn’t know for sure. Probably because it described a truefury of a storm, a storm that hit just short of midnight and pulverized the senses with forks of lightning and sent thunder to set the dogs howling and make the elders glad their ears no longer worked so well.
    After a full day under that hot, muggy sky, most of the harvesters would be exhausted, only the young still willing to dance. With luck, the worst of the storm wouldn’t hit until the children were sound asleep.
    She’d best remember to tell Yerik to make sure a few of thevillagers had enough energy to patrol the fields. Lightning-fires could devastate what few grazing lands they had.
    She shoved the braid over her shoulders. Storm weather was making her feel broody and old, but there was work to do. She glanced toward the sunrise one last time before setting to her tasks. The sun had cleared the distant peaks and now seemed merely a little too bright. West, the mountains were still a dark mass, smothered in black towering cloud.

    Out in the fields, the harvest went on as the sun rose tomidday and fell toward the ever-thickening cloud in the west. Women and men, bent nearly in half, worked their way efficiently backward down the ranks of dry plants, grabbing a fat handful of stems and scything them right at the dirt before dropping them in place and moving on to the next handful. Behind them, others came to free a single stalk and use it as a binding cord around the rest. Boys and young women followed, gathering up the bundles and carrying them to the two handcarts, while children picked up whatever had fallen and tossed it into baskets.
    Yerik allowed a decent break for midday meal, knowing people would be able to work harder and longer for food and a short nap. The weather still held off, but the late afternoon air was pale gold and utterly still, as if some god had distilled it.
    The sun was still a full hand above the clouds when the last basket was picked up and the carts were hauled back under the stable’s low rooffor the night. Abandoning the carts and baskets, villagers and their guests went to remove the layers of dust and chaff-coated sweat before gathering in the village square where two black pots bubbled, spreading the soothing odor of a familiar soup.
    Night came early, with a rising wind and heavy black clouds that blotted out the western mountains and even the near foothills. Thunder grumbled in the distance, and occasionally the western sky was briefly pale with lightning. But the air was cool and fresh for the first time in long hours, and the rain held off.
    After everyone had eaten well, Dikos broke out his three-stringed b’lyka, while Mikati unpacked the four flat drums from their hidecase, settling them on his broad lap. People cheered and clapped as the two consulted before finally breaking into the familiar jigging tune they always played first. For some moments they played to an empty square while some of the older women clapped time. Then Emyas tugged her newly pledged Arkos to his feet, and got him dancing. Others joined them. A half dozen of the girls got up and formed a circle, dancing, giggling at the boys and at each other. Gran and the other cooks settled back, pleasantly tired, to watch and occasionally gossip about the dancers or those who sat close together, chuckling as they wagered on which would be the next pair to pledge.
    Song followed song as evening deepened into night.
    All at once, the air turned much cooler. Lightning forked across the southwestern hill country and thunder rumbled, louder and closer to the flash of light. The two players set aside their instruments as a gust of wind blew across the ground, sending a swirl of dust and cook-fire smoke high. At that moment, a dark, bulky man in leathers came into the open light, followed closely by a youth of perhaps seventeen years. The older man carried a strung bow in one hand and a drawn sword in the other-unusual in a peaceful village.His face, normally expressionless, was set and grim. Yerik wove between the suddenly stilled dancers, the old woman right on his heels.
    “Lharis, Lhors, what is it?” the headman demanded in a lowvoice. Lharis held a finger against his mouth and made a warning glance at the gathered villagers. His son Lhors was pale to the lips. Lharis beckoned urgently, drawing Yerik and his mother under their porch.
    “Giants,” he murmured. “We were crossing the fallow ridge atsunset to get help bringing in the kill, and we saw two giants, hulking brutes twice my height and breadth at least. I don’t think they saw us. They wereangling away from here, north and west, but they seemed curious and interested in what they saw. We had to go to ground for some time until we were certain they’d left.”
    Lhors swallowed. His two thrusting spears clattered together.
    “We’d better ready for an attack,” the retired warrior addedevenly.
    “Ready? Attack? Against-?” Yerik’s voice broke.
    The other man nodded firmly. “Hold together, man. It’s notimpossible. We’ve a few who can use bow or spears. Find them, and warn them tomove quietly but quickly to fetch their arms. Meanwhile, you get everyone else out of sight and kept quiet.” He glanced over at Gran. “See that those fires areput out. With luck, the creatures aren’t after this village, and they may notknow exactly where it is.”
    He didn’t believe that last, Gran realized, her own mouthdry. “If we tell people what the threat is, everyone will panic,” she said.
    Lharis shook his head.
    “No, don’t do that. Just say there’s a danger. Say it’sbandits. Get the women and children to the root cellars where they won’t beheard. Pick some of the older boys to douse all those torches and ready as many others as we have, once they’ve put out the cook fires. Put them down next tothe oven and keep it lit. The flames won’t show, and the torches will be rightthere to light, when it’s time.” The aged warrior eyed the headman, who wastrying to say something. “Cheer up, Yerik. Giants aren’t immortals. They can dieas readily as men.”
    Lightning flashed, and thunder boomed almost on its heels, shaking the ground. “No one should be out in this anyway. Get our people undercover because the storm’s setting up strong. I saw only the two, Yerik. Our mencan deal with two giants.”
    “Deal… with…” Yerik echoed blankly.
    “Do what he says, my son. Go!” Gran gave him a shove. Shewaited to be sure he was moving in the right direction then turned back to the two hunters. “Your spears, Lhors, have you more of them?”
    The boy stared at her, his eyes wild, then jumped convulsively as a small child screamed. The village flared with blue light, thunder cracking on top of it. Gran felt the hair stand up on her head and arms. She turned to see terrified people suddenly running in all directions, her son standing in the middle of the square staring up into the trees. And up. Darkness was followed in a blink by a brilliant blue-white flash that cast strange shadows.
    “That isn’t one of our oaks,” Gran said to herself. Suddendread seized her as lightning illuminated trees, roofs, and a huge snarling face looming above the roofs.
    The heavily bearded giant was more than twice her size, and most of his head was covered in a metal cap. His body was clad in heavy-looking hides that bared massive arms, and several long spears dangled from one meaty hand.
    Bellowing, part laugh and part battle cry, the giant strode forward into the square, hefting an enormous spear as he searched for a target. Panicked villagers streamed in every direction-all except for one. Lharis stoodin the midst of the chaos, waving his sword and trying to direct the hysterical crowd. The giant spotted him and hurled its massive spear straight for him. The deadly missile sang through the air and slammed into the warrior.
    Lharis choked. He was knocked off his feet a man’s length ormore before he went down. Blood-too much blood-ran down his chin. His handsclawed at the thick wooden haft that swayed above his belly and pinned him firmly to the ground.
    “Father!” Lhors’ voice cracked into treble. He threw himselfat the older man. Lharis tried to speak, but no words came. His eyes found Gran. She nodded, caught Lhors by the shirt and dragged him back.
    “Don’t!” she shouted. “That’s a killing blow. You can’t helphim. You’ll only cause him more pain, and he knows it! Get all the children youcan and get them to the cellars. Go!”
    “I can’t!”
    “You can! Go!”
    The boy glanced back at his father. Lharis lay still, his hands suddenly limp at his sides and his eyes staring sightlessly up. Lhors shuddered and turned away.
    Gran paused to take stock. People were running in all directions, girls screaming shrilly, men bellowing and cursing. A hideous, deep laugh drowned them out. The giant who’d killed Lharis stepped into the square,overturning the empty soup pot as he shouted what must be an order, but she couldn’t understand a word of it. Three more giants-huge-muscled, fur-andhide-clad brutes-immediately came from the trees to stride after the villagersfleeing into the stable. Somewhere beyond them, she could hear her son shouting, “No! Don’t go in the buildings! Get out of the stable! Get to the stream or thecellars!”
    She turned back to see what she could do. Across the square, much too near the still ruddy fires and the giant who’d killed Lharis, she couldsee Mibya and her nearest sister. They’d scooped up four of the little ones, andthe sister bent her head over the two children she held, letting dark cloth hide her white hair as she edged cautiously sideways. With a sudden spurt of movement, the woman turned and ran between two huts and vanished into the night, but Mibya stared up, frozen in place.
    The wisewoman yelled at her, but Mibya either didn’t hear orwas too terrified to move. The giant flung back a hide cloak, sheathed his sword, and bent down to shove a finger in the still nearly full pot of soup.
    That’s boiling, Gran thought, stunned. But if it burned him,he gave no sign. He licked broth from his finger, then smiled, baring yellowed teeth the size of shields, and moved with appalling speed, slapping Mibya aside with the back of his fist. With one swift bound and a snatch, the giant scooped up the children she’d been carrying and dropped them into the boiling soup. Heclapped a round shield over the open top, holding it down with one huge hand.
    Gran could hear Mibya shrieking. Her own legs wouldn’t holdher. Mibya’s voice died suddenly. Probably the woman had as well. Gran squaredher shoulders and crawled to where Lhors still knelt and caught hold of his ear. She tugged. Finally, he crawled after her into the dark. She kept a pinch-hold on his ear. He whimpered and flailed ineffectively at her. “Stop it!” shehissed. “There is no time! Stay out of the light and gather up as many of thewomen and children as you can without being seen!”
    “But…” He couldn’t manage anything else.
    Gran slewed around in front of him to pinch his other ear as well. “Listen to me!” she ordered in a furious whisper. “We will lose many ofour dearest ones this night. It’s too late to stop that! All we can do now isrescue every single soul the gods permit us to save! Do you understand me?”
    The giant who hovered over the soup pot removed his makeshift lid and gazed down at the interior. Her stomach churned. Apparently satisfied, he dropped the lid back with a ringing clatter, then strode off to help his fellows. Several of them had fished brands from the fire and were thrusting them deep into the stable roof.
    She could no longer hear Yerik, Gran realized bleakly. She forced herself to concentrate on the heaving boy who stared at her with wet, terrified eyes. “Getpeople into the cellars-not the new cellars, they’ll collapse! Or getdown to the lower dell or the stream. Find anyone hiding beneath the floors of houses. They’ll die if they stay there. Do you understand me, boy?”
    At first, she couldn’t be certain that he did. A glance overhis shoulder as more lightning flashed gave her a new count of enemy. At least ten more leather-clad brutes were approaching from the north.
    Lhors caught a shuddering breath, nodded sharply, then scrabbled away from her on his hands and knees into the darkness.
    Gran went flat and still as more giants stormed uphill from across the fields. If I’m stepped on, she prayed silently, let it kill me atonce.
    A woman’s scream topped even the thunder. The ground trembledall around her. For one brief moment, it was blessedly quiet. The stable went up with a crackling roar, and giants cheered. She clapped her hands over her ears and huddled next to dead Lharis as those trapped inside the building burned, while others fought free of the flames only to die on huge spears and swords.
    Something was bruising her ribs, she realized-the deadwarriors sword lay some distance away, but one of his daggers had fallen from its scabbard. Slowly, cautiously, she wrapped a hand around it and drew it from under her. The weight of the thing, the feel of the carefully wound leather wrappings around the hilt, gave her a little inner strength. At least she could choose her own death, if nothing else. She drew a deep breath and opened her eyes.
    There were at least twenty giants out there, most surrounding the fiery stable while others torched houses or went looking for herd beasts or other fodder. They’d consider human bodies the same as game, fodder for the pot.She didn’t dare stay here.
    May the gods bless you for your care of us, she silently offered Lharis, then eased cautiously away from his body and back into the dark.
    The roaring fires of burning houses and barns cast an uncertain light. Shadows of running villagers and stalking giants flickered and danced in the flames’ cruel glow. Gran moved through the darkness, avoiding thelight when she could and refusing to acknowledge the bloodied and broken corpses that littered her village.
    In the end, she was only able to rescue two young girls who had hidden under the back of the common house. Now smoke filled the building, flame shot through the thatched roof, and the back wall was uncomfortably warm. She could hear giants laughing down by the burning stable. Another was close but seemed to be occupied with plundering the henhouse. She couldn’t leave the twoanyway, Gran realized bleakly. She’d delivered young Ilina herself, ten yearsearlier.
    It took work and time to persuade the girls to leave the scrape they’d dug themselves, even though the boards were beginning to glow red.When a pocket of pine-resin popped, sending sparks showering in all directions, little Ilina fixed her eyes on Gran’s eyes, clamped her fingers around weepingNidyi’s wrist, and somehow got them both into the open just before the wholebuilding collapsed. Gran gripped Ilina’s fingers and felt hers gripped in reply.She fought them all away from the fire, dragging the girls across open ground and into the prickly brush.
    Horrid laughter echoed all around them, punctuated by occasional screams or howls of pain.
    The girls would have stopped at the brush, but the old woman was adamant. She tugged fiercely at them, now hissing an order against one young ear or another while dragging the two terrified girls downhill along a shallow gully. Numb from terror, they stumbled into the narrow-mouthed cavern where just hours earlier she’d emerged with a basket of barley and a freshly mixed bag ofherbs for the soup. She got the two inside ahead of her and waited while they eased their way back into darkness.
    The cries of her people tore at her. She clutched the dagger, but the urge was foolish-one old human woman against so many giants, the leastof them twice her height. She’d die to no cause, and these two girls would surelydie as well.
    She gasped as booming laughter drowned everything, including thunder. The sky above her was blood red, then painfully blue-white. Thunder roared to deafen the very gods, but it couldn’t quite drown a spiraling roarthat shook her very bones. One of their enemies had just died up there. Rain suddenly poured down in sheets. She was soaked between one breath and another. All at once, the fires were diminished.
    Wind soughed over her. Gran’s nose twisted as she smelledburned hair and charred flesh. Thunder momentarily deafened her and drove her to her knees. When she could again hear, all she could hear was a deep, rumbling voice, bellowing orders that made no sense to her.

    Just after dawn, Gran coaxed the girls from hiding and backup the hill. Lharis’ dagger rested against her back the way she had seen himwear it. “In case,” she whispered, but Ilina and Nidyi didn’t hear her. Bothfollowed where she led, often stumbling. That was good. With luck, they’d neverremember the previous night. With better luck, she’d have no need of thatdagger. If she did, they were all three dead anyway.
    She moved cautiously into the square, the girls behind her. The enemy was long gone, leaving behind the burned husks of buildings. The dead lay everywhere. Oddly, the village goats grazed on spilled grain just beyond the ashes of the stable. Gran frowned. Why had the giants left goats and bodies behind? It wasn’t like any of the tales she’d heard.
    But she could see the answer right in the middle of the square. A dead giant sprawled across the open ground, his leather armor still smoldering and what skin she could see blackened as if by fire. She smiled grimly. A giant killer of a storm, yes. Lightning seeks whatever is tallest: tree, stone; sword set upright at a crossroads, or a giant in the midst of an otherwise barren square. The rest of his kind had fled rather than join him in death.
    Behind her, a twig snapped and she whirled, dropping Ilina’swrist and fumbling awkwardly for the dagger. But it was only Lhors, weaponless, his face haggard and tears making muddy paths down a filthy face. The dark beard he’d begun to show this past year was burned in places, and one eyebrow wasmostly gone.
    The girls remained where she left them. Lhors blinked at her expressionlessly, but as her fingers dug into his arm, he winced. Not in shock like the girls, then, just hurting. But there was no time for mourning-not foreither of them.
    “Boy,” she hissed.
    “G-gran?” he stuttered. “They’re dead. E-everyone. All ofthem.” His hand fell limp against his leg. “I tried what you said. I tried!”
    “Shhh. It’s all right,” she said quietly.
    “No, it’s not!” He pulled free of her grasp. “N-no one wouldlisten to me. They ran, and then I had Bregya and her youngest boy, and she l-looked at me and she… she…” He swallowed, turned away. “They’re alldead, except us,” he said finally.
    Gran patted his shoulder. There was nothing she could say that would mend this, and just now, she wanted to weep for her own son. But this boy… he kept things inside when he was upset. She didn’t dare let him do itwith this. “I’m sorry, Lhors. It’s a dreadful thing. At least you and yourfather did what you could to avert it. Remember that.”
    The boy’s eyes brimmed, and his lips twisted in anger. “Whyremember?” he managed, his voice thick with tears. “Will it change anything?”
    “Not now, but it will help you later.”
    He swore a soldier’s oath that shocked her silent. “I don’tcare about later! My father-he had no chance! He fought for the king all hisgrown life! And then, only to be cast off like an aging horse because he was too old to fight! To send him out here to protect peasants!”
    “And we were grateful to him. He gave us his skills, and hegave us you. Second-guessing a life is foolish, Lhors,” Gran said flatly. “Hedied a hero. Remember that.” She wrapped both arms around him briefly. “We can’tstay here, Lhors. There’s no time. The giants may return. Are you hurt?”
    He shook his head.
    “You’re certain no one lives?”
    He nodded.
    “You’ve checked the cellars beneath the houses that aren’tburned?”
    “All of that. There’s no one.” He gazed helplessly at thetwisted, blackened wreck of the stable.
    Gran closed her eyes briefly. “Lhors, we’ve work to do, youand I.”
    He nodded faintly. “I’ll fetch shovels-”
    “No, there are too many, and there are other immediate needs.One of us must go to High Haven at once to see if they were also attacked. If not, they must be warned of the danger, as must every village around us. I will have one of the High Haveners ride down to New Market with the warning and have him bring back men to dig graves or build pyres.”
    “But I can dig-”
    She laid a finger across his lips, silencing him. “No. Youhave another, harder task. You must catch Old Margit or one of the other horses and take the road to Cryllor. You must request an audience with Lord Mebree and inform him of what has happened. At the very least, you must warn the guard company there that giants have done this.”
    Lhors stared at her, his mouth slack. “Go to… Gran, whywould they care? And I can’t ride worth a-”
    “They’ll care,” the old woman replied bluntly. “Aboutrevenues at the very least. Dead villagers don’t pay taxes. But the guard willhave to stop giants who are bold enough to openly attack the way those did. Remember that this is not a plea for our lowly selves. Remember that. Keep this in mind instead: taxes. The king will send an army to keep the money flowing.”
    The boy swallowed, and his prominent throat-apple bounced. “Gran, you’re mad! You’d send me to convince a council? My father was only acaptain of one of the hill companies, and that was over twenty years ago!”
    “Yes, but that’s more than any of the rest of us ever were.You are the son of a soldier, and that’s more than anyone else can claim. Youare the only one we can send, Lhors. There is no one else. Now, remember to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ often, especially to officers and nobles. That may opendoors for you. Do not let them refuse to hear you, though.”
    “I can try,” Lhors said doubtfully, “but I won’t leave youhere alone. We’ll all go. If I can catch Margit, the girls can ride her to HighHaven. Then I’ll go on, I promise you.”
    To her dismay, Gran’s eyes filled with tears. She dashed themimpatiently aside. “Good lad. Go find Margit. We’ll wait here.”


    Old Margit was nowhere around. Lhors searched for the marefor nearly an hour before giving up. If the giants had not taken her, then she had fled too far away for him to find, so he returned to the husk of a village to fetch Gran and the girls.
    Before the sun was much above the horizon, Lhors, Gran, and the two children were on their way to High Haven. The first hour or so, they did not trust the road, fearing another attack by hiding giants. Instead, they stumbled their way through trees, brush, and the occasional creek. Their progress was excruciatingly slow, and after a while, Lhors urged them onto the road so that they could find refuge all the quicker.
    They reached the tiny herding village at midday. Gran and the girls remained there while the villages remaining able-bodied men readied their defenses and prepared to go back to Upper Haven to bury the dead. Lhors went on, carrying a flask of water, a few ripe apples, a bit of bread, and a clay jug of herbed oil to pour over it. Mostly, he ate and drank as he walked. Now and again, he ran when the road was smooth enough, though nightfall slowed him to a walk again.
    He reached a small garrison outpost in the hills just short of daybreak the next day. Fortunately, his father had friends among the small company of scouts who patrolled the surrounding hill country. Lhors had no trouble passing on word of the destruction in the foothills. He had rather hoped to be sent back to High Haven, but the captain, a tall, bearded man named Edro, had other ideas.
    “You’re young and trained by your pa, but no true soldier,lad. And you have cause to petition for a company to come and clean out these giants, if they’re still about. I’ll take some of my men and head to Upper Havenmyself to make sure the folk are safe and all. You better travel on up to Cryllor and let Mebree know what’s happened out here. So happens, your pa servedMebree before he retired. You stand a better chance of getting the lord’s earwhen someone like me might not.” He also ordered a horse, an old gelding with arough gait and a hard mouth, for the youth. “I’ll tell you truth, lad. No onehere wants to ride old Bruiser. But once he’s far enough away from his stable,he’ll cover the ground for you, faster’n you could do yourself.”
    There wasn’t much Lhors could do but agree to the addedjourney and take the horse-a raw-looking old white brute with long, brownishteeth and a pink nose that had been badly chewed on at some point. Bruiser was no better than Edro had promised, but the bone-jarring trot ate up distance.
    Late on the third day out of High Haven, he rode up to Cryllor’s double gate and gratefully handed the gelding’s reins over to theguard.
    Cryllor was an outpost, a fort that still resembled one, though these days it was the size of a small city. It was quite the biggest place Lhors had ever seen. Despite the grief that swaddled his mind and emotions and weighed on him like a stone, he couldn’t help but pay heed to sights thatranged from the exotic to amazing.
    The city was ancient and many-walled. As it had grown from a log-walled garrison to a minor fortress and finally to a city, it had expanded well beyond the original fortifications. Still, the lords of Cryllor had prudently maintained that innermost wall and made certain that new outer walls were built as needed. Some of the newer barriers had been razed as the city grew. The stone from the previous outer bastions was then used in the new ones or broken down to be remade into buildings or to pave new streets.
    The oldest three sets of walls remained in place. The innermost still enclosed Lord Mebree’s manor and served as a final defenseagainst any enemy strong enough to win through the main battlements and the city itself. The other two rings were each four man-lengths across-but hollow. Theystill served as barricade, barracks, stables, butteries, and weaponries for the lords armsmen.
    Since King Kimbertos had come to power, there had been no attacks anywhere around Cryllor. Lord Mebree’s city, once a strong fortress anda prosperous market, was nearly as infamous for its many slums and the well-entrenched thieves’ guild. Cutpurses and assassins were everywhere, as werethe poor. The markets gave over vast sections where the needy could find stale bread, overripe fruit, soft tubers, and sacks of grain and flour beginning to mildew. Sour-smelling food stands alternated with tattered blankets piled next to used clothing, discarded boots, ill-tanned hides, or bits of fabric and leather too small to serve those who could pay for better. One or two stalls sold partially used charms and spells, while fortune-tellers with greasy packets of cards or poorly blown gazing-balls tried to sell their skills.
    The wealthy and noble kept summer quarters high in the hills, well away from the heat and stench of the city. In winter, they lived in comfort behind locked gates, sending armed guards to accompany their servants on errands beyond the household walls.
    But to a boy who’d only once a year gone to New Market withhis father, Cryllor was shining and glorious. I should have come here with Father, like he wanted, not like this, Lhors thought, but there had never been enough free time. The village had depended too heavily on Lharis for his hunting skills.
    Now Lhors gazed listlessly from paved streets and stone fountains to the carved doors on ancient dwellings and the gargoyles perched on the corners of flat roofs. The city was more impressive than he could have imagined from his father’s tales-yet it mattered no more than the incrediblevariety of people crowding those streets. He stared briefly at two reed-slender elves, then at a girl in bright-colored skirts and scarves swaying on a small, raised platform. At her feet two boys sat cross-legged, fiddling with their reed pipes while a third paced back and forth, adjusting the skin on his drum. None of this held Lhors’ attention for long. None of it was important.
    He gazed up at one of the inner lengths of wall-all that wasleft of what might have been an outer wall a long time before when the city had been much smaller. Now there was barely room for two guards to pace a few steps and keep watch over the people below.
    “My father might have stood there once,” Lhors said tohimself. His throat closed. He drew breath through his nostrils then forced his attention elsewhere.
    Some distance away, a man clad in mail and plate armor that shone like silver moved through the crowd. He was followed closely by a boy and a horse. The horse was a huge creature, blue-black with a well-brushed mane and tail that hung nearly to the paving. The steeds head rested on the knights plate-clad shoulder as if he were an enormous pet.
    That’s a paladin! Lhors thought in amazement. To think! Hisfather had told him wonderful tales about paladins, and this past winter he’dopenly spoken of his hopes that Lhors might become equerry to such a man. I might have liked that, Lhors mused, if only because Father would have been proud, but the village could never have spared me. Even Lhors’ huntingskills-nowhere near as good as his father’s-were needed.
    Lhors glanced after the paladin and the boy with renewed interest. Odd companions. The mail-clad man was an impressive figure, the boy a gawky creature of perhaps ten years with spiky brown hair and ragged clothing. Curious, Lhors thought. There must be some tale there, though he hadn’t the witto work one out.
    Some distance on, a gray-bearded man juggled three lit torches. Lhors slowed but moved on almost at once. He had seen a boy moving among the awed crowd, using a slender-bladed knife to relieve people of their coin bags. Cutpurse. So that is where the word comes from, Lhors realized. He made certain of his own coins and kept going.
    He paused now and again to repeat the gate guard’sinstructions to himself. Straight past the Shrine of Heironeous, which he would know by the huge stone hand clutching a lightning bolt. He tried not to think about the combination of huge hands and lightning. Who or what was a Heironeous? It must be a god to have a shrine, but who prayed to a god who called upon lightning?
    Upper Haven had prayed to all the gods in general-one neverknew which might be offended by being left out. Lhors knew little of such things himself. His father now and again invoked the name of Trithereon, though when things went wrong, Lharis bespoke one he named as Dread Hextor. “One who was awarrior and is now poor is doubly in the care of Hextor,” was all his fatherwould say.
    “Straight past the shrine,” he repeated to himself, “thenturn south beyond the armorer’s and south again at the wall. Follow the wallaround to the gate.”
    All at once, he could see the shrine-a small stone buildingwith a massive lightning bolt and fist of shining black stone. Lhors felt suddenly very peasantlike and out of place. He hurried on, passing through a sprawl of stone buildings, small huts, and a few open-sided tents. This must be the armory, he decided, though other goods were sold as well-furs, wroughtmetal jewelry, and a variety of armor. The noise was incredible here. A massive brute of a smith on his left was beating red-hot metal, and just beyond him, two younger men were battering horseshoes and dipping the finished products into a vat of water.
    He caught the familiar reek of a tanners-rotting hidessoaking in salt brine-and stopped short. Bregya. His throat tightened.He’d helped her this past year with the scraping after she’d become too ill andweak to do the heavy work. Upper Havens master tanner had become something of a substitute mother to Lhors, instructing him in proper manners, helping him to understand girls, and knowing when he needed to talk about things that he couldn’t tell his father. Lhors swallowed hard and moved on quickly.
    Do not think about Bregya! To come this far, only to weep in the city streets or worse, before the guards! His father’s shade would behorrified, and he himself would die of shame.
    Lhors had rehearsed the tale often on the journey here. A boy of his class would be given little time for an audience with a lord, however important his message. The more he ran the words through his mind, the less the words themselves would hurt. You must tell what happened as quickly and clearly as you can, and if the lord permits, you must ask his help.
    He ran through the words once again as he turned the corner. “They must be stopped. They destroyed our village and now are more confident. Ifthey burn every village in the hills, then they will believe nothing can stop them. Then they will turn on the plain, perhaps even the king’s city. Better toend their terror with Upper Haven.” He stumbled over a badly angled cobble andglanced around furtively. No one was watching him, fortunately. “Upper Haven wassmall, but honest,” he continued to himself. “We paid the king’s tax every year,and we provided goods for the baron’s hunting lodge. Perhaps the coin is smallcompared to that of a town like New Market, but join our tax to that of the other villages…” And there I pause, Lhors told himself. Let Lord Mebree seethe answer himself, as my father would say.
    He bore south at the wall, fingers trailing over its greened stones. The way was narrower here and the wall very tall and sturdy looking. On his right was a long row of joined buildings that might be houses, but they had few windows or doors, and there was no sign of people anywhere.
    As the wall curved away to the left, he came upon a small baker’s shop where the smell of fragrant bread filled the air. His stomachrumbled, and he fingered the twist of fabric that held a silver and three copper pieces in his right pocket. He’d left the hill garrison with three silver piecesthe captain had pressed upon him-more money than he’d had for himself in all hislife. It appalled him how quickly it had gone, frugal as he’d been and as littleas he’d eaten. And there was still the return journey. But it would be foolishto come so far and faint from hunger at the king’s feet. He eyed the display,finally choosing a plain roll for a single copper.
    The baker’s wife eyed him appraisingly as she took the coin,then split the roll and spread a generous dollop of runny cheese on it for him. “You’re too thin, lad,” she told him severely and waved him away when he triedto pay for the extra. “Most young ’uns as lean as you are would try to stealtheir bread. I appreciate honesty in a boy.”
    He thanked her as graciously as he knew how, suddenly grateful for Bregya’s lessons. Odd, though, he thought as he walked away withhis mouth full of soft bread and spicy cheese. It would never have occurred to him to steal food.
    The tough little loaf would have been almost enough by itself. With the addition of the cheese, his stomach was properly full, and he felt alert for the first time in days.
    He drank from a fountain where water poured from the mouths of oddly shaped stone fish. There were more guards here and the long row of houses gave way to a series of pens and stables. Two horsemen, helmets eased back off their faces, rode past him at a slow amble, heading in the direction he was going. Some paces on, they dismounted, handed their reins to a barefoot boy who led the horses into a fenced enclosure close by and began unsaddling them. The men vanished, and moments later, Lhors could see the broad opening that breached the innermost wall and beyond that, the high wall.
    He hesitated at the intricately wrought metal gates that gave entry to the lord’s courtyard. There were two armored and armed men flanking theopening. They looked at him sternly. To his surprise, once he’d stammered outhis name and village, they’d conferred by hand signal, then simply passed himthrough.
    Once inside, he slowed to look around, but there wasn’t muchto see. The grounds were raked dirt and gravel or sand-clean, plain, andutilitarian. A few plain benches of hardwood or stone were scattered here and there, but there was no other ornamentation.
    The keep was smaller and much plainer than he’d haveexpected, but then this was not a king’s palace. Still, it rose high above hishead-four sets of windows, one above the other with a guard-walk above that. Thewalls went straight up, the stone dressed so smooth there were no visible handholds anywhere. Two mail-clad men paced back and forth on the roof above the parapet. The lower windows appeared to be set at random, but their sills were deep and the openings so narrow that he couldn’t have squeezed through theentry. Structures such as this were for siege fighting, his father had told him. Archers could shoot from reasonable safety, and a small force could hold off an entire army.
    But there had been no such siege warfare in Cryllor in long years and with the gods’ blessing, there would not be again. Lhors smiled as hiseye caught the large blue banner snapping in a suddenly brisk breeze. Lharis had worn that same patch of blue on the breast of his jerkin. He had been very proud of that bit of blue.
    “I won’t shame it or you, Father,” Lhors whispered. “I swearit.”
    He could see a walkway along the wall he’d just come through,with enclosed towers on the corners where guards could shelter from harsh weather.
    The grounds were busy. Someone was hauling a cart away from the near stable. A boy steadied a nervous ass tethered to a wagon that was piled high with dull green hay while two men in grubby leathers forked the feed into tubs for other boys to carry inside.
    Half a dozen men paced between the gate and keep. Three were in full armor, but the rest appeared to be servants, clad alike in dark blue trousers and shirts.
    Four men lounged on a bench, and just beyond them, two servants were working on a saddle. At their backs, a boy in roughspun clothes sat cross-legged near a pile of stirrups. He was busily polishing one to a gleaming bronze and audibly groaned when a middle-aged fellow wearing only loose, greasy leather pants dropped another load of stirrups atop the pile. The older man laughed raucously, then pulled a polishing cloth from his pocket and settled down to help.
    Other soldiers hovered at the buttery, drinking from leather cups. Lhors eyed them sidelong. Many of them were older, hard looking, and not all wore the blue patch. I wonder if any of them knew my father, Lhors thought wistfully. But he felt suddenly shy. He wouldn’t know what to say to such men,and likely they’d ignore him.
    There were two guards at the broad step leading to the main door-a massive, bronze reinforced slab of wood that stood open. Lhors swallowedpast a very dry throat and walked up to them. The guards drew two swords each and stepped to block his way.
    “Name, affiliation, and business,” one of them snapped.
    “Affiliation-that means what village you’re from,” the secondadded with an unpleasant grin.
    “Be polite, Efoyan,” the first chided, but he was grinning,too.
    Efoyan simpered. Lhors blinked. He hadn’t expected their kindin the lord’s employ-young men who were full of themselves and what little powertheir duties gave them. Well, the trick was to keep his irritation in check. If they couldn’t get him angry, they’d give over.
    “I am Lhors, son of Lharis,” he said, “of the village UpperHaven to the north. I bring the Lord Mebree word of danger.”
    “‘Son of Lharis’, indeed!” Efoyan smirked. “Imagine, Doneghal!Here’s a peasant who believes he can name his sire!”
    Lhors decided to let the insult pass. He would never receive an audience with the lord by quarreling with guards. He waited. Doneghal finally waved him to continue. “Some nights ago,” Lhors said, proud that his voice didnot tremble at the memory, “Upper Haven fought giants-”
    Both men broke into spluttering laughter, again silencing him. “Giants?” Doneghal jeered. “There are no giants in Keoland!”
    “What? Did you attack the brutes with torches and scythes, ormerely feed them bad village stew and ale?” Efoyan snickered.
    Lhors set his jaw and grimly plunged on. “We did fight. Myfather was once a guard here in this very city, and he trained us boys.”
    “Oh, it gets better. His father a Cryllor guard, yet! Andhe’s trained himself!” Both men laughed harshly, then Efoyan drew himselfupright. “Go away, boy. It’s a clever tale but we’ve heard many better.”
    “Giants indeed,” Doneghal snorted, narrowed eyes fixed onLhors, who suddenly realized what a picture he must present after three days of hunting in the hills followed by Upper Haven’s final, bloody night, and thendays of journey on short rations with no time or place to properly bathe.
    “You, boy,” Efoyan said, “I know what you are. You’re agrubby little market thief trying to get in to steal something or catch a glimpse of the king and win a bet with your fellow grubby thieves, aren’t you?Well, it won’t work! Not while we’re on guard!”
    Lhors stared at him. “Steal?” he managed. The guards seemedto find this wildly funny.
    Efoyan swallowed laughter. “Look, peasant. If there really were giants about, we’d know it, see? The Lord Mebree’s steward would’vesent orders for us to pass anyone who could tell him about giants.”
    “Yes, he would,” Doneghal added. “Because, if anyone was tobe told, it would be us, d’ye see? Because we two are the ones who’d have toknow it was all right for you to be inside, wouldn’t we?”
    “But we haven’t been told one gods’ blessed word aboutgiants. So you see what that means, don’t you? Means you’re lying to us, doesn’tit?”
    “Lying!” Doneghal finished triumphantly. “So! Just you beoff, right now! You aren’t getting into the keep, not today or any day soon! Notwith a stupid tale like that!”
    “Your pardon, sirs,” Lhors broke in sharply, “but Upper Haven is in thefoothills well to the north of here-many days’ ride. Until our village wasattacked, no one around there had seen giants, so I must warn the lord or get a message to him-”
    “You grow boring,” Efoyan said flatly. He set his spearagainst the wall and gave Lhors a shove. Lhors fought for balance, managing to right himself as the guards stalked toward him.
    “Boring,” Doneghal echoed and tossed his spear aside so hecould grab Lhors’ shirt. Efoyan shoved him aside.
    “Let me, friend,” he said flatly and slammed one open handagainst Lhors’ chest, driving him back into the courtyard. He drew a long,braided leather whip from his belt. “I know how to teach a stupid peasant not towaste my time.” He snapped his wrist. Lhors jumped convulsively as the leatherthong cracked just short of his ear.
    Efoyan struck again. Lhors just managed to duck as it cracked over his head. Behind him, a deep man’s voice snarled, “Why don’t you pick onsomeone closer to your own size, Efoyan?” Lhors scuttled back as a dark, solidlybuilt man caught hold of the tip of the lash and yanked. The guard yelped as the whip was torn from his grasp. The dark man slid the lash through his fingers, gripped the handle and slammed it into the guard’s brow. Efoyan sagged, wentflat, and stayed there. Doneghal leaped across his companion, eyes narrowed as he went into fighting stance, but the newcomer simply grabbed him by the shoulders, spun him halfway around and kicked him, hard. Doneghal staggered and slammed into the palace wall, head first. He slid down, dazed or unconscious.
    Lhors gazed blankly up at the bronze-skinned man who turned away from the fallen pair to give the youth a hand up and a smile. “Sorry aboutyour reception, lad.”
    Before Lhors could fathom a suitable reply, the man walked over and began to nudge the two guards, who were beginning to moan and look around, obviously still dazed.
    “Up!” the man shouted. “Up, the both of you! Up I say! Now!”
    The two guards reluctantly complied. Outrage and embarrassment played over their faces, though both of them had obviously lost all will to fight.
    “Do you know who I am?” the man demanded. They both noddeddumbly. “Very well. You”-he jabbed at Efoyan with his finger-“will report toSergeant Storrs and tell him what has taken place here. You will leave nothing out, and I will know if you do. By the time your watch has ended, I’m sure the sergeant and I will have come up with a suitable punishment for theboth of you.”
    Glowering, Efoyan turned to go.
    “Stop! I have not dismissed you yet.” The guard halted, andthe man continued. “Both of you will apologize to this young man… and makeit good, or you’ll both be mucking stables till next season’s snow melts.”
    Both guards stammered an apology. Though their words dripped sincerity, they looked at Lhors with pure hatred. When they had finished, the man let the silence hang until both guards began to eye one another nervously, obviously wondering if their apology had been accepted.
    “Very well,” the man said. “Efoyan, dismissed. Do as I haveordered you. Doneghal, resume your post.”
    The two of them complied, and the man turned his attention to Lhors. “So, you’re Lharis’ son, are you?”
    “You… you knew my father?”
    “I met him once or twice,” the man replied. “But come. Youhave urgent news. Best we get you inside so Lord Mebree can hear it. I’m Vlandarby the way, captain of one of the hill companies.”
    Lhors stared. He could feel his face heating. “Captain? I’msorry to be so much-”
    The older man merely laughed, wrapped an arm around Lhors’shoulders, and drew him through the palace doors into a broad, high ceilinged hallway. “Trouble? You’re no trouble, lad. And I’m merely a captain, not thelord’s commander. My job is to ride the hills between here and the Yeomanry,making sure the villages are safe from bandits and the like. It’s only fitting Ishould escort you to the lord’s council chambers. He should be meeting with hiscouncil now, but if not, there’ll be men to whom you can give a full report.I’ll need to hear what you have to say in any event, if we’ve more to fight outthere than bandits and river pirates.”
    As they walked through the passageways, Vlandar kept a hand on his arm, which Lhors suspected kept anyone from asking what business a grubby peasant had in such vast halls. And they were vast. Corridors branched all along the main hall. Now and again, he could see staircases spiraling up to upper levels of the keep. There were people, most in servants’ garb, carrying trays orbundles of clothing, stocks of linens, and other things. The place was surprisingly plain. No statues or fine hangings graced the walls, and the floors were plain polished stone. Here and there, black wrought lamps hung from chains. What doors he could see were closed, and the view beyond the windows was all of dirt courtyards.
    A few guards glanced at Vlandar but made no attempt to stop him. The warrior must be someone of importance, despite his modest remarks, Lhors thought. Father told me about men like that. The best fighters don’t needto brag.
    A boy came running up behind them, swerved around Lhors and his companion, then pelted down the hallway, a small leather pouch slapping against his back. Vlandar turned down yet another hall and stopped before massive double doors. Two more guards stood here, but these were older, grim-faced men who stood at attention with drawn blades before them.
    Vlandar gripped Lhors’ shoulder and murmured, “They know me,and I’ll vouch for you.” He spoke to the guards, and one of them nodded. Theyboth stepped back and held the doors open.
    The room itself was much smaller than Lhors would have imagined from the size of the doors. The ceiling was barely higher than the lintel, and a long table surrounded by a dozen high-backed chairs took up most of the chamber. Thick curtains in a muted green covered one wall. The opposite wall was almost completely taken up by an immense fireplace. High, small windows along the back wall let in light, but the room was still dim, warm, and almost stuffy.
    Vlandar tugged at Lhors’ hair and leaned close to murmuragainst his ear, “This is the lord’s private audience chamber. Let me go first.When I beckon, you come forward, kneel, and bend your head. Do not rise or look up until the lord or I tell you to do so. Can you remember that?”
    Lhors nodded again.
    “You will speak when he tells you and answer his questions asbriefly as you can. Good manners say you must address him as ‘my lord’ each timeyou speak.” He smiled as Lhors swallowed hard. “Buck up, lad. It’s not so awfulas that. He’s a busy man but not an unfair one. You’ll do.” He clapped the youthon the shoulder and went forward, easing to one knee as he came around the near end of the table.
    Vlandar spoke to the men briefly, but Lhors was so caught up in studying those seated around the table that he didn’t hear a word. Now thathis eyes were adjusting, he could make out a wizened little being of uncertain sex, his or her robe and close-fitting cap nearly the same shade as the dark wood of the chair. Opposite, a dark-skinned man in black suddenly leaned forward, drew an open scroll across the table and began rolling it up.
    Vlandar stood and beckoned to Lhors. The youth drew a deep breath and walked over to join him.
    It was easy to kneel. He wasn’t certain his legs wouldsupport him, and he was much too shy to look up. The third man-presumably LordMebree-spoke, his voice low and pleasantly resonant. “You are… Lhors, isit? From poor young Baron Hilgenbrand’s holdings, Vlandar says. He tells me youhave a tale for me. Come, lad, let me look at you.”
    Vlandar gripped Lhors’ shoulder reassuringly and aided himto his feet. Lhors nodded then managed a shaky, “Yes, my lord. From Upper Havennear the baron’s hunting lodge.” He glanced up. Cryllor’s lord was a small man,his hair a blue-black, wavy mass barely restrained by a narrow band of silver. His near-black eyes were warm though, and he was smiling. His hands moved constantly, fussing with papers or his dagger, moving them about the table.
    To Lhors’ surprise, Mebree chuckled quietly. “Go ahead andlook at me, lad. I like to see a man’s eyes when he talks. Tell me about thesegiants.”
    Lhors glanced at Vlandar. He and the two other men-councilors, perhaps-were smiling. Probably at my foolishness, he thought. Butthe words were kind, and so were the lord’s eyes. He drew a deep breath andplunged into his story.
    It had helped, rehearsing it so often. He was brief and to the point, and after so much repetition, it began to feel more like a tale he’d heard than something he’d seen or people he’d known. When he finished,Lord Mebree gestured, and Vlandar fetched two stools from beside the hearth. Lhors sat with relief. He suddenly felt exhausted and light-headed. He scarcely paid attention as Lord Mebree dismissed the other two and turned to Vlandar.
    “Well, my friend,” he said mildly. “This is your warning cometo pass, isn’t it? Feel vindicated, do you?”
    “No,” the older man replied. “Simply angry at so many senseless deaths. Ifwe’d gone after the Steading in force when I first heard rumors about thegiants-”
    “If,” the lord broke in wearily. His hands seemed to have alife of their own, running up and down the silver chain he wore, folding it into one hand, shaking it loose again. “I am sorry for this young man’s people,Vlandar, but even you couldn’t have foreseen an attack like that. It’s simplynever happened before. And you know the cost of sending an army out. I could never have justified it to King Kimbertos.” He dropped the chain and folded hishands. “However, this is no longer rumor, and with the king here to see howthings are in the Good Hills… Well, it may be time to do something aboutthe Steading after all, though I still cannot be certain the Steading is responsible. It’s unheard of for hill giants to do such a thing. Thus far,they’ve stolen a few cattle or some of their youth get drunk and raid a town.Their chief, Nosnra, isn’t a warrior. He’s a thug-a clever one I’m told, butstill a thug.”
    “I agree,” Vlandar said. “But the king will have little moneyor many men to spare if he agrees to an attack-even if the Yeomanry allows oneto cross their lands. The king’s more concerned about the Scarlet Brotherhood,or so I hear. He’ll keep his best fighting men ready to defend against attackfrom across the Azure Sea.”
    “I will speak with him when we meet after the feast tonight,but I agree we aren’t likely to get much armed help.” Mebree’s fingers drummedagainst the padded chair arms.
    The king? King Kimbertos was actually here in Cryllor?Lhors had never actually seen a king. Before his mind could wander any further, he focused on the conversation at hand.
    Vlandar got to his feet and began to pace. “A direct attackis out in any event. Cryllor wouldn’t dare funnel all its armed men into themountains, leaving the city unprotected. And the Steading’s built to withstandany attack. On the other hand, we don’t need an army to discover if the hillclans are responsible for Upper Haven. Now a small but well-picked band of fighters would be able to get inside the Steading, find out what we need to know, and strike a counter-blow from inside the walls.”
    “But Vlandar, how do you plan on finding out…?” He letthe thought hang.
    “Nosnra isn’t that smart. He’s clever and cunning, but notintelligent. He would need written orders or advisers from whoever is behind the attacks. Maybe we wouldn’t learn why, but we’d know who.” Vlandar resumedpacing. “Remember, my lord, that I’m trained for that kind of fighting. I’mskilled at sneaking in somewhere, learning things, inflicting damage, and getting back out again. With the right sized band-fewer than ten, I think-itcould be done.” He paused. Mebree gestured for him to go on. “We’d need a fewgood fighters, a magician or two. If it turns out the Steading’s alone in this,then maybe we can hurt old Nosnra and his folk so they’ll leave us alone. We’dneed good support, of course. Food, horses or boats to get us into the mountains, maps, the best armor and arms.”
    Lord Mebree nodded slowly. “To get the people youwant, you’d have to offer more than arms and supplies, Vlandar. I know what kindof fee your average adventurer wants-in advance, no less!” He grimaced. “Ifyou can find them around Cryllor. We aren’t exactly the king’s city.”
    “No, but with the king in Cryllor just now, there will bethose who’ve come with him or in his retinue. Now, you’re right about fees, butthe Steading is said to hold any number of hidden troves and treasuries. Let us keep whatever valuables we find-tax free, of course.”
    The lord laughed. “Tax free, the man says! Of course, I mustpresent this to our king! But it could work. Return tomorrow at this hour, Vlandar. I’ll tell you what the king makes of all this. If he agrees, I’ll seeto it that my steward has funds for you to draw upon for whatever you need. And don’t thank me!” he added sharply. “You may have just bought yourself an uglydeath, my friend. If you come through… well, I will find a way to show mygratitude.”
    Vlandar stood and inclined his head. His lips twitched. “Butone needs so little: ‘a small corner of the new barracks, a fire of my own,perhaps a new skin of wine.’”
    Lord Mebree got to his feet and clapped the warrior on the back. “Quote my grandfer’s words at me, will you? Ha! Off with you, you oldrogue. I will see you tomorrow.”
    “My lord.” Vlandar leaned down to whisper against Lhors’ear. “You also bow when you leave.”
    Lhors blushed a deep red as he went to his knees. Above him, the lord murmured a question, to which Vlandar replied, “I’ll takecare of him, my lord. Come with me, Lhors.”

    The corridors were even busier on their way out. To Lhors’relief, two older men were on guard outside with no sign of the two who had given him such grief.
    “Well,” Vlandar stopped just short of the gates and gave hiscompanion a friendly smile, “you look like a boy who could use a good night’ssleep under a roof-and before that, a decent meal.”
    Lhors slowed. “Um, I’ve a little coin, sir, but I have along journey home yet.”
    Vlandar was already shaking his head. “My treat. I trust yourfather told you to accept a free meal and cot any time they’re offered? Comeon.”
    Lhors smiled faintly and went with the warrior, who strode through a maze of narrow streets into a market area. The youth was lost within moments. The inn where they finally stopped was a pleasant little place behind a low hedge and a well-swept courtyard. The food itself smelled plain and familiar.
    Lhors’ nose twitched, and his mouth began to water asVlandar steered him to a bench in the corner where they could see the street. In the paddock across the street, two goats and a swaybacked horse jostled for place at a manger of hay and a pile of spotty cabbage leaves. He forgot about that as a gaunt young woman in shapeless brown roughspun came bustling over with two wooden bowls. A simple-looking hulk of a man came right behind her carrying a heavy black kettle. He held the steaming pot while she ladled soup to the very tops of the bowls. Lhors sipped the broth gingerly, then sighed happily, picked up the bowl, and drank down the contents.
    “Your friend has good taste,” the girl said as she refilledthe bowl. This time she added an extra scoop of vegetables and barley from the bottom.
    Vlandar gave her a copper coin for more bread before dipping his crust in the broth. He ate absently as the boy finished what he had, then took down another bowl of broth and two manchets of black bread. Finally, Lhors shoved the bowl aside and sighed. “Thank you, Vlandar. I was hunting with Fatherfor days before-before the giants came. I barely recall my last true meal. Ifthere is any use I can be to you to pay back your kindness, sir…”
    “I didn’t feed you simply for that,” Vlandar said, “but yes,I do need to know everything you can tell me about those giants. If I could question you…?” He let that hang.
    Lhors nodded sharply. His face was pale. He was about to begin when a shadow crossed the table. The youth edged back nervously as Vlandar leaped his feet, but he relaxed when the warrior began laughing. Vlandar clasped a pale-haired fellow by his chain-mail-clad biceps and shouted, “Malowan! Whendid you get into Cryllor? And what are you doing here, of all places?”
    Malowan’s voice was enormous, filling the room. “Vlandar, itreally is you! Thought you’d be out riding around the hills like that last twotimes I came this way! I’m here because the king is-partly, at least.”
    Lhors eyed the man curiously. He wasn’t much taller orbroader than Lharis. A chain-mail coif covered all but the fringes of his straw-colored hair, and he wore heavy-looking scale mail girt with a wide belt that held two swords. Lhors’ eyes went wide as they fixed on the silver devicehammered into the mail from the man’s left shoulder to mid-breast. It was alightning bolt and fist, like the one on the shrine of Heironeous.
    Vlandar settled on the bench and gestured for the newcomer tojoin them. “Malowan’s a friend of mine-and a paladin. Mal, meet Lhors. Hisfather was once a captain here.”
    “A captain!” The paladin smiled and held out a hand. “And nowyou’ve come to join?” But he shook his head. “No, you’re here because somethingamiss. I can see that much.”
    Lhors simply stared at him, wide-eyed. Vlandar nodded. “Ofcourse you’d sense it.”
    “Any paladin past his first pledge would,” the other man saidmildly.
    “Lhors is from the hill country near the Yeomanry border.Giants razed his village, and he’s just about the only survivor.”
    “Heironeous have mercy upon them all,” Malowan murmured. Hiseyes moved beyond the table, searching the street briefly. “I’m truly sorry,lad. But, Vlandar, giants attacking a village? That’s unheard of!”
    “It was,” the warrior said grimly. “But-have you eaten? Ifnot, sit anyway. I have a proposition for you.”
    “Have you?”
    Someone out in the street was shouting. The paladin’sattention shifted briefly. He blinked and then settled on the end of the bench. “I’m waiting for someone, as it happens-but I can listen, meantime.”
    Vlandar made a concise story of it, but Malowan was already shaking his head before the warrior could finish. “I’m sorry, my friend. I’vealready taken on a matter that’s-well, never mind the specifics, but it’s afull-time occupation. I’ll be glad to pass the word for you, though. Nemis isback in the vicinity-or was, last I heard.”
    “Nemis? You mean the mage? I heard he’d renounced the worldand turned hermit.”
    Malowan came to his feet as a high-pitched argument broke out somewhere down the way. “Hmm? Oh, he told me he liked his own company less thanthat of a crowd. He’s a good mage, and he speaks Giantish, I think.”
    Someone in the street uttered a piercing shriek. The paladin glanced outside, then hurriedly got up, offered a quick, “Uh, excuse me,” andwas out the door.
    Vlandar got to his feet and looked out the window. Lhors followed his gaze. He could see the paladin sprinting toward the street, where a swirl of people was trying to move away from the vicinity of the yelling. He could just make out the tips of two blunted pikes pushing their way through the crowd.
    “See those pikes?” Vlandar asked Lhors. “Those are marketguards. Malowan may need my help. I’ll return.”
    Lhors craned his neck, watching as both men vanished into the crowd. He couldn’t make out a thing, but it was easy to see where theproblem was. People ringed an area ten paces or so across, and all the yelling was coming from there. He could now make out guards in the melee, but not much else.
    “If I stay away from the guards, I’ll be all right,” Lhorstold himself as he edged off the bench and out the door. It was a moment’s workto ease through the crowd. While there were plenty of curious types watching, hardly anyone wanted to be too close to the guards-those pikes were used toshove people around, after all.
    Lhors slipped around a gray-haired woman in a faded blue kerchief and all at once he could see just fine. Vlandar had a hand on Malowan’s arm and seemed to be trying to pull the paladin away from four market guards in the lord’s blue. Two of the guards were keeping a watchful eye on the crowd.Malowan was arguing-but very politely-with the two other stone-faced guards whoclutched a grubby little street-urchin between them-possibly the cutpurse Lhorshad seen earlier, or another very like. The child looked no older than ten, but its vocabulary was shockingly adult. Lhors didn’t understand half what thelittle creature screeched, but now and again one of the guards winced. The kerchiefed woman began muttering about ill-spawned children and what she’dlike to do to this one in particular.
    Vlandar finally seemed to gain control of the situation. He’dpulled another guard from the crowd-this one had a red officer’s stripe on hissleeve-and after a short discussion the guard thrust the child at Malowan. Thepaladin gripped one dirty ear and silently pulled the little one through the crowd, which parted around them. Several older boys snickered as the two passed. The urchin lashed out with a stream of shrill curses and a kick. Malowan looked exasperated. He mumbled something, scooped the child up over his shoulder, and strode back toward the inn.
    Vlandar was laughing and shaking his head as he came back across the avenue. “That, my young friend, is Malowan’s ‘other business’. He’strying to reform a market thief. He has a ways to go, I’d say. Let’s go backinside. I could use a pot of ale.”
    To Lhors’ surprise, Malowan seemed to be waiting for them,his skinny companion sulking on the bench next to him. “You hadn’t finished,Vlandar,” he said as the soldier gestured for service. “You were about to tellme why this expedition would be a useful part of Agya’s training.”
    “To the nine hells with that and you!” Agya snappedshrilly.
    “Language, child. We’re discussing your future.”
    “You ought not to have come out there,” the child repliedsulkily.
    “You would have spent a night in the cells had I not. Iwarned you. The guards know who you are and where you operate.”
    “Only ’cause you told ’em, then!”
    “I did not, and you know I do not lie. Agya, you’reangry because you were caught, nothing more.”
    Silence. The thief glowered at him and said nothing else as the inn-girl came over to set cups on the table.
    Vlandar waited until the girl was gone again. “You’reconsidering it, then?”
    Malowan nodded. “I’m thinking it’s easier to reform yourselfif old temptations are out of reach.”
    “’Ere!” Agya demanded. “Just what d’you think you’replotting? ’Cause, just maybe, I’m not for it!”
    Malowan smiled vaguely and set his elbows on the table. Vlandar leaned toward him, and the two began talking in very low tones-and in alanguage that wasn’t Flan-it sounded half snarls and throat clearing to Lhors.Agya muttered something vile-sounding, then fixed angry brown eyes on Lhors. “You tell me, then-if y’know, that is!”
    Lhors swallowed. “It’s my village. Giants killed everyone.Vlandar’s going to put together a force to go after the giants.”
    “Wait,” Agya demanded. “That’s… it’s… Paladin, you’reflat mad!”
    Malowan shrugged, but Agya wasn’t finished. “None o’ that forme. I’ll chance it rather agin th’ market guard and Dappney’s lads in th’ Sink!”
    “You haven’t heard the offer yet,” Vlandar said.
    “Giants.” Agya licked her lips. “D’you know what they do toyou? I’ve ’eard tales.”
    “I saw,” Lhors broke in harshly. “I could tell you what’strue, but I won’t.”
    “Well, then!” the urchin tugged at Malowans belt. “Want me togrow up honest-like? Not much chance of it, if we go where I’ll get killed andet, is there?”
    “But someone with your talents-” Vlandar began.
    “Which he says I gotta give up!”
    “But there are ways for a thief to earn honor as a thief,”Vlandar countered. Malowan looked none too happy about that reasoning.
    “If the thief lives long enough,” Agya spat back.
    “Long enough to return home with wealth untold, treasurebeyond counting…?” Vlandar paused. Agya was speechless. “Any treasure youfind-if you help us-is yours… to share with your comrades, of course.But there won’t be more than ten of us.”
    Vlandar waited. Malowan touched his friend’s arm and shookhis head. Agya was lost in rapt contemplation.
    “Treasure,” the little thief breathed happily. “Agiants’ trove! Gems and gold, coins and jewels and amulets… a girl could setherself up proper with a store of that!”
    Malowan and Vlandar exchanged amused glances. Lhors’ jawdropped and he stared. “A girl could… you’re a girl?”
    Agya grinned at Malowan. “Fooled one, anyway,” she told thepaladin, who cast up his eyes. “Tell me ’bout this treasure.”


    To Lhors’ surprise, Vlandar and Malowan sent word about thecity, not the lord or the king. The day after they were granted the king’sblessing, the two men planned to interview candidates in Vlandar’s barracks andthe nearby practice yard. Fortunately, Malowan was as willing as Vlandar to explain things to a village youth out of his element.
    “The task has been passed on to Vlandar. Besides, some ofthose Vlandar would like to recruit are the kind who won’t want any part of an‘official’ company. On a journey like this, you want the toughest, and theyaren’t always law-abiding.”
    Lhors had also assumed that by now he would be on his way back to High Haven, but when he had suggested as much, Vlandar waved it aside. “You have a right to be here to see us begin vengeance for your people.”
    When the first two men-rough-looking fellows armed with netsand pikes and clad in hardened leathers-came looking for the warrior, Vlandarhad both Malowan and Lhors with him.
    Vlandar talked to both men for some time-Sterich mercenaries,Malowan later confirmed. Lhors had seen such men once before but had never entertained the idea of working with them. After a short interview, Vlandar turned them down. Neither seemed particularly offended as they walked off.
    Lhors shook his head. “They seemed very experienced to me.”
    Vlandar laughed. “Yes, but not the kind of experience wewant. There’s a rumor those two men killed a companion a year ago so that theywouldn’t have to split a purse of gold with him.”
    “It’s not rumor,” Malowan put in quietly. “I know theykilled him.”
    Vlandar shrugged. “We don’t want swordsmen who can’t betrusted, but Olmic isn’t that good, anyway.” He dropped the subject as someoneelse came in and hesitated in the doorway, eyes searching the room.
    “Nemis!” The paladin held out his hands, and the newcomertook them between his own dark-skinned, long fingers. “I thought you weren’tinterested!”
    “I have changed my mind.” Dark brown eyes moved across theother two before fixing on Vlandar. One eyebrow went up.
    Malowan smiled. “Vlandar’s in charge here. You know of him,don’t you? The young man is Lhors. The village was his. Lhors, Nemis is a mage.”
    Lhors studied the newcomer with interest. The mage was tall and lean, and Lhors would have placed him in his mid to late thirties. His hair was long and curled, and his thin, sun-darkened face sported a narrow mustache and neat little beard. He wore dark green trousers tucked into soft brown boots and a long green tunic, held at the waist by a sword belt and a curious-looking woven sash. A brooch of leather at his breast was carved with a pattern of three diamonds. The sword belt held a plain rapier, and a matching poniard was stuck in the sash. The mage casually leaned against a walking stick that looked as if it might be a fighting staff.
    “You’re a mage, so why carry those?” Vlandar’s eyes fixed onthe sword belt.
    A corner of the dark man’s mouth quirked. His voice was lowand non-carrying. “I like blades, but only a fool depends on one strength.”
    “I can vouch for him. He knows which end of a sword goes inand which you hold,” Malowan said with a sudden grin, “even if he’s not muchbetter than that with them.”
    Vlandar nodded. “I trust Mal, and I’ve heard of you, Nemis.But why did you change your mind? Mal said-”
    The mage shrugged. “Malowan hadn’t told me you were ridingagainst the Steading, against the giants. If you do, you’ll need me.”
    “Oh? Why?” the warrior returned sharply.
    “I have battled giants before. I know spells that workagainst them. I’m good at what I do.”
    Before Vlandar could reply, Malowan tapped him on the arm and drew him into the far corner of the barracks room, where they talked quietly but intensely for some moments.
    When they came back, Vlandar held out his hands, palm up. Nemis placed his hands on the warrior’s, palm down.
    “Mal’s word is good for me, Nemis, but if there’s anythingyou’d like to tell me before we leave Cryllor, I would appreciate it. An oldwarrior like me doesn’t appreciate surprises, you know.” He turned to Malowan.“Will we need another magician for healing spells, or can you manage that?”
    “Malowan and I have worked together before,” the mage saidquietly, “and I will procure a few specialized charms before we leave.”
    “Find whatever you need. The king and the Lord Mebree aregood for it. We’ll leave here as soon as we can. Stay nearby, or let me knowwhere you’ll be tomorrow and the day after. If there’s any special gear or othersupplies you need, let me know.”
    The mage merely shook his head, turned, and left.

    Over the next two days, Lhors watched in fascinated silenceas Vlandar interviewed a number of would-be giant-slayers and heroes. Malowan was sometimes there but was often acting as go-between with the lord’s steward.The paladin went back and forth-sometimes hourly as yet another list ofnecessary supplies was worked up.
    Most of the time, Malowan’s young companion was elsewhere,much to the relief of Lhors. Agya teased or mocked him incessantly when Malowan wasn’t around. He still found it hard to believe when the girl admitted tofourteen years, but Malowan assured him she was at least that old. Even cleaned up and clad more like a girl, she still looked no more than a skinny ten or so to his eyes. Probably she had found her size and shape useful. Lhors couldn’timagine a girl thief surviving long in the bad parts of the city.
    Vlandar and Malowan both were willing to explain to an untutored villager why they chose one applicant over another. A noble who had proven sword-skill and an impressive background against local road thieves was turned down.
    “Hobric can’t get beyond the fact he’s noble, so he feels hemust be in charge, even if he hasn’t the skills of a leader,” Vlandar told Lhorsafter the man had stormed out of the barracks. “Also, he goes nowhere withouthis personal servant. The creature’s said to be part orc and nowhere near sowell trained as he believes it to be.”
    “It has eaten men,” Malowan said with distaste, “and it isnot a servant. It is a slave, and even though it is a dreadful creature, no one should have the right to enslave another. If Hobric and that brute go with Vlandar, I do not.”
    “What is this?” Vlandar asked suddenly.
    Two reed-slender young women clad in rusty browns and greens had entered just as Hobric stormed out. One clutched an unstrung longbow, while the other wore a bundle of short throwing spears over her right shoulder.
    “Rangers,” Vlandar murmured to Lhors.
    The youth nodded, his eyes wide. Not just rangers by the look of them, but identical twins. As they came across the small room, he could see long, neat, very pointed ears rising from their thick dark hair. One of the women had her hair bundled back into a long plait, and her sister confined hers with a leather thong. Both wore small silver hair-brooches shaped like an oak and thistle above their right ears.
    Try as he might, Lhors could only tell them apart by the hair and the different pattern of brown-on-brown checkered shirts they both wore over plain trousers that were almost baggy enough to be taken for skirts. Two pairs of incredible, slightly slanted, green eyes met his curiously, then moved on.
    “Warrior, I am Rowan,” the bow wielder said in a low, huskyvoice, “and this is my sister, Maera. We hear you’re hoping to teach theSteading a lesson.”
    The other spoke in a slightly reedier voice. “We’re rangers,as you’ve no doubt guessed already. I am told you knew our father, Anaerich ofKet?”
    “I met Anaerich some years ago.” Vlandar half-stood so hecould bow. “I wasn’t aware he was Kettish-or that there were elves or half-elvesin Ket.”
    “There aren’t many,” Maera said. “Our father left Ket longyears ago.”
    Rowan smiled faintly. “We want to help if you’re going afterthe Steading. What those overgrown brutes did to our forest last spring is appalling. We’ve certain useful skills beyond tracking and woodcraft.”
    “Such as?” asked Vlandar.
    “We will demonstrate, if you wish,” Rowan replied with a mischievous smile.Motioning the others to follow, she and her sister strode back into the yard.
    Lhors accompanied Vlandar and watched in fascination as Rowan strung her bow and slipped an arrow to the string. Lhors had scarcely looked up to the target on the far wall before Maera’s javelin quivered squarely in thecenter of the tiny white patch. Rowan laughed, pulled the nocked arrow to her cheek, and loosed in one swift motion. Her arrow quivered in the center of the javelin’s haft.
    “We’ve been rangers for twenty-four years,” Maera explained.“We know how to work with a team, warrior.”
    “Say no more,” Vlandar said, grinning widely. “A man would bea fool to turn down rangers. We’ll leave as soon as we can, so stay in touch. Ifyou have any particular needs as far as gear or supplies, let Malowan here know. He’ll see you get whatever you need.”
    “Elves?” Lhors asked after the twins had gone.
    Vlandar nodded. “Half-elven, but any elf blood means you’rean elf. And rangers… a thief like young Agya can move unnoted around a cityor a slum, but those two could make her look clumsy. We’ll be fortunate to havethem.” He grinned as Lhors nodded with enthusiasm. “For their talents, boy.They’re well over twice your seventeen years, even if they don’t lookit.”
    Lhors blushed.
    They both turned toward the door as someone yelled, “Getyourself out of my way, wench! I have business in here!”
    Lhors heard Rowan snarl something that left a foppish young man red-faced and sputtering. The rangers bowed sarcastically, then left as the man stomped into the barracks and stared around with visible distaste.
    “Mercy on us,” Vlandar said to Lhors mildly, but his lipstwitched. “It’s a hero.”
    “He looks like one,” Lhors replied, eyes wide as he studiedthe fellow.
    “I am Arkon,” the newcomer announced loudly. His voice wasconsiderably deeper than it had been when he had yelled at the rangers. He wore silk-a brilliantly red shirt with bloused sleeves and sleek black trouserstucked into knee-high boots. Black leather gauntlets covered his arms halfway to the elbow. The pommels of his daggers and the basket hilts of his matched swords were gold-washed, as were the daggers thrust into his belt and his boots. “Arkonthe Adamant is here to seek one Vlandar, who has need of my ser-” His voicecracked.
    Vlandar bent down to adjust one of his boots and hide a grin, but a splutter of laughter escaped Malowan. The young man snarled a particularly filthy curse and whipped both swords out, revealing wavy zhosh blades.
    Vlandar sighed heavily and got up to intercept him. “I amVlandar,” he said as he began to ease the young man back outside, “and captainof these barracks. This is no place to provoke a fight.”
    Malowan suddenly and quietly slipped onto the cot next to Lhors. “Aaaaugh,” the paladin mumbled. “It was too much to hope the young foolwouldn’t have heard about this.”
    Lhors blinked. “But all those blades,” he whispered, “and abow and javelins! He must really be good. Isn’t that what you want?”
    Malowan nodded. “If he was a tenth of what he appears to be,yes. He’s not, though. Oh, he’s good enough with the swords. You’d be impressed,if you saw him in a duel against a pack of drunken thugs. His mothers paid for his dueling masters since he was a boy. She’s the one who sees he has fancyclothes and expensive weapons, and she’s noble. Few men of the noble or commonrank would risk offending her by injuring her precious boy.”
    Lhors eyed Arkon the Adamant, who now stood arguing with Vlandar. Full sun fell on a face that might be considered handsome.
    “If I were a swordsman,” Lhors ventured cautiously, “I wouldnot wear sleeves like that. My opponent’s blade might catch in them.”
    “You remember what Vlandar’s been telling you,” Malowan saidwarmly. “Good lad. What else?”
    “He looks very wealthy. That’s foolish, unless you want toattract thieves.” Lhors sighed. “And he was rude to the rangers. That wasn’tnecessary.”
    “He is wealthy, or his widowed mother is. She buys anythinghe asks for, and when he gets into trouble with his shiny toys, she blames his companions who must have led him astray. He picks his fights carefully and never fights anyone better than he.”
    “He’s not a hero?” Lhors asked.
    Malowan nodded. “He’s a fraud and not even named Arkon. Hisreal name is Plowys, after his mother’s brother.”
    A sharp, angry curse brought the paladin around, hands out. The young noble had come back in, unnoticed by either Lhors or Malowan.
    “Your pardon, young Arkon,” the paladin said smoothly. “I wasnot aware you were eavesdropping.”
    “If you mean to imply that I was sneaking about, listening toyour gossip…” the youth said angrily.
    “I imply nothing,” Malowan said evenly as Vlandar came backinto the barracks, where he could step between them. “I merely wonder that yourmother Plovenia would allow you to go twenty paces beyond the city gates in any company whatever. I doubt her purse strings or her apron strings stretch so far.”
    “You insult my lady mother?” Plowys demanded.
    “No,” Malowan replied evenly, “I insult you, and you knowwhy, young Plowys. A young companion of my ward is dead because you challenged him. Remember Vesisk? He was a street lad, a boy with no weapons skill at all, and you challenged him to a battle and killed him. One day, your mother will no longer be able to buy your way out of such situations.”
    Plowys-or Arkon-swore under his breath and freed a dagger.Lhors gasped as the man stalked forward, but the paladin made no effort to defend himself. As the fancy-clad young man brought the blade up, it seemed to slam into an invisible barrier and bounce back. Plowys yelped as the dagger went flying.
    “You should know better than to try to harm a paladin,”Vlandar told him. “He has his own protection. Fortunately, he’s not in the habitof attacking young men with bad manners.”
    “It’s not fair,” the would-be swashbuckler whimpered.
    “Life is not fair,” Malowan said evenly. “Most youths yourage have learned it by now. Your mother cannot buy you a place in this company, and she would be appalled to learn you came here. Go home. We are looking for those who can work as a team-something you may learn one day. You would not likethe world beyond Cryllor. Giants, goblins, and other evil creatures do not know your mother and would not spare you because of her rank and wealth.”
    “You’re afraid,” Plowys said, “afraid I’m better than you.”
    “No,” Malowan replied simply.
    Vlandar shook his head firmly. “You cannot pick your fightsout there. Challenge the wrong foe, and you’re dead without even a chance todraw your blades.”
    “You’ll be sorry,” Plowys snarled, but Lhors didn’t think hisheart was in it anymore. The pouting young man resheathed the dagger andstalked off.
    Malowan watched him leave then sighed after a moment. “I willspend my next two nights kneeling on a cold stone floor to implore the gods’forgiveness for my treatment of that poor child. Heironeous sees into my heart and knows I still can feel such anger.”
    “Phuff!” Vlandar spoke sharply, silencing him. “I wonder the‘poor child’ is still alive after insulting so many.”
    “He’s still alive,” Malowan replied, “because he only choosesfights against poor or drunk men. I wonder why the guard has not arrested him before now.”
    “Because, as you say, his mother protects him, and becausehe’s only just finished his course of swordplay with Master Eggidos. He hasn’tbeen on Cryllor’s streets that long.” Vlandar still sounded angry. “Make youramends if you will, Malowan. If your god is the least fair, he’ll understand.”
    “No.” Malowan smiled faintly. “In my anger and pride, Ichallenged the boy’s manhood, his sword skills, and ill-spoke his mother. He isuntutored and ignorant, but I am not.” He rose to his feet. “I will return,Vlandar. If Agya comes this afternoon, remind her that I want to hear her recite the Acts of Clean Living tomorrow morning. I also want her to resume honing her skills at sniffing out things. It might prove itself useful on this journey.”
    Vlandar clasped his friend’s arm. “I will. Mind you, don’thold vigil the entire night. I have need of you tomorrow.”
    Malowan smiled faintly. “I know. I will be here.”
    He left, and Lhors watched him go.
    Vlandar cleared his throat. “Any questions, lad?”
    The youth rubbed his still-patchy beard. Arkon’s-Plowys’-had been both thick and neatly trimmed. I could envy him just the beard, letalone those blades, thought Lhors. He sighed and said, “I think I understand.Father said a man who fights only those he can beat is a bully. But out there against giants he couldn’t choose his fights.”
    “Exactly. Now-” Vlandar broke off as a huge red-haired mancame into the barracks and began looking around. The man was impressively built and armed. Tall and massive with broad shoulders, the man’s hands were huge andcapable-looking. Lhors tried not to stare as the fellow stopped mid-room, but it was nearly impossible not to. A thick, braided sash held up heavy woolen trousers. A second sash held both an enormous warhammer and a spiked ball and chain. His armor was all padded and quilted, reinforced here and there with black hardened leather that was shiny with age. He was very pale-skinned, his hair pale golden-red and braided back with two narrow beaded strands hanging in front of his ears. His eyes were light winter-sky blue and intense.
    “Who is that?” Lhors whispered.
    “I’ve seen him round the city once or twice in the past fewdays. He’s Fist clan, I think.”
    “They inhabit the lands around the Grendep Bay in the farnortheast, cold lands. He’s a barbarian, anyway. Why?”
    “Just wondered. I’ve heard tales of the northerners.”
    Vlandar smiled. “They can be arrogant and touchy, but theyare excellent fighters.”
    At Vlandar’s gesture, the barbarian strode over to the tableand said, “I am Khlened.” His voice was deep, rough, and carried an accent thatLhors had never heard. “I’m seeking one named Vlandar. I hear he wants men tofight giants.”
    Lhors edged over to settle on his bunk as the massive barbarian sat on the nearby bench. As Vlandar went over their mission, the newcomer sat and listened quietly, now and again eyeing the youth perched on his narrow cot.
    “Well, then,” he said after Vlandar had finished. “I’m goodin a fight-good even among my own people.”
    “I don’t doubt that,” Vlandar said mildly, “but we also needmen who can follow orders.”
    Khlened’s eyes narrowed. “You saying I can’t?”
    “No. I’m saying I’ve fought alongside northerners before.Where we’re going, we’ll have one person in charge, and that will be me. Thestrongest and bravest warriors no good to me if he ignores my orders or sets his own course. We’re a small company. With you, we’ll have eight so far. That meanswe all get along. No feuds or wounded feelings, and we share everything.”
    The barbarian huffed and pushed partway to his feet, but then he hesitated and finally bared his teeth in a wild grin. He dropped back to the bench, rattling Lhors.
    “All right, Vlandar. There’s sense in that. You have my word.Who else goes?”
    The warrior turned down fingers as he went. “Myself, apaladin called Malowan, a young thief who’s his ward, two rangers, a mage namedNemis, and you.”
    Khlened glanced at Lhors. “That’s seven. What of the lad,here?”
    Lhors shook his head. His skin felt suddenly cold. “I’m not mean-”
    “The village was his,” Vlandar replied and gazed thoughtfullyat Lhors. “It’s his choice, if he wants to come with us.”
    Lhors’ eyes went wide. “I… but Vlandar, I can’t. Imean, I’m no fighter!”
    Vlandar held up a hand. “I think you can. Your father beganyour training, Lhors. I’ve watched you these past days. You have skills thatwould be useful. You know your limits, you can follow orders, and you listen. We’ll be a small party, and we could use someone who won’t be worn out fromconstant travel, someone who can serve as extra eyes and ears and hands.”
    Lhors had never considered this. Since coming to Cryllor, he had expected to be on his way after requesting the lord’s help. He had neverdreamed of being asked to help against the giants. He had Gran to think of…but he knew that was a false excuse. As a village wisewoman, she wouldn’t lackfor care.
    He had no family to which he could return. He thought of his father and remembered the aging soldier impaled upon a giants spear. In his mind, he saw his father’s life leaking away as the man lay in a pool of his ownblood. That faded but was replaced by the memory of screaming, terrified children, too young and helpless to defend themselves. Lhors saw again Bregya’sthree year old as the giant took him and…
    Something cold stirred inside Lhors. Again he saw the giants laughing as they slaughtered women and children and burned his village to the ground. “I’ll go.”
    Even the Fist barbarian looked taken aback at the sudden change in the youths voice and the stern set of his gaze.
    “Good lad,” replied Vlandar. “I’ll see to it the king’ssteward finds someone to return that horse and have him take word to the old woman-Gran, was it? We’ll have to fit you up with weapons and armor of somesort. Your father taught you to use javelins, right?”
    Lhors nodded, afraid to trust his voice. The mention of his father brought back memories that he could cherish later, but now he needed them for other reasons. His fear was still there, but it had now been joined by something else: rage and a sudden thirst for vengeance.


    The preparations for departure took even longer than choosingthe company had. Lhors spent much of his daylight hours helping Malowan set up a staging area in the stables. They acquired horses and pack animals, tack, packs, and bags that could be fitted on saddles and racks. He and the paladin went over the food and drink, which then went into bags that would be checked a final time by Pferic, a stolid, middle-aged soldier who would serve them as horseman and cook. Lord Mebree provided a small company to travel with them by horse as far as Flen, where a flatboat was being readied to take them to Istivin.
    “It’s our best choice,” Vlandar told the company on thesecond evening when they all gathered. “From Cryllor to Flen is a reasonablyeasy ride, two days without pushing the horses. The river Davish-”
    “The river,” Rowan objected, “goes from its joining with theJavan River due west, and the last time I saw it, Vlandar, it was a fast-moving stream.”
    “Then you saw it in the spring,” Vlandar replied. “This islate autumn. Not only is the water low and not nearly as swift, but this time of year the wind most often sets from east to west, flowing into the westernmost corner of Sterich where the Crystalmist Mountains and the Jotens meet up. Lord Mebree has ordered a flatboat for us with sails in case there is wind-and thereshould be. The south bank and the lands beyond rapidly move into the Jotens where the Steading is, but most of Sterich is flat and we will be able to see far in three directions most of the time. I need not remind you that there will be bandits, pirates, giants, and all manner of unpleasant folk watching the Davish?”
    “Pirates?” Nemis murmured and rose to his feet. “Your pardon,Vlandar, but I fear I must decline this journey. You warned me of giants and other monsters and horrors, but you said nothing about pirates!”
    Lhors simply stared at the mage, astonished-as did several ofhis companions. But this seemed to be Nemis’ idea of a joke. Malowan andVlandar broke into laughter, and the mage grinned. “That is well though,Vlandar. Personally, I prefer a boat under my feet to a horse between my knees. But what if there is no wind?”
    Vlandar shrugged. “We pole. This time of year, the water willbe shallow and slow. It won’t be so bad.”
    That evening was given over to readying for the chance that they might become separated. Bread and other rations were divided up and put in separate small packs that each of them would carry at all times. Individual tins of flint and tinder were also stowed.
    The next morning, Lhors went with Vlandar, who had him fitted for thick trousers of brown boiled wool, a soft tunic to match, and a knee-length cloak and hood of waterproofed wool that could also serve as a blanket. The warrior then took him into the armory and acquired a leather harness and case for javelins, then had it cut down so it fit snugly. Seven short throwing javelins, each tipped with sharp steel, went into the case, which could be covered over and tied down so that he wouldn’t lose the weapons if thecase tipped. To Lhors’ surprise, Vlandar also bought him two long-bladeddaggers, a sling, and a bag of hurling stones.
    “The blades are for defense and only as a last resort. Thesling is as good at a distance as the javelins-possibly better since they workat greater distance with less effort. Mal is better at the sling than I. I’llget him to show you.”
    During those three days, Malowan and Vlandar also found the time to track down people who knew the land near the Steading. They even found one fellow who’d been taken prisoner by one of the hill giants but had managedto escape. None of them had any desire to return no matter how great the reward, but they talked freely and answered questions that Vlandar incorporated into his precious maps. He now had four. The first was a general map of the lands of southern Sterich and the Joten mountains. Another that he’d drawn himself was ofthe Steading and the lands around it for two leagues. A third, even rougher, showed the outside of the fortress-like building-what he’d been able to learn ofentries, guard towers, and the like. The last, mostly blank, was an outline of the outer walls. Vlandar had roughly marked the location of the main entry and the doors leading into the rest of the building. His only source of information had escaped by hiding amid the cloaks and wrappings piled in the entry. With the chaos of so many coming in at once, he’d been temporarily forgotten.
    The first meeting of the full group-again, after dark, sinceit gave the members of the company an opportunity to comb the market for things they would need for the journey-was less pleasant than Lhors had expected.Plowys returned, sullenly mouthing threats and trying to pick fights with everyone, including Lhors.
    Khlened finally picked him up by the collar and tossed him into the night. Khlened himself was in an obnoxious mood, picking on everything he saw as poorly planned. He seemed both fascinated and repelled by the rangers and raised one objection after another over division of treasure. The rangers exchanged annoyed glances whenever he turned away.
    The two rangers also spent some time helping Vlandar and the others in the company work out a rough series of hand-signs.
    “Maera and I have our own,” Rowan explained, “but it’scomplex-”
    “-and private,” Maera interrupted. She didn’t look at allpleased, and Lhors wondered if they had quarreled about sharing their code.
    Rowan glanced at her and moved her index finger and thumb sharply.
    Maera nodded and added, “Mostly, it’s complicated-a twinthing.”
    “But we think there might be times when it’s dangerous tospeak aloud,” Rowan went on, “and so if we all had a set of signs for suchthings as ‘danger’, ‘monster’… Vlandar, you’re our captain, you’ll knowbest what we need besides what Maera and I have worked out.”
    “Well thought,” the warrior admitted. “We’ll have a littlemore time here and some time on the road each night. I’ll think on it.”

    The company rode out of the city at daybreak three dayslater. Vlandar took the lead, and the others strung out behind him. Bringing up the rear was a score of Lord Mebree’s best fighters and Pferic, who led two packanimals while his assistant, Zyb, a freckled boy of perhaps fourteen years, led the third.
    For the most part, they rode in silence along the east bank of the Javan River, with an occasional word from Vlandar on direction or stops. The rangers had their own mode of silent communication and moved out ahead to scout once they left the farmsteads and pastures behind. Khlened seemed to be hung over or simply sulking about yet another imagined slight. Nemis’ lipsmoved now and again-perhaps going over spells that might prove useful. Agya hadquarreled with the paladin over one of the last pranks she’d pulled in the lowermarkets the night before they left. Though she now and again spoke to Vlandar, she ignored Malowan. Lhors found himself riding most of the day next to the paladin, who pointed out an occasional landmark along the broad, smooth-flowing river that began high in the Barrier Peaks and ended in the Azure Sea.
    There wasn’t much to see to the east and north but hills.Although Lhors had never been quite this far north, every tree and bush seemed to speak of home to him. It was all he could do not to turn and head south, but a small, despondent voice in the back of his mind whispered, but you have no home now….
    The desire for revenge that had seized him the other night was still there, but it smoldered now, and he let it alone to do so. Better to concentrate on the task at hand.
    Not very far to the west, Lhors could make out the feet of mountains, the Jotens. Somewhere among those peaks and valleys lay the Steading. Lhors swallowed, his throat suddenly dry, then stood in the stirrups to take the weight off his already stiff backside. Movement well to the rear caught his eye. Lhors stared hard, but the figure was much too distant for him to tell much.
    “Malowan? I think there’s someone following us.”
    “Yes,” Mal said without looking back. “I saw him earlier.Arkon the Adamant.” The paladin’s voice was dry, and the corners of his mouthtwitched.
    Khlened, who was riding just ahead of them, reined in so they could catch up to him. “Green whelp,” he growled. “Believe I’ll go back there and teach him themeaning of ‘no’!
    “Leave him be.” Vlandar had apparently been near enough tocatch the whole exchange. “He’s not worth the trouble. Save your horse for thejourney ahead. The boy will either grow up or he won’t. At this point, it’s hischoice.” He kneed his mount and went back to the head of the party.
    Khlened moved back to where he’d been. Lhors could hear himmumbling under his breath but couldn’t make out what he was saying.
    They rode at a ground-devouring pace, though Pferic made certain they took frequent stops to rest the horses and donkeys. Khlened objected-mildly enough for him-but Vlandar backed the horseman. “We’ve at leasttwo days to reach Flen and our boat. We’re between two prosperous cities and ona well-traveled river. This is still no place to be caught afoot. Others besides honest travelers and king’s men frequent this way.”
    Still, they made a long day of it to make up for the lack of speed. Most of the afternoon had been a subtle climb-enough to prove adiscomfort to a man riding who wasn’t a horseman, Lhors decided wearily. He wasready to fall from the saddle when they finally stopped for the night just after sundown.
    The few oak trees around their camp were heavily festooned with vining leather-leaf, a parasitic plant that only grew at higher elevations, and the evening air was cooler than it had been in the city.
    Pferic set the boy Zyb to gathering firewood while he hobbled the horses for the night. The lord’s soldiers had set guard around the campalready and apportioned watches. Lhors helped Pferic, giving a handful of grain to each animal before he accompanied Zyb to help collect kindling.
    The next day was much like the previous, but just after midday, they rode into Flen. The boat turned out to be two flat-bottomed boats, each surprisingly small with a long rudder oar and two poles per side. There was a small cabin midships and a sturdy mast just before that. Lhors, who had never set foot on a boat in his life, stared wide-eyed at the arrangement and was slightly disappointed when Khlened and Nemis showed them how the sails were furled. It was a very simple operation, one even he could manage to help with.
    Vlandar bid farewell to their escort and divided up the party right away. “I have given some thought to this, so if you dislike my choice, Isuggest you try to live with it, since we all must function as a team from now on. Once you know which boat is yours, get your things aboard as quickly as possible and come back out to the dock. There’s a captain coming from thecompany that patrols the rivers. We’ll all need to know what he can tell us, andhe’ll be sending four or so of his men with us to bring the boats back.”
    Vlandar then sent Lhors and the rangers to the lead boat where he would be, leaving the second to Malowan, Agya, Khlened and Nemis. Lhors looked around in the brief silence that followed the announcement. He couldn’tdecide if anyone was displeased or not, but he was grateful not to be in closequarters with Agya.
    “What of the horses?” Rowan asked.
    Vlandar spread his hands. “What I said back in Cryllor stillholds. Unless this Captain Holken tells us otherwise, I’ll want someone besidesPferic on horse to keep an eye on the lands along both banks, possibly someone afoot as well if the terrain calls for it. Last I heard, the middle reaches of the river are not well patrolled, and there are villains of every kind who prey on travelers. We won’t need all of the horses, however. Likely we’ll leave Zybhere with most of them.”
    “Sounds as if we won’t be coming back the same way we go,”Khlened mumbled.
    “No, remember what I told you in the barracks,” the warriorsaid. “Maybe we’ll return as we went in-and in a hurry. If so, we’ll need theboats and the horses. But if we must go on to another place, Mal and Nemis are working on a way to let our outside party know to turn around and return here.”
    “Since we don’t know what we’ll face or find,” Malowan added,“we are trying to provide for several possibilities.”
    “Mmmm.” The barbarian nodded and went to unload the packsfrom his horse.

    The sun was still well above the western hills when agray-bearded bear of a man with a captain’s patch on his hardened leather armorstrode up to the two boats with four men behind him.
    “Vlandar, isn’t it?” he asked. “I’m Holken, and these are themen I’m sending with you. They’re experienced in the-ah-trade along theriver between here and Istivin.” He grinned. “So’m I, but worse luck, I’m neededhere and up the Javan to the north.”
    Vlandar met his hand halfway and led them onto the deck of the first boat.
    “Be that secret-like, or do we all listen in?” Agya asked.
    Malowan shrugged. “We’ve still some loading and settling todo. Vlandar will let us know what we need to know.”
    “P’raps,” the girl replied. She gazed back the way they’dcome. “Wonder where that fool of a rich lad’s got ’isself to?”
    “He’s waiting,” Khlened growled. “I can almost sense himm’self, waiting for us to be on the move and out of this walled town so’s he canfollow once more.”
    Malowan sighed and shook his head. “Unfortunately, Khlened, Ifear you are probably right.”
    Just then, Vlandar reemerged and called the company together while the local men were storing their own weapons and supplies. When everyone had gathered, he explained, “These men patrol the river between here andIstivin, and they know the dangers. For an old landsman like myself, they’llprove good instructors at poling a boat and reading the river. We’ve only a fewhours of daylight left, but the farther we get upriver tonight means one less hour tomorrow and the day after.”
    Malowan looked at each of them in turn then nodded. “It’s agood plan. Let’s be off.”

    Several hours later they stopped for the night against thenorthern bank of the Davish River where it was undercut by high spring flow. Here, they could not be seen from the south, were partly protected by rock face to east and west, and reasonably comfortable on a pebble-strewn shoreline. Even without a fire-the Flen guards had advised against one-they were fairly warm.With a nearly full moon, they could see each other well even in the shadow of the overhang.
    Rowan and Maera spent an hour or so scouting the area. Upon their return, Rowan announced that their tagalong was still tagging along.
    “The lad’s impatient. He may yet give up,” was all Vlandarwould say.
    “Well, better he’s out there than here,” Maera grumbled.
    Lhors smiled but said nothing. Maera had already proven to be much sharper tongued than her sister. Rowan actually smiled and spoke to him on occasion.
    Khlened mumbled something under his breath.
    Rowan smiled at Lhors now, but her eyes were wicked. “Maera,I don’t believe the barbarian likes us. I wonder why.”
    “Yes,” Maera said flatly. “Which is it, barbarian, that we’rerangers, female, or half-elf? Or is it just that we’re not Fist barbarianwomen?”
    A tense silence followed. Lhors saw Malowan stand to arbitrate, but before he could speak, Khlened looked startled and possibly even embarrassed at being called on his rudeness. He finally mumbled, “All that,praps. Don’t know any elves-”
    “Maera and I aren’t elves,” Rowan said mildly enough. “Ourfather is human, a warrior like yourself, northerner.”
    “Oh.” The barbarian glanced at them. “Don’t know anyhalf-elves or any rangers either. Just that… they’re odd, live in the woods,talk to the bears.”
    “Bears make more sense than people sometimes,” Maera said,and for once she sounded almost friendly. “To us, you’re the odd one. Who’d wantto live in snow and ice country?”
    “Because the north is Fist country,” Khlened repliedpromptly. “Fist barbarians are born and reared there. Besides, better than tomelt in the south.”
    “We don’t like heat much ourselves,” Rowan said. Silencefollowed again, but it wasn’t quite as stiff a silence as it had been. Khlenedsettled back and rummaged through his pack for a stick of jerky as Vlandar apportioned the watches.
    It clouded over and rained during the late hours, but only briefly. Vlandar took the last watch. At sunrise, he had them on their way once again, both boats moving slowly but steadily upstream while Rowan and Maera scouted along the south shore and the Flennish guards took the north.
    Lhors felt useless. He could pole, but he wasn’t strong enough to keep upwith Vlandar or Khlened. Vlandar put him to working the tiller because he could follow orders, but he couldn’t begin to understand how to read the river.
    Vlandar seemed to have picked up river travel quickly. When the wind drove east to west for part of the afternoon and they were able to use the sails, the warrior brought Lhors up to the bow and began pointing out how to recognize shallow water, hidden rocks, swift currents, swirling currents, and other dangers. Shortly after, the winds died and Lhors went back to the tiller-still unable to work out their way by himself but easier with his role insteering the boat.
    “There are hill giants prowling about,” Rowan reported atsunset when they picked her up along the southern shore, “but there is nowherefor them to cross. We’ll be safe enough along the northern shore.”
    “That’s good to know,” Vlandar replied, “but we’ll still seta double guard tonight and light no fires. No use in tempting fate.”

    Two more long days of hard work brought them to the Sterichcapital of Istivin. Lhors thought it a distinct step down from Cryllor. The market was smaller, and there were few goods for sale except food and weaponry. The periphery walls were utilitarian, and everything close to them stank of the cauldrons of pitch kept over low-burning fires in case of sudden attack from bandits, pirates, giants from the Steading, or other enemies. Apparently Istivin had many of them.
    Vlandar kept them in the city only long enough to check with the captain of the city guard for any information about the Steading and other perils in the vicinity. While he was gone, Lhors helped Pferic and Mal replenish the company’s supply of bread, jerked meat, and other things that could be eatenwithout the need for fires.
    Past Istivin, the Davish took an abrupt turn to the south and became narrower and more shallow. The current was slower, but sandbars and submerged rocks were more prevalent, so they could proceed no faster.
    Two days beyond Istivin, they beached the boats on the innermost edge of a bend in the river and began distributing goods, extra maps, water bottles and various supplies in case anyone was separated from the group. The Flennish men turned the boats, then beached them again and brought out dun-colored nets to drape over nearby trees for cover. In the same way, they blocked the main opening of a cavern that could hold all the horses. Pferic and Zyb had the beasts inside and tethered to a line near a tiny stream that wound through the cave. Several paces upstream, there was a hole broken through the roof. Where sunlight came through the hole, grass grew next to the water. It wouldn’t serve the horses for long, but Pferic had brought grain enough to lasta while, and the Flennish guards knew places nearby where they could be grazed in relative safety.
    Malowan spent some time reminding Pferic how to check the charm he and Nemis had concocted. With the tiny amulet, Pferic would know if he and Zyb should take the boats and horses and head back to Flen or if they should wait for the company to return.
    Vlandar allowed the company one full day to rest up from the rigors of upriver travel, then set off with his band, afoot, going south across a narrow band of flat country that soon went into hills and then into mountainous country. The Steading, according to his maps, was three days away, no more.
    It took all three days, partly because they needed to go to ground for some time the first day to avoid a large company of bandits, and again the next when three giants stopped to graze a flock of sheep-stolen, Lhorsthought.
    Just after midday on the third day, Vlandar stopped the company in a thick copse of trees and pointed south. “See the two-pronged peak that’s covered insnow? The Steading is this side of it, just beyond that ridge.”
    “Can we see it from the ridge?” Lhors asked. His feet acheddespite all his years of hunting with his father afoot, and he was cold, tired, and scared.
    “No. The ridge is too high. I’m told there are caves nearby.With luck, we’ll be able to store our provisions and rest the night.”
    “Caves,” Maera growled. “This near the Steading, the giantswill know them, too.”
    “Yes,” Vlandar said, “but if the reports are true, there aremany that are more human-sized. Young giants might play in such caves if the Steading were not a fortress, but babes from that fort are not allowed to play outside.”
    Khlened shook his head. “We’ve caves in the north. I dislike’em. Bears and worse make them their home.”
    “Bears?” Agya said and shuddered.
    “We’ll make sure any cave we use has a small entry and noback door,” Malowan assured her.
    Rowan, who was peering out of the concealing branches to the north, suddenly interrupted their conversation. “Vlandar, come have a look.”
    Vlandar and the others came to where she crouched and saw what had caught her attention. A lone figure was approaching them. Squinting to try to make out the details, Vlandar finally said, “It’s Plowys.”
    Agya spat. “Hoped maybe a bear’d eaten him.”
    “No such luck,” Maera replied flatly.
    Vlandar sighed. “We may as well wait here. We can’t evadehim, and we can’t send him back. He’ll simply refuse to go, and we can’t tie himup and leave him, tempting as it is. Evade him, and he might ride up to the Steading gates and demand to join his company.” He gave the barbarian a hardlook. “And no, it’s no answer to let him do just that. He’d give us away as soonas he opened his mouth-or they’d torture him and learn of us anyway. I prefer tokeep our presence secret for a while. We might learn more that way. Besides, this way we may be able to keep control of him.”
    Khlened grumbled. “Hah. Well, if we’re waiting, I’ll wait onmy backside.” He settled on a nearby rock, and Nemis sat down next to him.
    Minutes passed as Plowys came on. Apparently, he didn’t knowwhere their company had gone, but he was making his way to the very copse of trees where they lay hid.
    “Let me handle this,” Vlandar said as he stepped out of thetrees, waved to the young man, and then resumed his hiding place.
    Plowys saw him and spurred his horse forward. Crashing through the trees with no attempt at stealth, he vaulted from the saddle. He was still smirking, but before he could say anything, Vlandar pounced, hauling him off his feet by his shirt and throwing him to the ground.
    Maera and Rowan grabbed his winded horse and did their best to quiet the beast.
    “I chose not to bring you on this journey, boy!”Vlandar hissed. “You were not wanted, and you are still not wanted!”
    Plowys stared at him, slack-jawed. “I–I-”
    “Silence! I am on the king’s mission. If I chose, I couldkill you now for ignoring my orders.”
    The boy paled. “You wouldn’t dare!” he managed as he got tohis feet and began to dust himself off. “My mother would-”
    “She is not here,” Nemis said grimly as he came to stand overthe fallen youth. “We are, and your precious mother has no holdover me, boy.”
    Plowys licked his lips. “You won’t do it.” But he wouldn’tmeet Vlandar’s eyes or the mage’s. He glanced at the circle of grim faces, thenfixed on the paladin. “You won’t,” he told Malowan, “and you won’t letthem, will you?”
    Vlandar and Malowan exchanged tired looks, and the paladin sighed. “I dare not, if I would remain a paladin. But neither does that mean Iopenly welcome you. My order strives for purity, but few of us are truly free of petty emotions.”
    “It is not petty,” Vlandar growled. He strode forward,leveling a finger at Plowys’ nose. The boy eyed it warily. “You will give meyour solemn oath here and now that you will behave as a fighter. You will cooperate with everyone here. Everyone.” he added as he named the companyin turn. “Your life may depend on how good a thief Agya is, or how good a jobLhors can do watching our backs for enemies. You are no better than anyone else here.
    “And you are a common member of a company where Iam captain. You will obey my orders or the orders of whomever I put in charge of you. Should you do otherwise, I will order you tied and left on the spot. Do you understand?”
    Plowys nodded almost meekly.
    “Young idiot,” Nemis muttered as the youth went to tend hishorse.
    Khlened scowled. “Don’t trust the snotty little beast sofar’s I could spit him.”
    Vlandar’s mouth twitched. “I know. Why do you think you’rekeeping an eye on him for me?”
    Khlened smiled, but Lhors did not envy Plowys his newfound protector.


    While the rest of the company hid in a small valley shelteredby trees and huge boulders, Lhors joined Maera and Rowan in scouting for a suitable base camp. For once, Lhors finally proved himself useful. Aside from the rangers and Vlandar, he was the only member of the company experienced in hunting in the open without being seen. Although the trio saw no giants, there were signs of danger everywhere: huge footprints, here and there a tree that had obviously been felled by a massive blow, and the crude scrawlings of orcs and other creatures.
    Despite what Vlandar had been told, there were precious few suitable caves in the area. The few they had found were either too small or were in plain sight of the giants’ hold. There were also a few caverns too narrow ortoo low for even Agya to enter.
    After several hours of fruitless searching, they finally found a suitable site. Lhors went through the small chamber, making certain it had no other holes that could let in bears, snakes, or even nastier things. After the company moved in, Vlandar set the rangers to watching for enemy and gathering firewood in case it was possible to have a fire. While the rest of the party was busy settling in, Vlandar sent Nemis to see what he could learn of the giants’ fortress.
    Lhors pronounced the cave as a good safety, but he was grateful that Khlened, who’d come in with an armful of wood, also checked thedark corners and agreed with him. “No places for anything bigger’n a bug to getin. And I found a chimney-bit of a hole going west with the wind blowing thatway, as well. We could have a fire for hot tea or soup, and the smoke won’t blowtoward the Steading. Shouldn’t come out anywhere about at all, in fact.”
    “I’m still not sure about fire,” Vlandar said, “but perhapsNemis or Mal can keep it from unfriendly noses. I admit I’d welcome a hot mealor at least a warm drink.”
    Not long after full dark, Nemis and Malowan were hard at work on a fire. Mal constructed a pile of very dry sticks while Nemis muttered a spell over the chimney hole. The air around it sparkled briefly, and smoke that began a pale gray just above the pile of kindling turned clear as it swirled through the mage’s fingers. Suddenly, Lhors couldn’t smell it either.
    Maera, to Lhors’ surprise, began preparing a soup from thedry packets they all carried, and to his mind it was as good smelling as anything Gran had made.
    Gran, he thought sadly. I wonder where she is tonight. At the moment, she seemed very far away, almost like someone from another life. That was good. He would mourn his people properly later, once he’d done his best toavenge them.
    “All right,” Vlandar announced to everyone as the last of hiscompany settled down. “Remember that we need to change our regular patterns.Hill giants are active at night, mostly. By daybreak, all but a few servants or guards will be sleeping or passed out. Remember that we are infiltrating to learn what we can and wreak any damage we can. We need information. Remember that this”-he held up his interior map-“is blank beyond the entry and the guardtower. We know nothing about how the Steading is set up inside. There may be traps, and there will certainly be guards. We need to know what’s beyond theentry, so I’m sending Mal and Agya in first.”
    “What?” Plowys blurted. “Why?”
    “Mal’s a paladin and has protection we don’t: he can senseevil. And Agya is a thief.”
    “Was a thief,” Malowan interjected mildly.
    Agya wrinkled her nose but said nothing.
    Vlandar shrugged. “She has talent, and she uses it for ourbenefit. I tested her myself. She has a phenomenal memory, and she can penetrate a maze and map it in detail afterward.”
    “’Tis no talent. Was needed, back in th’ city,” the girlmumbled with a sidelong glance at her mentor.
    “She’ll fill in the map for me, and I will draw it out forthe rest of us,” Vlandar said.
    “And if Malowan and Agya are caught?” Maera demanded sharply.
    “It is a risk,” the warrior conceded, “but not so much as allof us going into an unfamiliar place. What if one of us opens the wrong door and walks into the barracks just as a company is arming to go plunder?” Vlandar eyedthem all. “If we have to fight, we are no longer gathering information, and itis vital we learn why the Steading giants are attacking and razing villages and if they intend to go against cities next. Remember that we’re allowed to keeptreasure only if we find out what’s going on and why.”
    Nemis stepped forward, his hands loosely clasped before him. “I can tell you this much,” he said quietly, “I have heard rumors that there isanother force that uses the giants for its own ends.”
    Malowan eyed him keenly. “And you know this… how?”
    Nemis shrugged. “Several weeks ago, I saw raiders coming backfrom up near the Stark Mounds, and they were a mixed company, which is unusual. Hill giants are unmistakable by their bulk, as cloud giants are by their height and fire giants by their coal-black skin. I was nearer than I would have liked to be-close enough that I could hear some of their speech. One hill giant waslaughing about orders-some sort of in-joke probably, and one of the fire giantstold him to be still, that ‘the Masters’ would have them all killed for such aslip.”
    “There was more than one kind of giant in my village, Ithink,” Lhors said. “Some were much taller than others. There were many kinds ofarmor and weapons, but I saw none who were very dark-skinned.”
    “Well,” Malowan said, “before coming in, Nemis and I went outto view the fort, and I can tell you what we have here. The Steading is set low in one of those nasty, damp depressions. All the hills may be dry, but there will be rain in the hollow. Fog is a near constant. That is to our advantage, since the guards won’t be able to see us, and if we’re quiet…”
    Nemis nodded. “I used a simple reveal spell on the fort, andit is a formidable structure. The walls are as thick as I am tall, the logs immense and very damp. An army couldn’t break into it, and fire cannot destroyit. I could sense many within-hill giants, possibly other giants, orcs, trollsand other slaves who serve the giants. I cannot tell you how many of each kind, only that there are many who are armed. Oh, and a cave bear, at least one.”
    Agya licked her lips. “A bear?”
    “Restrained,” Nemis assured her, “on a chain, perhaps. Isensed metal, anyway.”
    “Bears ain’t safe, mage! There was a juggling bear for yearsin lower market, and old Yoryos kept it chained! Well, it got free during a show and ate ’im!” She shivered.
    “I know, Agya.” Malowan laid a hand on her shoulder, “but Isensed the restraints, and I can detect it before it sees or smells us. So, as long as you do not go off on your own…?”
    The little thief’s lips twisted. “Now I won’t.”
    “I agree that this place is possibly as near a haven as wewill find,” Maera said as she sighted down an arrow to check it forstraightness. “It isn’t likely giants will come this way, but our father used tosay, ‘If I had a silver penny for every time the completely unexpected happened,I’d have retired to a palace and not a village hut.’” She glanced to Nemis.“This is, after all, an open cave, and it is not that far from the Steading.Think of coming so far only to die because some oversized brute saw light or heard voices.”
    “The lady is right,” Nemis said. “I can build an illusionarywall, suitably matched to the local stone, of course.”
    Lhors cleared his throat. “Um, but this is their land.If someone made a wall where I knew a cave was, even if I never used it, I would notice.”
    Nemis smiled. “Just so. But I have my own version of thewall, and it includes a non-detection spell. Once set around a person or place, those who pass simply won’t notice it.”
    Agya laughed. “Oooh, just gimme a spell like that…”She grinned as the paladin cleared his throat ominously. “For certain, I don’twant it now; but to have ’ad it when I was still a-lifting purses…”
    Vlandar nudged the paladin. “Changing her are you, Mal?”
    “I am,” the paladin replied grimly, “but I’m nomiracle-worker.”
    Agya seemed to take offense at this and glared at Lhors when he chuckled.

    The air inside the cave stayed constant all night-not quitewarm enough for comfort and a little stuffy as the hours passed. By contrast, the predawn air outside was damp and chill.
    Malowan tugged the dark hood over his helm and wrapped wool around his arms, pulling the thick cloth around his hands.
    Agya matched his actions, then looked up at him. “We on it orno?” she demanded quietly.
    “Waiting for Nemis,” he reminded her. He sniffed cautiously,then held up a hand. “No wind-good. We’ll need to be quiet, but the fog shouldbe thick enough to hide us.”
    “Fog,” Agya mumbled. “Who’d’a thunk I’d be glad of fog?”
    “You won’t be in it for long,” Malowan said. He turned asNemis came out, two leather thongs clutched in his hand. Malowan took them, touched the smoothed, pale blue stones that had been threaded onto the soft leather, then gave one to Agya. “Put it on,” he said. “Nemis will know where weare by these.”
    “And in what condition-” the mage began.
    Malowan gestured sharply, silencing him, then sent his eyes flicking toward his ward. Agya was studying the charm and apparently hadn’theard him.
    “Agya,” Malowan said, “please go tell Vlandar that we areready to depart.”
    “But y’just tol’ ’im yourself!” she protested.
    “Agya…” the paladin replied with a warning look.
    “Oh, all right,” she hissed and disappeared inside the cave.
    “I didn’t want her hearing this, Nemis, but you will know ifwe are taken or dead?”
    The mage nodded.
    “What if we are taken and they search us?”
    “My beneath-notice spell is on the charms,” Nemis replied.“It may only affect the charm and not the wearer, but tell her of it if shestill worries about the bear.” He looked skyward. “We had better go now.”
    Malowan repositioned the small pack under his cloak and finished just as Agya reemerged. They followed the mage away from the caves, out of the ravine, and up a low, brushy slope.
    Near the top, Nemis eased onto his hands and knees. Malowan shoved his cloak aside and crawled after him. Agya, much shorter than either man, went into a low crouch and brought up the rear, keeping a wary eye all around them, though there was little to see and it was still too dark to see very far.
    Once they reached the crest, Nemis went flat and tugged Malowan’s ear close. “Can you make it out?” he breathed.
    Malowan gazed out and down, then finally nodded.
    “Good. Straight down the slope you’ll find a boulder and somethorny scree. Don’t speak once you move from here-it’s near enough the towerthat the guards will hear us.”
    The paladin nodded again, then drew his ward close. She tensed, then leaned against him briefly.
    “Ready?” he asked softly. She gave him Rowan’s sign for Wego now. Malowan replied in like fashion, then eyed Nemis. “Lead, we’llfollow.”
    Nemis moved out, low on hands and knees.
    This side of the hill was steeper than the way they’d comeup. The mage reversed himself and eased down feet-first, turned sideways with one hand out to catch at the tough brush so he wouldn’t slide to the bottom.What grass there was here was slick with dew and slippery as ice underfoot. Fortunately, most of the slope was dirt and rock.
    Nemis finally stopped and drew them down with him into a shallow depression between a fat boulder and thick brush. Malowan edged forward and gazed down for some moments, then eased silently back, gripped the mage’sshoulder and without further ado, moved to his right and began working his way down into the dell. Agya followed.


    The air had been icy cold outside the fort, particularly forAgya who’d had to rub her hands together several times before they were warmenough to manage her metal lockpicks. Mal stood ready with his sword as his ward worked at the massive locks. After several minutes, there was an all-too-loud clack as she freed the innermost tumbler. The door swung open.
    Inside, it was cold but not as damp, and the air was stuffy. Malowan smelled unwashed bodies and sweaty furs, but there was no one in sight. Agya stepped away from him, eyes moving nonstop while his were still adjusting to the gloom. It seemed to be a cloakroom, just as Vlandar’s information hadindicated. Huge outer garments hung from pegs. The wall to his right held doors, a double doorway flanked by a single door to each side. At least, Malowan thought, there was room for both of them to hide in here.
    Chill air rolled down from above-the guard tower, clearly.Someone up there was snoring.
    I forgot how huge everything would be, he thought. Agya must be terrified.
    Surprisingly, his ward seemed only interested. She eyed him sidelong as he silently moved across the floor to listen at the entry to the tower passage. Malowan signed that there was only one guard and he was sleeping.
    Agya turned to check out the rest of the entry-chamber, and he came over to help.
    An overturned ale keg contributed to the sour smell, but damp furs and wet wool seemed to account for most of the stench. Agya eyed the various sacks flung down beneath the rack of pegs and shook her head. Nothing worth searching.
    He tapped her arm to get her attention, then signed, This way first. He set his shoulder against one of the main doors, created a space just large enough for her to slip through, then followed, easing it silently shut behind them.
    A long, broad corridor led to a vast hall with a high ceiling, thick wooden pillars, and a low-burning fire. He could see chairs, benches, piles of cushions, and a huge table on the other side of the fire, but there was no sign or sound of occupants.
    Agya jumped as someone to her left beyond another set of double doors snored one bellowing snort. The doors remained closed, and the noise wasn’t repeated.
    Deciding that they were safe for the moment, Malowan set his shoulder against the opposite wall and eased down the long passage. Agya sighed quietly and drew a dagger as she followed.
    The chamber-a feasting hall, clearly-was huge. Fire burnedmerrily in a pit at the room’s center, illuminating some things and casting oddshadows over others. Doors on either side of the room were closed, and there was no sound to indicate what might be beyond them.
    Malowan glanced both ways, then ran light-footed to the west doors and listened. Agya started toward him, but he shook his head and signed, Food place. Servants. Agya nodded and laid a hand over her lips, indicating she’d be quiet. The paladin smiled, then moved across the chamber to test theeast doors. Safe, he finally indicated. Agya clapped both hands over her mouth and he grinned. “Safe” wasn’t really likely anywhere in the Steading.
    He eased one of the doors open so they could slip through. A somewhat narrower, dark hallway led straight on. Malowan could hear at least two giants snoring-sleeping off too much bad wine, no doubt. Moments later, theycame to a cross-point. He eased into the open and listened intently, then moved past a door left partly open. Fire burned sullenly halfway down a long, narrow chamber that he thought must be part of the outer walls-here the logs were asthick as he was tall. There was a door at the far end, and he thought he could sense the cave bear beyond it. Between them and that door, the room was a jumble of tables, chairs, and benches. All of them were littered with cups, dirty plates, and platters. Broached kegs were everywhere. The room reeked of sour wood-fire smoke, unwashed bodies, wet leather, ale, and vomit. Badly preserved trophy heads lined the wall above the fireplace-he could only hope Agya hadn’tseen that one of the heads was human. He touched her hand to get her attention and led the way back into the hall, crossing to check out the door on the opposite wall.
    These were heavily barred. Malowan mouthed a reveal spell, then led Agya to the left. The hallway bent west here, another pair of doors at the end. He eased them open, revealing another fireplace-the fire here nearlyburned out-and an almost normal-sized chamber that looked surprisingly neat andalmost businesslike. The table was long and narrow. A chief’s chair sat empty atone end, smaller chairs flanking it. Shelves near the fireplace held odd items, and opposite the hearth, a huge hide was stretched on the wall. Malowan gazed at this, then nodded in satisfaction. Map, he signed and moved to study it.
    Agya tugged at his sleeve and held out both hands, making writing motions. He handed over the blank map hide and charcoal stick and left her to copy the map while he checked the rest of the chamber.
    Hides and rugs covered the floor, and tapestries hid most of the walls. Along the west wall, there was a heavy, stiff skin covering a vast area. Oddly, the bottom edge was moving as if air currents from behind were at work. Very odd, since the chamber was rather stuffy. He shoved the hide to one side, sensitive fingers questing until he found a door. It wasn’t really verywell hidden, except by the hide. Once inside the tiny hidden chamber, he cast a spell, and the rack of firewood along the far wall lit up like a candle to his eyes.
    Agya came up behind him. Malowan, aware by his last spell that no one was nearby, tugged at her boy-cut hair and murmured, “We are safeenough for now. The wood conceals something of value. Help me shift it.”
    Agya merely nodded and knelt to begin shifting balks of firewood. The pile was nearly gone when Malowan’s fingers closed around severaltubes.
    “Scroll cases,” he whispered.
    She nodded, inclining her head again when he indicated she should guard both the doors while he checked the tubes for safety.
    Eventually he chose two, shoved them into his pack, then carefully restacked the firewood. “These must be valuable,” he whispered. “Timefor us to hide or get back outside before the next guard change.”
    Malowan waved her back into the room to watch and listen while he resettled the huge hide. “Be very quiet. There are wolves, remember,”he reminded her.
    She nodded, her face pale, and led the way.
    But before they had gone two paces, heavy footsteps echoed through the hall, and a deep bass voice rumbled in counterpart to at least three yipping wolves. Mal waited, holding his breath. The sounds passed by, and a door slammed, cutting off all noise.
    Malowan gave a white-faced Agya thumbs up and went on. Shedrew a dagger and followed.
    They retraced their steps and only once had to hide-Malowanunder a pile of sacks, boots, and other rubble on the floor of the cloakroom, while Agya buried herself under a fur cloak that almost reached the floor. Two giants came rumbling and cursing down from the tower, one clutching his head while another grumbled, seemingly cross at having his sleep interrupted for guard duty in full fog.
    Malowan waited an extra three tens of breaths after they had left, then rolled from under the sacks and drew Agya toward the doors. He eased one open as quietly as possible and pulled her outside.
    Somewhere high above the Steading, day had broken. Down here, the fog was merely a brighter shade of gray but no less thick. The sides of the road were barely visible as an occasional tuft of dead grass.
    Agya retrieved her tools. Malowan gestured a reminder for utter silence. She nodded, wide-eyed, and there was only the faintest snip as the lock slid into place.
    They set out as quickly as they could walk. In this much haze, they’d be invisible to anyone approaching, and they’d hear anyone longbefore they saw them.
    A short distance down the road, Malowan drew the girl onto the scrubby turf and back the way they’d come. To his surprise, Nemis was stillwaiting in the tiny dell.
    The mage smiled very briefly then led back to the cave.


    The rest of the party was awake and finishing a plainbreakfast of corn gruel when the three returned. Nemis sought the packet of dry herb he sprinkled on everything he ate before filling his shallow bowl. Malowan settled down next to Vlandar and sent his ward to get breakfast for both of them while he helped fill in parts of the map.
    Lhors was eager to hear what they had discovered, so he sat himself a few paces away, trying to remain as unobtrusive as possible while he kept his ears open.
    “I would suggest we start an hour earlier tomorrow,” Malowansaid. “There is a guard change at about first hour, and the servants had alreadybegun work in the kitchens. Still, we discovered a fair amount about the place.”
    The paladin had just begun to sketch on the map when Agya returned with his breakfast. He drank down the rather gluey mixture from its two-handled bowl while it was still hot.
    Agya only sipped at hers and fell asleep before it was half gone. Malowan caught the wooden bowl as it slipped from her fingers and eased her down next to him, tucking the woolen cloak around her. He smiled down at her and then turned back to the map.
    Vlandar and the paladin spent the next several minutes going over various details and debating tomorrow’s plans. Lhors tried to payattention, but Mal’s details of twists and turns and doors and this and thatsoon began to jumble together in his head. He was beginning to doze off himself when something piqued his interest.
    “…but this chamber,” Malowan was saying, “is where I sawthe map.”
    Vlandar drew a blank hide from his pile of mapskins and handed it over. Malowan closed his eyes briefly then began to sketch in such details as he recalled.
    “It may be a council chamber, and I think the map showedsites they plan to raid. I do not read their script, unfortunately.” He closedhis eyes again and scribbled several more lines of runic script at the bottom of the hide. “There. That is everything I remember-for now, at least. With a littlesleep, I might recall more.”
    “Go sleep, then,” Vlandar said. “Well done, my friend.”
    Malowan shook his head. “There is more, though. Wait.” Hepatted his pack. “We also found several scroll cases deeply hidden among thebalks of wood.”
    “Scroll cases?” Vlandar said. “Have you looked at them yet?”
    “I did not take the time in there, but if they are messagesin Giantish, it would have done me little good. I can speak some Giantish, but I read none of it. I believe Nemis does, though.”
    “He said so, back when he and I first spoke.” Vlandar thoughta moment. “Let’s look at them now, you and I. If we need Nemis to translate forus, that can wait until after you’ve slept a while.”
    Lhors stood and gazed over Vlandar’s shoulder. The two meneither didn’t care or didn’t notice that he was so blatantly eavesdropping.
    The scrolls were written in well-formed, large letters, but neither man could understand a word of what was written there, not even the glyphs at the bottom that must be the mark of the sender. “Or Nosnra’s glyph, ofcourse,” Malowan said gloomily.
    “They could be anything,” Vlandar agreed as he furled thelast scroll and slid it into its tube. “Keep them, Mal. We’ll get Nemis’ helpafter you both wake up. Meantime, I’ll finish out the individual maps as best Ican. Likely, I’ll take your advice and we’ll enter the fort an hour earliertomorrow. I want to avoid a melee, especially if there’s a chance to get backinto that chamber and learn something about why Nosnra and his underlings are attacking Keoland.”
    “We won’t learn that by launching an open attack,” thepaladin agreed. “I trust if you plan on stealth that you have put the fear ofthe gods into young Plowys?”
    “As best I could, Mal. Still, I may need your aid inrestraining our young hero.”
    “There is,” the paladin said severely, “not enough sleep inall the world to prepare me for that.” He tugged his cloak around himselfsnugly and worked off his boots, settling down where he was.

    Malowan woke some hours later to find Agya awake andreplaiting one of the straps on his pack.
    “They’re at it.” She grumbled and indicated the group aroundVlandar with a minute jerk of her head. “Your warrior friend’s picked ’is teams,and no one wants to be with anyone else.” She drew a dagger and cut a slit onthe side of the pack, threaded the braided strap through, and began working the ends in so it would hold. “Thought it were bad enough in th’ city when ourmaster chose which ’prentice thieves to send out with which journey-lads. No oneever wanted who they got, journey or ’prentice.”
    Agya finished her task neatly and shoved the bag his way. “You left it out in th’ open where anyone could’ve taken those things we found,”she said severely. “I don’t trust half ’em, specially that boy.”
    “Boy?” the paladin asked his ward in the sudden quiet. “Iknow Lhors is ill-trained-”
    “Nah, th’other: Lord Pretty Prince of the Heavens.” Agyascowled at Plowys, who was pacing by himself and occasionally spinning on one heel to half-draw a blade. “Th’ rangers’ve asked him to give over before he cutsone of us, playing with his shiny toys in here. Ask me, let ’im play-if luck bewith us, he’ll trip and skewer ’imself.”
    “Harsh,” Malowan said mildly.
    His ward gave him a hard-eyed look. “Nah. Harsh is what I’lldo to ’im if ’e does something to get you hurt.” She shoved the bag asideand leveled a finger at his face. “I know you. You’ll give someone like thattries and tries again and get yourself hurt trying to keep ’im safe.”
    “Just as I did recently with a young market thief, a skinnygirl masquerading as a boy and nearly old enough to be caught in that deception by the city guard-or her fellow thieves?”
    Agya blushed and turned her back on him.
    “We’re all flawed, Agya.”
    “You know how th’ thieves guild uses girls,” she muttered,“or what happens to girl thieves tossed in th’ cells. But even if I weren’tready to leave off thieving, I’d’ve done nothin’ to get you hurt.” Her chin cameup. “And I never stole but enough to keep m’self fed.”
    Malowan laid a hand on her shoulder. “I know, and now youshame me for reminding you. But you have changed. Perhaps Plowys can, especially this far from his mother.”
    “P’raps,” the girl replied dubiously.
    Malowan gripped her arm briefly then got to his feet to find out what plans had been set for the coming night.
    Khlened snarled something. Vlandar leaped to his feet, but before he could utter a word, Maera cut him off. “Lower your voice, fool of abarbarian! The fake wall our mage put up to block the entry is to trick eyes not ears! They could have heard you down along the river, just now!”
    Khlened grumbled under his breath, but Vlandar cleared his throat and chopped a hand for silence.
    Vlandar was visibly holding onto a formidable temper at the moment. When Plowys and Khlened both began talking at the same time, the warrior snarled a curse that silenced both and left Rowan blinking in surprise.
    “I was put in charge of this sortie,” Vlandar said evenly,“and all of you knew that from the first-including you.” He scowled at Plowysuntil the young man’s mouth twitched. “Now. I will often ask for opinions,particularly from those of you who have fought giants or can speak or read Giantish, or who have skills other and better than mine. I may even follow such advice if it seems sensible, but I am captain here. The responsibility for all of us-and to the king and Lord Mebree-is mine. I made my choices fortonight for my own reasons, and I am not called on to explain them. Do what you must to get ready, because we move out two hours before first light.” And withthat, he turned away, beckoned for Malowan to follow him, and settled in the narrow corner where he’d spread his blankets.
    “It was a poor choice putting me in charge of thisbunch,” he growled.
    Malowan smiled. “You manage well enough. How did you divideus up?”
    Vlandar sighed heavily. “Khlened and the rangers are going tolearn what they can about the door where the wolves and their keeper went. The northerner is upset to be put with females, and they in turn are offended by him. I put Nemis with you and Agya. You need to learn where that downstairs goes, and he needs to either copy that map or take it.”
    “You plan on all of us getting inside unnoted by theresidents?” Malowan asked.
    Vlandar shrugged. “I do not believe the Steading isultimately responsible for the attacks. Nosnra is a brutish oaf, cunning but not a planner. If he does report to someone else, I want to learn who and if there is a way to find that someone. We may decide to do as much damage to the Steading as we can before going after Nosnra’s superiors then. Likely not,though. If Nosnra learns what we’re up to, he’ll warn his superior, if he istaking orders. Better if we can avoid walking into a trap, don’t you think?”
    “Of course.”
    “I will take Lhors and Plowys to see what else we can learnfrom the feasting hall, then join you in the council room. I don’t want any ofus wandering off. Our goal should be to get in and get back out with that map and anything else useful.” Vlandar sighed again. Now he sounded merely tired. “Ineed your help, Mal. We can’t go into that fort in this mood.”
    “I agree,” Malowan said. “We act as a team or die asindividuals. I’ll talk to Khlened and the rangers. Young Plowys-he won’t listento me. You’ll have to do your best with him.”

    But as it turned out, there was no need for anyone to searchfor information on the Steading’s arrangement. When Nemis went through thescrolls Malowan had brought back, he found a detailed map of the main floor.
    “I see the steps you found, Mal,” the mage said and pointedthem out, “and another set here, just off the kitchens. But there are no plansfor the lower level.”
    “This is still useful,” Vlandar said. “It tells us thereis a lower level-though I was certain of that anyway. Besides, there appearsto be no reason for us to go anywhere but that council chamber.”
    Khlened stirred. “Then this will be no sneak raid?”
    “Yes,” Vlandar said flatly. “The council room is here”-hepointed out the small chamber not far from the north wall-“so if there areguards in the corridors, we avoid them. If we cannot, of course, then we kill them as quickly and quietly as we can.”
    He glanced at Nemis, who was gazing at the scroll. The mage’sexpression turned suddenly grim, but Vlandar didn’t think anyone else had seenthis. “Everyone eat something and make certain your gear is ready. We leaveshortly.”
    He waited until everyone but Nemis and Malowan had moved off, then touched the mage’s arm to get his attention. “What is it? What does itsay?”
    Nemis tapped the scroll. “It is a set of orders on where andwhen to raid certain villages in southern Keoland-the dark of the next moon. Icannot tell where it was written.”
    Malowan spread the scroll out. “But it is signed, isn’t it?That certainly looks like a signature to me.”
    “It is signed,” the mage replied grimly, “by one ‘Eclavdra’.”
    “Eclavdra?” Vlandar asked. “Is that a place or a person? Canyou tell?”
    “I can tell.” Nemis swallowed. He looked tense. “I had hopedI would not need to tell anyone this, but I see no way past it. Eclavdra is a drow, a dark elf.”
    Malowan shook his head. “I thought there were no drow leftanywhere in the Flanaess!”
    “Not in, but under,” Nemis said. “They left thesurface ages ago. They live in deep caverns and when they do attack, it is in secret, and they leave no survivors.”
    “Well,” Vlandar said dubiously, “then how do you knowabout them?”
    “Because the man who was my master in my apprentice dayssought out the drow and pledged himself to their service in exchange for whatever magic they could teach him. They do have some like my old master who serve as their ears and eyes above-ground. Daylight is painful to them. Furthermore, they are so unlike any other race that they would be known for what they are. They are small and delicate to look upon, very black-skinned, with silvery hair. They are dire fighters and dread sorcerers. My master was bound to serve Eclavdra.” Nemis licked his lips. “When he died, I found a way to escapethe drow.”
    “You said nothing of this back in Cryllor,” Vlandar said.“Why, I wonder?”
    Nemis gave him a bitter smile. “Because I knew you would lookat me the way you are now. ‘He dwelt with drow. Perhaps he served them. Perhapshe is their spy.’ I could think of nothing I might say to persuade you that I amnot. I still cannot.”
    “You forget that I can tell if a being serves good or evil,”Malowan said mildly. “Give me your hands.” He gripped them gently then shook hishead. “You are no servant of evil, Nemis, though I had no doubt of that beforenow.”
    “That is good enough for me then,” Vlandar said.
    “Thank you,” the mage said simply. “I see nothing else usefulin this, and no way to tell where Eclavdra is. If she remains in the great underground city where I left her, there is nothing we can do about her.”
    “Then we will do what we can to render her servants lessuseful to her,” Vlandar said. He waited until the mage went off to hisspellbook, then eyed the paladin sidelong. “You are certain of him, Mal?”
    “I am.”
    “You had better be,” the warrior replied. “Meantime, you andI need to go over this map. I want no dithering once we are inside.”

    It was still very dark when the party crouched in a closehuddle near the top of the hill so that Malowan could orient them. The air was cool and damp, and a misty rain fell now and again. By the time they were ready to move on, Lhors’ hair was plastered to his skull where his hood had developeda hole. In the still, pre-dawn air, the party could clearly hear two deep-voices growling curses or insults at each other from the fortress.
    Nemis translated in a soft whisper. “That is the towerguard-two young ones who are wet, cold, and out of ale. They have a long hourbefore the relief guards come, and it is so foggy that they can’t see anythinganyway.”
    “Not really watching, then,” Khlened whispered.
    Plowys scowled at his hands. At the moment, he wasn’tspeaking to anyone. Just as well, Lhors thought, since he had a carrying voice and a whisper sharper than Khlened’s.
    As Lhors triple-checked his quiver of javelins, Vlandar gripped Malowan’s fingers and nodded. The paladin started down the slope withAgya on his heels and Nemis bringing up the rear. The others waited. It remained quiet except for the distant conversation of the two guards.
    “Rowan, go,” Vlandar breathed.
    The ranger eased out of sight, Maera close behind her. Khlened stayed behind only long enough to sheathe the spear he carried. Smart of him, Lhors decided. A man could stab himself, if he slipped on his way down. Lhors checked his own blades for the fourth time to be certain nothing was likely to come loose.
    A few more moments passed, then Vlandar tapped Plowys on the shoulder and started down the slope, gesturing for the others to follow. Lhors remembered to take a slow count of two before following. As he reached the shelter of the boulder and brush, he could just make out the sound of a dislodged stone some distance below. Fortunately, one of the tower guards began coughing as if he’d choked on something. His companion broke into raucous laughter.
    Vlandar set off once again, Plowys ahead of him and Lhors coming last. The ground beneath his feet was crumbly, but it leveled out before very long.
    The fog was thicker down here, and the early morning was still very dark. Lhors could see little except for Vlandar’s reassuring formjust ahead of him, but as they reached the main doors, he could make out Agya doing something to the doors. Picking the lock, he assumed.
    A moment later, she stepped back as Malowan and Nemis leaned into one of the huge slabs of wood. The door moved quietly back, just enough to admit them. The mage pointed to the opening and shook his head, signaling that there was no one on the other side of the door. To Lhors, the sight of that vast door three times his height and thicker than his arm brought home that they were about to enter a mighty hall, full of the dreadful creatures that had destroyed his home. He bit his lip.
    Vlandar was going in first, sword in one hand and a heavy-bladed javelin in the other. Plowys was right on his heels. The rangers followed. Khlened trailed after, then Malowan and his ward. Nemis gave Lhors a smile probably meant to encourage him and gestured for him to go next. Lhors’fingers moved across his dagger hilt-much good that would be against even ahalf-grown giant! He pulled three javelins from his pack, gripped one in his throwing hand, and drew a deep breath as he crossed the threshold. Nemis eased the door shut behind him.
    There was little light except for a flickering torch partway down the passage that led to the guard tower. The place reeked of mold, rotting food, and other things-he didn’t want to think about what they might be. Vlandarturned to smile, then gestured for him to follow.
    Rowan and Maera, listening intently, flanked the double doors leading into the great hall. Khlened stepped forward to try the doors, but the rangers gestured a firm no.
    Overhead, one of the tower guards was still coughing, and his companion snarled something. The coughing subsided, there was a sudden thump, then Nemis grabbed Vlandar’s arm. “Everyone out of sight!” he hissed urgently.“One’s coming down for wine!”
    Vlandar signed, enemy coming! Rowan, Maera, and Khlened were already out of sight. Lhors ran for the rack of cloaks, and as he hesitated, Rowan leaned out to gesture for him to join her. Lhors did, but he moved the cloak just enough so that he could still see.
    Massive feet clomped down the wooden steps. The others seemed well hidden. Lhors could see none of them except for Nemis, whose lips moved silently-casting a spell perhaps. A keg near the tower hall briefly glowed adull red as the wizard’s magic set in. Some sort of revealing spell, perhaps?Lhors wondered. The mage moved the other way, clambered over a long bench along the west wall, and dropped out of sight.
    Lhors’ attention was drawn away from the passage as he sawmovement in the center of the room. Someone stepped out from behind a stack of kegs. Lhors could scarcely believe his eyes. Before anyone could catch him, Plowys had thrown himself back into the open and begun brushing frantically at his hair. Bugs from the cloak, Lhors thought. They must have a nasty sting.
    Vlandar leaped back into sight, grabbed the would-be hero’sarm, and began to try to haul him past the cloak rack. It wasn’t much shelter,and Vlandar was checking to make sure the corridor beyond was empty when Plowys caught his breath.
    Light from a torch down the passage shone full on his face. Vlandar clutched at Plowys’ arm to pull him back but missed. The youth ranforward, drawing his sword as the door creaked open and a hill giant stepped into the room. The gigantic wretch was as tall and dirty looking as those who’dattacked Upper Haven, but he was obviously very drunk. The stench of foul ale and cheap wine overpowered even the smell of the chamber. His eyes were bloodshot and teary, and he held his spear in a wobbly, loose grip.
    The giant stared at the youth, visibly puzzled as to how the young man had come to be here. Plowys stiffened in shock at the sight of the creature. The giant was more than twice his height and obviously more of a foe than the youth had ever faced. The point of Plowys’ sword wobbled, and he tooka hesitant step back.
    The tower guard took two quick steps forward and with one swift motion, skewered Plowys on the end of his spear. Plowys’ sword rattled tothe floor as blood and bile gushed from his mouth and nose. Lhors leaned back against the wall and bit his lip, praying he wouldn’t be sick.
    Just then, Nemis spoke-another spell, perhaps. Lhors forcedhimself to move, hands tight around his javelins. Vlandar came up next to him, swords at the ready, but the young giant stared at them blankly. The spear fell from his hands, and Plowys collapsed lifeless to the floor.
    “Leave him be,” Nemis said very quietly. “I put a spell offorgetfulness on the guard. He will come out of this shortly, fetch that cask, and go back the way he came. We will avenge our companion at a more opportune time.”
    True to the mage’s word, the ensorcelled guard lumbered overto the wine cask, his spear and the corpse completely forgotten. He hefted the barrel, wobbled uncertainly, then proceeded back up the stair.
    Malowan came into the open and gazed down at Plowys, his face expressionless. “Thank the gods it was swift and that he didn’t bleed much.” Heglanced at Vlandar. “We cannot leave him here.”
    Vlandar was tight-lipped and pale. Grief and rage played across his features. “No,” he rasped. “We’ll go, all of us. We can take the bodyback to the camp and bury him. Khlened, you and the rangers go now to make certain there’s no one outside. We’ll gather Plowys and follow.”
    “We’re leaving?” the barbarian asked. “Because of-”
    “I don’t want us splitting up, and we can’t leave him here tobe found. We’ll try again tomorrow. Do as I say, Khlened. Now.”
    Khlened mumbled under his breath, but he turned and helped the rangers drag the door open. After a brief glance out into the fog, he followed Rowan out.
    Malowan gathered up Plowys and gestured for Agya to go. Once the girl was out the door, Vlandar grabbed the spear and pulled. There was a sickening scrape as the haft ran against bone, and another gush of blood splattered onto the floor.
    Lhors winced and clamped his jaw shut. I will not be sick! he thought.
    Plowys’ dead face, his eyes wide and staring, gazed up atthe ceiling. It had obviously been a painful death, but a quick one. He had not suffered long.
    “Gods,” Vlandar gasped. “Curse the young idiot for hisfoolishness! I should have been watching him more closely.”
    Malowan put a hand on his friend’s shoulder and said, “Youdid what you could. It’s too late to assign blame to anyone. What’s done isdone.”
    Vlandar nodded. His jaw tightened as he turned away from the corpse. He leaned the guard’s spear in the corner and mopped up the worst of theblood with a cloak. After bundling the sodden fabric, the three of them hefted the corpse and left the chamber.

    It was nearly light by the time they’d placed the last rockson the grave-a deep, narrow cut in one of the shallower caverns. Vlandar gazedat the down at the rubble. “Fool of a boy. His mother will tear her heart out.She deserved better.”
    “She had what she created,” Malowan said quietly. “A pity,all the same. If we return to the king’s city, I’ll give her a tale to make herproud of the boy. It’s the least I can do for my dislike of him.”
    Shortly thereafter, the others went back to the cave, but Lhors and Vlandar stayed behind.
    “I should feel something,” Lhors said finally. “Even if hewasn’t very nice, he was alive and now he’s dead.”
    “It was sudden,” Vlandar said quietly. “Sometimes a mandoesn’t feel much when it happens like that.” He sighed. “I feel angry with theyouth and angry with myself for not having a better grip on him.”
    “My father told me that when things like that happen, youcan’t change it, so there’s no point to being angry or upset. I did not likehim, but his mother cared, and he might have changed if he had lived.”
    “Your father sounds like he was a wise man.” Vlandar squatteddown to sort through the slain youth’s weapons. He set aside the swords,serviceable daggers, the case of javelins, the bow, and one small dagger-ajeweled belt-toy Plowys probably used to clean his nails. Vlandar slipped the lock of hair he’d cut from the youth’s head into the sheath and put the daggerback. “This I will return to his mother, if I can. As for the rest of these, Ihope your father warned you that a sensible man never leaves behind weapons that might be found and turned against him.” He handed the bundle of javelins toLhors. “You are next to Maera at skill with these, and the daggers may come inuseful.”
    “Thank you, sir,” Lhors stuttered. “I’ll try not to let youdown.”
    Vlandar got back to his feet, wrapped an arm around the boy’sshoulders, and led him back to their cave. “I am not much worried that you will,Lhors. Maybe though, if there’s a little time today, you and I will gettogether, and I can show you a few tricks with those blades.”
    “I’d like that.”


    The next morning, the party again settled in clutches nearthe fortress door while Nemis used a spell to be certain no guards were immediately inside. Lhors stayed back on the road with Rowan, though he thought it unlikely giants would see them in the dense fog. He doubted that such massive creatures could sneak up on them either-until he remembered they had done justthat at Upper Haven. But there had been music and thunder that night. Dancing. Singing. Joyous faces that he would never see again. Here it was very quiet, and all faces were solemn.
    Somewhere in the distance, an owl called out. Up in the tower Lhors could hear the deep, rumbling voice of at least one guard. He drew his javelins as Malowan leaned against one door, holding it ajar for the others.
    There was still very little light. Vlandar headed for the doorway into the banqueting hall while the rangers checked the other door. Both gestured a negative, but Vlandar backed quietly away from the main doors, a finger to his lips.
    A good five paces away, Lhors could hear it: a distant noise of laughter, singing, and the loud clash of metal. A battle? he wondered. Vlandar got them all close together and whispered, “They are still feasting inthere. Rowan, what of the right door?”
    “Quiet back there,” she replied softly.
    “Everyone go right, then and up to the council chamber.Remember, watch and listen-” He broke off and looked up as heavy, slow footstepscame down the stairs from the tower.
    “This grows boring,” Khlened mumbled and drew his sword.Vlandar eyed his people, cast a quick glance at the main doors, and nodded sharply.
    “We kill him quick before anyone else hears,” he orderedsoftly and pulled out his own sword. “One way to learn to fight as a team,”Lhors heard him mutter. Lhors’ own hands felt cold as he bunched his sparejavelins and readied one to throw. For my father, he thought, and that seemed to steady him.
    The giant who came down the passage was young, but solidly built and more awake than last night’s guard had been. He stopped when he sawKhlened and smiled unpleasantly before hauling a heavy club from his belt. “Thieves, be it?” His common was guttural. “Be a move up fer Fhrunk do I killye, red-hair.”
    “Try,” Khlened said and bared his teeth as he threw himselfforward.
    He barely came to the monster’s belt, and the stab that mighthave gutted a man his size went into Fhrunk’s calf, angling up to the knee. Thebrute drew breath to yell in pain, but Rowan fired three arrows in rapid succession. The first bit deep into his neck, silencing his scream. The next bounced off his hardened leather cap, and the third just missed taking out his eye. Maera’s throw was more accurate. Her javelin plunged deeply below thebrute’s sternum. The choking giant pawed at the javelin and slid to the floor.Khlened and Vlandar ran up and plunged their swords into the back of his neck, and the giant went limp.
    Rowan was already at the east door. Nemis spoke in a low voice, then signed for her to come back. “There are no others in the tower andnone nearby-no closer than that feast yonder.”
    “Help us drag him out of the way,” Vlandar whisperedurgently. “There’s blood, but no help for that.”
    “Toss one of the cloaks over it,” Maera said. “It’s such amess here, that might go unnoticed until he’s missed.”
    It took all four men to drag the dead giant. Nemis and Rowan kept watch while Agya and Lhors hastily piled two rugs and a cloak atop the brute. “Good enough,” Vlandar said. “Let’s go.”
    They could hear at least one more guard snoring up in the tower. Rowan eased an arrow into place, slung her cloak off the left shoulder so she could access more bolts, then nodded once. Maera stepped aside so Khlened could ease the door open. Rowan backed up with the heavy slab of wood, then took one long stride, spun halfway around and backed along the other side. A scant breath later, those still outside heard the zip of an arrow slicing the air, a faint, “Uhff!” followed by a nasty, deep cough, then the sound of somethinglarge sliding to the floor.
    Rowan backed into view and met her sister’s eyes, making acomplex gesture with her free hand before hauling another arrow to the string. Maera pelted past her as the rest of the company came into the chamber to find a guttering torch, a spilled cup of mead, and one very dead giant. Rowan’s arrowwas buried deep in one of the creature’s eyes.
    Maera was nowhere in sight, but just then the ceiling groaned with the weight of another falling body. The ranger came back into sight moments later. She met Vlandar’s eyes and held up a finger before drawing her handacross her throat. One giant there. Dead.
    The right-hand door opened onto a relatively narrow hall-still so wide that Agya and Nemis, holding hands, could just barely have touchedboth walls. The air reeked of sour bodies, ill-washed clothing, and stale beer. So far, Lhors thought, it resembled the map Vlandar had shown him. A passage went a few paces west before turning north. A longer passage went east. The lighting was poor-only a few torches at odd intervals.
    Vlandar led the way, putting Lhors behind him and letting the others follow. Rowan brought up the rear, walking sideways with her bow strung and ready to shoot should anyone come up on their rear.
    Someone was snoring behind them. The wall to their left seemed to tremble, and they could clearly hear shouting and sounds of battle. Malowan leaned forward to murmur against Lhors’ ear. “Nemis says it’s the longroom on the map-it must be a sleeping chamber. He says there are at least tenyoung male giants wagering on two others who are wrestling, and they’re all verydrunk.” The paladin eased past him long enough to tell Vlandar the same thing.Both men flinched as something massive slammed into the other side of the wall.
    Vlandar was making his way to that long chamber on the west wall that Malowan had spoken of, the one with the nasty trophy heads. He sincerely hoped the warrior did not plan to invade the chamber with the cave bear. At the bend the warrior turned left and moved close to the left wall, hesitating at the first door there. Lhors eased up against the wall next to him and tried to loosen his grip on the shaft in his right hand.
    This north-facing passage was shorter than the previous one, the door at its far end ajar. That must be the one that would open into another corridor and connect with the feasting hall. It did seem he could hear drunken laughter coming from that direction, though it was hard to tell with so much noise still coming out of that dorm.
    Vlandar edged past the door. The noise began to fade a little. By the time they reached the next door to the left, Lhors could be certain the other shouting came from beyond the partly opened door. Vlandar hesitated, then beckoned Malowan to join him. The paladin listened intently, nodded, and held up four fingers. He frowned and waggled one-he wasn’t certainif there were three or four inside, Lhors thought.
    Lhors jumped as a high-pitched scream came from inside the room.
    “Serving giantesses, I think,” Malowan whispered. “Someone isbeing beaten,” he added grimly and set his hand on the latch.
    Agya glanced back the way they’d come and rasped, “Where’sKhlened?”
    Malowan and Vlandar swung around, swords at the ready. Lhors skin prickled and he clutched the spear close. Beyond the rangers, the hall was empty. The barbarian was gone.
    Vlandar cursed, but before he could pass along more instructions, Khlened slipped through a door at the south end of the hall and tugged it closed behind him. Malowan sighed heavily, and Vlandar glared as the barbarian came up, a rough hide pouch in his hand. “Coin-and plenty of it,” theman whispered.
    Vlandar leveled a finger at his nose and whispered, “Go offalone like that again and you’ll pay. I gave orders that we all stay together!”
    Khlened’s mouth twisted, but he nodded and handed over thepurse. Vlandar shoved it into his pack and turned away. “Mal?”
    “Someone is in dire pain in there,” the paladin repliedsoftly as another agonized scream came from the other side of the door. “Icannot walk away from this,” he added, but he waited for Vlandar’s nod before heeased the door latch aside, and threw himself into the room.
    Lhors stared in open astonishment at the massive bedchamber and the four female giants to whom it must belong. All were clad in loose, plain garments like a villager’s winter sleeping shirt. Three looked youthful to him,dark-haired, olive-skinned, and rather handsome. The fourth was a creature out of nightmare. Taller than the other three by at least a head, gaunt and wrinkled, her eyes were mere slits in pasty white skin. Two old, purple scars ran down the left side of her face, and she wore a gold ring through the corner of her mouth. She loomed over the smallest of the maids, a whip upraised to strike a back bared by ripped fabric. The other two cowered in the corner behind a bed, one holding another, who was bleeding from an ugly weal across her bare shoulder.
    “You horrid creature,” Malowan said in a deep, stern voice ashe drew his sword. “What have these children done to deserve such scars? If youwill strike someone, dare to battle me instead!”
    The matron might not have understood his words, but she surely caught his meaning. Her eyes narrowed as she took in the armed humans. She dropped the whip and hauled a long dagger from a sheath strapped to her leg. It was nearly as long as the paladins sword.
    Malowan stepped away from his companions, and the young giantess scrambled out of the way, trying to hold her ripped garb together. She really is a child! Lhors thought. She looked no older than Agya, and he was surprised to feel sorry for her pain. The young giantess cast them a terrified glance and then crawled into the corner with her companions.
    “That’s good, lad, keep an eye on them,” Vlandar said quietlyas the aged horror advanced on Malowan. “Mal may need my help. The young oneslook helpless, but they may choose to aid the old one.”
    Lhors nodded and cast a quick look at Malowan. The matron was an arm’s length taller than her adversary. When Lhors looked back at the corner,the three young ones were crouched behind the bed, only their hair visible.
    “Mal!” Agya sounded afraid.
    “Do not distract him,” Vlandar said sharply. “You know hemust let her strike the first blow. His code requires it.”
    “I know what you are,” Malowan said flatly.
    Lhors risked a glance, but the combatants were motionless-sizing each other up, perhaps.
    “You enjoy hurting children. What harm could they do todeserve your wrath?” He had swung his sword to ready. The aged female sneeredand countered his move but still did not strike. “Your masters have taught youwell, but you shall answer to me!”
    Lhors moved to where he could keep an eye on the three serving maids and see the paladin fight. The matron might have understood some of what Malowan said after all. She glared at him, teeth clenched and muscles bunched under her sagging skin as she brought her weapon up two-handed. The aged giantess snarled, “Enemy of Nosnra! I kill you! Kill all! Scar them as I please!You do not stop old Jhuka!” She brought the blade down in a slashing overhand.Malowan sidestepped the move and ducked as she brought the blade around in a sweeping arc from the other side. The paladin evaded with what looked like ease to Lhors.
    “Gea nukh!” she swore in Giantish. She clutched the hilttwo-handed, high above her head, and plunged it down.
    Malowan finally acted. He sidestepped her attack and stabbed up into her belly, twisting his sword almost all the way around. The giantess cried out, but a sudden gush of blood muted her scream into a gurgling choke. Malowan jumped back, hauling his sword with him. The giantess’ dagger rattledonto the floorboards. She took one staggering step back, righted herself, and came back at him, her eyes glittering with hate. Three strides from the paladin, her gaze went blank, her knees wobbled, and she fell.
    Lhors made certain the maids had not moved, then he dared a glance at the paladin. Agya was already beside Malowan, one of her short daggers in hand as she tested the giantess’ throat for a pulse. The serving maidsslowly came to their feet, peering at their fallen elder.
    Vlandar had moved over to ease the door open a little. After a quick glance, he pressed it shut and came over to Malowan. “It is still quietout there. Rather, there is no one in the corridor except our people. Are you done here, Mal?”
    “Nearly,” he said. “I need Nemis to translate for me.”
    Malowan and the mage approached the serving maids. Nemis asked them something in a low, guttural language. Lhors listened but could not understand a word. One of the three maids-the only one who looked uninjured-gotto her feet and answered him.
    “What’s it about, then?” Agya asked quietly.
    Malowan shrugged and said, “I asked Nemis to ask if theywould help us in exchange for me healing their injuries.”
    “You’d heal ’em anyhow,” the thief said sourly.
    “Of course. It may help cleanse me of that creature’sdeath-necessary as it was.”
    “What makes them better then?”
    “They may not be,” the paladin replied, “but they deserve thechance, do they not?”
    “Huh,” Agya said shortly. “Not if they warn others we’rehere.”
    “That will not happen,” Vlandar said mildly. “We can see tothat, if we must. Nemis?”
    “The aged one was the matron of all the serving girls,” Nemissaid. “This one is called M’na’vra, which is ‘butterfly’ in their speech, thoughamong her folk it is not a complimentary tide. She tells me to thank the armored one who saved them from the rages of Jhuka. She tells me she and her two companions came here from their own land to the north. They have no family to protect them, and they swear to keep quiet about our presence here if you will only let them live. All they want is to leave this place and return to their homeland where there is always snow, but at least there is sun and blue sky, and maidens-even the orphaned and impoverished-are treated with some respect.
    “They also offer-if you do not trust them-a bribe. Old Jhukahas a collection of potions in a case in her closet. There are also coins,” headded. “M’na’vra asks if they might keep the coins in exchange for the bottlesand powders. They are young and pure, but even the young and pure need coin for dowry if they wish to wed.” The mage was watching Khlened.
    Lhors glanced at the barbarian and to his surprise, Khlened seemed to accept this.
    “Some sense in that,” Khlened allowed. “Who’d want a lasswith no coin to bring to the marriage?”
    Agya glared at him. “Not you, for certain,” shegrowled, “but these creatures-why let ’em loose to breed more of their kind?Kill ’em all, I say!”
    The paladin gripped her shoulder and gave it a brisk shake. “When there is time, I will explain better. For now, accept that they have hadenough of violence. They may well choose mates who are less warlike, and they may raise offspring who aren’t monsters like that”-his eyes flicked toward thedead matron-“or like those brutes in the next chamber.”
    Agya’s lips twitched, but she said nothing further.
    Malowan moved to the mage’s side and smiled at M’na’vra, whocautiously smiled back. “Tell her,” he told Nemis, “that we agree to thisbargain, and furthermore that I will heal their wounds before we go. Tell them to show us the potions and keep the coin.”
    “And tell me, Nemis,” Vlandar said, “that you can usethat spell of forgetfulness on them. Otherwise, we will need to bind them. Khlened, you and I need to get that body out of sight in case someone looks in here. Under the nearest bed will be good enough.”
    “I have a spell that will serve,” the mage said. Hetranslated Malowan’s brief acceptance of terms. The maids broke into nervous buthappy laughter. The smallest-Ilowig, which Nemis said meant “swan”-was the onlyone daring enough to dig through the matrons pockets for her keys and unlock the closet where her valuables were hidden. Nemis took possession of the rough-hewn box and rummaged through it quickly, choosing several bottles and setting the others aside. Several went back into the box, which he shoved back in the closet.
    Vlandar stayed close to the door as Malowan healed the giants’ bleeding cuts. Lhors watched, fascinated as the three went blank-eyed.Their eyes closed, and they fell back on the bed. “They will waken normally, andthey will remember nothing.”
    “Take the matron’s blade,” Vlandar said, “so none of them areblamed when the creature’s body is found.”
    Vlandar put Lhors in front of him as he and Khlened got the door open. He led the way north, stopping just short of the partly open door. They waited while Nemis and Malowan consulted.
    The paladin shook his head and beckoned for them to move away from the opening. “There are servants and a guard with wolves out in thathallway. If the feast is ending, we could wait here, but if there are bedchambers down here for any of the feasters…”
    “Yes,” Vlandar said. “The other way might work better.”
    “The passage between kitchens and banquet hall will be evenbusier once the masters have left the table and the servants are sent to clear,”Maera said.
    Vlandar held up a hand. “Nemis, get back to that doorand-never mind,” he added as the paladin tensed and gestured urgently toward theopening, then exerted his strength to pull the heavy slab quietly closed.
    “There are at least twenty giants coming this way,” hemurmured. “I suggest we go back that way. Now.”
    They moved quickly back around the turn, but Vlandar stopped there and sent the rangers a few paces back to keep guard while Nemis cast another of the reveal spells he had memorized for the night. “I would like totake that map, especially if it shows where future raids may happen. I would also like to get down those stairs since it should lead to a treasury. Not necessarily gold and jewels,” he added as Khlened grinned, “but otherdocuments like the one Mal found.”
    “Why would the trove be below?” Lhors wanted to know.
    “Underground for more safety,” Vlandar replied.
    Maera gestured urgently the way they’d just come. “There’s agiant just opened the door up yonder, and he’s got wolves with him. Whatever’sin the chamber down here that snored isn’t snoring anymore.”
    Vlandar nodded sharply and gestured with his head back toward the entry. Nemis took up rear guard as the company walked quickly the other way. Khlened and Lhors got the door open once Malowan tested to be certain no one was waiting in the entry.
    They eased through the door into a poorly lit hallway. There was a door directly ahead, snoring from the left wall, and dead silence on the right. When they reached a left turn in the hall, they could just make out a short passage that ended in another door. Nemis tested this, then swung it aside to reveal yet another hallway with doors on both sides. Maera ran light-footed along this and came back to inform them that there seemed to be a barracks or other sleeping chamber to the south and two long, narrow rooms to the north that were divided by a hall that ended in another door. “I could already hear theclatter of crockery and a giantess screeching for someone to hurry up and finish cutting tubers for the broth or go into the broth himself.”
    “Wonderful,” Khlened grumbled. “Stopped no matter which waywe go.”
    “Maybe not,” Maera hissed back. “From what I heard, it soundsas if they’re piling things up and getting ready to bank the fire and go to bed.Isn’t there a change of guard due?”
    Malowan answered, “If these things are constant from day today, then yes. But in that case, the guard will be another green youth who will likely assume the one he replaces has left early for reasons of his own. It isn’t likely he’ll put out an alarm or search the entry.”
    “You reassure me,” Maera replied sarcastically and went backup to keep an eye on the passage that led to the kitchens.
    Vlandar looked at Malowan. “What do you think? Do we waithere and try the other hall again shortly, or do we wait for the servants to leave the kitchen and go back through the feast hall? You have walked here before, whereas I have only looked at the map.”
    “I am of your mind,” Malowan said. “We want that map, and wemust search for other scrolls. Judging from Nemis’ translation of the firstscrolls, I would assume that there are other sets of orders somewhere. Other scrolls could give us locations of the Steading’s allies-other giants perhaps orenclaves of dark elves.”
    Nemis shuddered. “Pray there are no drow here. We are too fewto resist them.” He turned aside to look north, and his lips moved. “It is alittle quieter up there, I think. The ranger may be right. The cooks have set their stews to simmer and are leaving the dirty crockery for the slaves to scour later.”
    Vlandar nodded. “Nemis, if you have a spell to use on theeast passage, use it. If it’s clear, we go that way into the council chamber.Otherwise, we wait here.” He glanced at Lhors then and laid a hand on the youthsarm. “You’ve done well, so far,” he murmured as the mage moved off. “You haven’tgiven in to fear any more than you’ve ignored danger. I knew I was right tobring you.”
    Lhors nodded in thanks, then quietly asked, “The kitchens. Wego that way.”
    “We may, yes,” Vlandar replied. “You heard what Maera andNemis said about the kitchens. Remember that the servants and slaves are busy making certain their masters have food when they waken. They won’t be lookingaround.”
    The rangers came back. “No sound from the entry exceptsomeone tromping up into that tower,” Maera said quietly. “Whatever itwas-likely another young giant-it went to its place and stayed there.”
    “The passage between kitchen and feast hall is still busy,”Rowan added, “but not as busy as it was. Mostly I saw hairy ogres and brutishorcs shambling back and forth and carrying piles of filthy dishes into the kitchen. Whoever was bellowing orders in the kitchen no longer is.” She eyedVlandar steadily. “She may still be there, of course,” the ranger added. “I sawat least two armed guards moving along the north passage beyond the kitchens.”
    “Were there any wolves?” Lhors asked.
    “No,” Rowan replied. “Why do you ask?”
    “Well, Malowan said that he’d sensed wolves somewhere in theSteading. If they actually patrol with the creatures, they’re sure to scent theblood from the giants we’ve slain.”
    “Good man,” Vlandar said, nodding approvingly. “All right,people, we’ll test both ways. I still prefer to go straight into the councilroom and down through there, but we do what we must. Stay alert. We’ll move outas soon as we dare.”


    Shortly after, Nemis indicated the north way was mostlyclear, but three handlers and at least a dozen dire wolves now occupied the east hallway. Fortunately, they hadn’t gone into the entry.
    “A wolf’s keen nose would immediately find that guard’sbody,” Nemis said. “They seem more interested in the wrestlers, however-thehandlers do, at least.”
    Vlandar merely nodded and moved out ahead, gesturing for his company to stay close and alert. He stopped halfway up the west wall of the hall near its end. It was fairly dark here, though light from the kitchens flooded the opposite wall. Two creatures scurried past, unaware of the company lurking in the lower hall. They were half Lhors’ height and looked more like dogs orlizards than people. Empty platters dangled from the creatures’ hands, and theyseemed utterly cowed.
    “Kobolds,” Rowan breathed against his ear. “Cowardly, unlessthey can attack in great numbers. We are safe from them.”
    Lhors gave her a brief, abashed smile of thanks. He jumped as someone in the kitchen screeched. He couldn’t understand the words, but the hateand fury behind them was all too evident.
    Lhors started as someone brushed his arm. Malowan wrapped an arm around the youth’s shoulders. “Be easy,” he said quietly. “Vlandar wouldnever put you into battle unprepared. Remember the bargain you and he made. You serve as eyes to guard our backs, and in return, we protect you.” He gripped theboy’s shoulder and moved past him, Agya right on his heels. She glanced atLhors, fighting knives clutched in both hands and her face expressionless. She didn’t look afraid.
    Remember what she is, Lhors told himself. She stole and fought simply to stay alive. She knows how to be brave. Your father taught you to hunt animals, not kill men or monsters. He remembered how Rowan had guarded in that other hall and turned sideways to set his back against the wall so that he could keep up with the others while keeping an eye on the way they’d come.
    Vlandar’s hand shot up in warning as he and Rowan backed awayfrom the opening. Lhors could suddenly hear drunken laughter ahead and to his right, as if a door had opened. A weeping young giantess ran past, scrubbing bits of meat and steaming juices from her face.
    I thought the giants were done feasting, Lhors thought. The door banged closed, and the sound lessened. Malowan looked at Vlandar, who shrugged and led them back the other way.
    “This won’t do, Vlandar,” the paladin whispered, once Nemishad muttered a spell he claimed would build a wall of silence around them. “There are still giants in the feast hall, and the kitchen is full of all kindsof creatures. The longer we wait here…” He paused significantly.
    Vlandar sighed and nodded. “I know. I had hoped to get in,grab that map, and get out unnoticed, but if it isn’t possible…”
    “I’m ready for a fight,” Khlened said, “and I’ve battled direwolves before. They’re not immortal.”
    “If your concern is for Lhors and Agya-” the paladin began.
    “No,” Vlandar cut him off. “I would not have brought them ifthey were a hindrance, Mal. But we know these giants take orders from elsewhere. You and I assumed that before we got here. If we attack and are all killed, we’ve accomplished nothing.” Vlandar was still for a moment, his gaze distant.“All right. We’ll take the other passage, kill whatever gets in our way, getinto that room, and get the map. Then we leave as quickly as we can.”
    Nemis dissolved the spell as Vlandar got to his feet and waved Lhors to join him. Maera was already listening by the door. As Vlandar caught up to her, she indicated the chamber beyond with her eyes and shook her head. Lhors hoped she meant that no one was in there.
    It was still quiet in the entry, though they could hear someone bellowing beyond the double doors. As Malowan and Khlened hauled the west door closed behind them, the east one opened. Three whining wolves on chains lunged into the chamber, half-dragging a gray-haired giant clad only in filthy breeches and boots. He hauled the beasts back on their haunches and snarled, “Gezhk!”
    But the wolves had seen them, and now the giant did too. He hefted a spiked club. His mouth twisted into an evil grin, and he let go the chains.
    Vlandar thrust Lhors behind him. “Guard Nemis while he spellsfor us!” He and Malowan set themselves shoulder to shoulder, swords raised.
    Stepping to the side, Rowan shot three arrows into the lead wolf. The creature snarled in pain and fury but stopped its advance to nip at the arrows biting into its side.
    Maera took down the second with a spear through the throat. The third, its fur hackled, ran around Vlandar and the paladin and leaped straight for Lhors. The youth went to one knee and gripped his spear with two hands, thrusting sharply up and out as the brute slammed into him. The spearpoint plunged deep, but the sheer force of the impact ripped the shaft from the youth’s hands. The wounded creature’s massive paws pinned his shoulders asLhors fought to get his arms across his throat. The beast lunged, jaws wide, but in that instant Rowan knocked the wolf off him, and Maera jammed a spear into its eye. Lhors rolled away as the wolf scratched and beat the floor in its death throes.
    Khlened and Vlandar were fighting the wolves’ keeper, who wasalready bleeding from a deep gash above his left knee. The giant brought his club around in a blur toward the barbarian, but Khlened ducked, the spikes missing his scalp by a space no larger than his knuckle. Before the giant could swing it the other way, Khlened darted forward and slammed his sword into the giant’s belly, angling up for the heart. The blade was ripped from his hands asthe giant dropped his own weapon, fell to his knees, and gripped the blade in a futile attempt to limp away. Vlandar hauled Khlened back.
    In the instant that the two humans were out of the way, Malowan threw a long dagger. The blade buried itself to the hilt in the giant’sthroat. The guard fell, still alive but unable to cry out and too wounded to fight. He beat the floor with his fists, desperately fighting for air. Lhors winced at the sound of bones shattering. After a few seconds, the giant stopped.
    “Fast and quiet-how I like ’em,” Khlened said. His face wassmeared with blood, but he was grinning.
    “Not quiet enough, I’m afraid,” Nemis said. “We should leavehere immediately.”
    Rowan handed Lhors his spear that she had retrieved from the wolf’s corpse. “Bravely done,” she told him quietly.
    “I didn’t kill it,” he said. He clutched the spear and hopedshe couldn’t see how his hands trembled.
    “You distracted it. That was just as valuable. It gave me a clean shot.” Shepatted his arm and went to help her sister.
    Malowan looked at the mess and shook his head. “There’s toomuch blood here. Anyone who comes in here will know there’s been a fight, evenif we hide them.”
    “Leave them,” Vlandar panted. “There’s no time. Someone wassure to have heard the fight. Nemis, search for others nearby. Rowan, you and Maera make sure we left nothing-not even a broken arrow. Khlened, stay close tothose main doors in case someone comes from outside.”
    Nemis came over from the east door. “The wrestlers are stillat it, but there’s no one in that corridor.”
    “Good,” Vlandar said. “Let’s go.”
    They could clearly hear drunken laughter beyond the north door, but there was less of it. Lhors thought the voices were more slurred-as ifthe revelers were half asleep or passed out. If anyone in there had heard the fight, there was no indication of it.
    Nemis eased into the open, then nodded and moved aside so the rangers could move across the corridor. Maera went on into near darkness while Rowan turned and beckoned. Lhors looked to his left. The passage was very dark-barely enough light for them to see. That might be good, he decided. Giantswould have trouble seeing them.

    Moving as quickly and quietly as they could, the partymanaged to make their way to the giants’ council chamber. Luckily, no one was inthe room. There was no fire in the hearth, only two torches burning steadily near the head of a long table.
    Nemis crossed to the map, ran his hands over it as if he was checking for spells, then yanked it from the wall, rolled it tightly, and stuffed it into his pack. Malowan was back at the woodpile beyond the leather curtain while the rest of the party waited just outside.
    Nemis approached them and shook his head. He drew aside the curtain and whispered, “Nothing there. I can tell. Below, however-” He grippedthe paladins arm and dragged him back into the council room. “Someone is downthere-at least ten-and they are coming this way.” His lips moved silently andhis eyes glazed over as he worked some spell. After a moment, he continued, “Seven giants-I think a cloud giant or something else truly huge, and there arehobgoblin guards.”
    “This is no fight for us, then,” Vlandar said. “We have themap. Let’s go back the way we came. Quickly and quietly!”
    He sent the rangers out first, put Lhors ahead of him, and set Khlened and the paladin to bring up the rear. Their luck was not holding well. Even Lhors could see into the south corridor from the end of this one. The wrestlers had moved out into the hallway and were battering each other before a crowd of other young giants. They might be drunk, the youth thought, but they seemed alert for all that.
    “No good,” Vlandar said. “There are too many of them, and allthat noise may rouse others. Nemis, we’ll have to go through the feasting halland out the main doors. Can you put a sleep spell on anyone still in there?”
    The mage eyed the distant drinkers and shook his head. “Notfrom here. Get me closer to the entrance, and I can.”
    Lhors held his breath as he followed the mage, Vlandar right on his heels. Rowan had gone ahead, arrow ready to fire, while Maera brought up the rear so she could keep an eye on their backs.
    Once they reached the entry, Vlandar drew Lhors with him against the wall where it was fairly dark, but Nemis went on. There were three giants awake that they could see, two waiting while the third shook a keg, threw it aside with an oath, and caught up another. The mage’s sleep spell caught himjust then, and he slumped to the floor. The empty keg rolled away from him, and the other two giants fell across the table an instant later.
    Nemis stood very still for a long moment, then beckoned urgently as he strode across the vast chamber toward another broad corridor that went south. Near the entrance, he froze, then slowly backed away.
    “What?” Vlandar demanded as he came up.
    “I just used a reveal spell. There are guards on the otherside of those doors, giants and more hobgoblins-or worse, norkers.”
    “Norkers,” Vlandar muttered. “Hobgoblins are dangerous enoughfighters, but norkers are vicious-worse than a pack of dire wolves.” An echoingyell brought him around, and Rowan came running.
    “Let’s get out of here. Those young ones are coming thisway!”
    “Too late,” Maera said as she hefted a spear. Someone wasbellowing back the way they’d come. “They’ve seen us!”
    “West door!” Vlandar ordered, “There’s another way out upthere.”
    Maera and her sister ran for the doors, then took up positions next to them. Khlened was right on their heels. He dragged at the door and nearly fell when it opened more easily than he’d expected. Vlandar sentMalowan in first. Agya as usual stuck close to him, and Khlened followed. There was kitchen noise, but not as much, Lhors thought. He went next, followed by Nemis, who was already working some kind of spell. Vlandar and the rangers joined them, and the warrior dragged the door shut as the rest of them moved up the hall far enough that they wouldn’t be immediately seen by anyone in thekitchen.
    Lhors caught a glimpse of two of the little lizardlike creatures-kobolds, he remembered-who were facing an enormous fireplace in thewest wall, stacking greasy bowls and platters on a table. Someone else in the room was screaming at them, but Lhors didn’t take the time to investigate.
    Vlandar drew them farther up the hall and whispered, “Theydidn’t see us. One of their elders was cursing them for interrupting his sleep,and they were arguing with him. Let’s go.”
    Just then, a bald hill giant came out of the kitchen, yawning and stretching. His eye lit on the party, and he ducked back the way he’d come,yelling a warning. Khlened and Malowan ran after him, the rest following. Vlandar tapped Lhors on the shoulder as they ran. “Stay with me. Rowan, you andMaera keep an eye on the way we just came!”
    The smells in the kitchen were dreadful. Three spits hung empty over a fading fire in the back wall. The two kobolds stared at the bald giant fearfully as he snagged one of the spits and brandished it like a sword. They backed against the near wall, obviously afraid that the giant was about to strike them. Then they saw the armed humans and fled, scurrying past the giant and around the corner. The giant ignored them. With a grin that bared rotting teeth, he bellowed in Giantish. Half a dozen tall, gangly brutes poured into the chamber from the north, bearing kitchen knives and a few long pikes for weapons.
    “Ogres,” Vlandar told Lhors. “They’re stupid but dangerous,and they eat people. Stay close!”
    Rowan came up beside them, arrow drawn. “Mal, stay back!”
    The paladin nodded to indicate he’d heard, but there was notime. The ogres were upon them. Malowan slashed at the first that came near him, then ran past the brute, leaving him for someone else to finish.
    Lhors launched one of his spears at the lead ogre. It quivered in the creature’s gut for an instant before Maera’s own spear broughthim down. Rowan killed two more while Khlened fought another.
    The ogres must be stupid, Lhors thought. They seemed to have no plan other than to rush in and kill. When the last one fell with Vlandar’s spear in its belly, Khlened brought his sword down two-handed acrossthe back of its neck. Malowan threw himself at the giant, who stood dumbfounded that the party had dealt with the slaves so quickly.
    The fat giant never had a chance, even with his longer reach. Malowan gave him first thrust, leaped aside, and then swung his blade with both hands. It sliced through the creatures pants, cutting deeply into his leg just below the knee. Malowan came back around, this time stabbing deeply into the side of the brutes leg and severing at least one tendon. The giant went down heavily on his side, the spit clattering free. Before the giant could react, Malowan drove his blade deep into the brute’s eye, killing him.
    In the momentary silence, Rowan hissed a warning. “Someonecoming!”
    A leather and sheep-skin-clad giant came wandering into sight from the south passage, yawning cavernously. He blinked, enormous hands kneading the small of his back as he turned toward the kitchen.
    Vlandar gestured urgently for his people to retreat past the fireplace, but it was too late. The monster blinked at the dead ogres, bristling with spears and long-shafted arrows, then at the fallen giant. He looked uncomprehendingly straight at Lhors, then his eyes flashed and he drew a single-edged axe.
    “Deke n’thull?” he demanded. It sounded to Lhors morelike spitting than words.
    Malowan stepped forward, blades at the ready, and countered, “Emrischgu’vrugnikh, zhegna!”
    Lhors stared as the two slowly paced toward each other. “Whatdid they say?” he asked Vlandar, but Vlandar was already moving to Malowan’sside and gesturing for Khlened to get behind the creature.
    Agya growled. “Means, ‘Your fate, dead and damned one!’”
    The youth gave her a look of disbelief.
    She shrugged. “’Tis the only Giantish I know, and that’cause I asked what he’d say if he went against any of ’em.” She sighed heavily.“Get ’imself killed, saying bits like that.”
    Nemis stood nearby, speaking to himself, and the doorway briefly glowed a faint blue. “Good,” the mage said. “There won’t be anyone elseto hear this. Maybe.”
    The giant threw himself at Vlandar. Malowan stabbed at the back of the creature’s knee, but the blade hit something-armor, Lhorsassumed-and the paladin nearly fell. Agya took a step forward then stopped.
    “Get ’im killed, girl, you go to help,” she mumbled under herbreath.
    Malowan recovered his balance and tried again, lower this time, and Vlandar slashed up at the same time. Both blows connected, spraying blood over the combatants. The giant abandoned his axe and pulled a dagger nearly the size of the paladin’s sword. Malowan parried as Khlened got behindthe massive brute and cut low. The armor didn’t reach his ankles. Thebarbarian’s sword cut deep through the tendon, the giant went down. Giving himno chance to recover, Vlandar stabbed him through the throat.
    Lhors grabbed Agya’s arm and hauled her back nearly to theentry as blood sprayed everywhere, coating the stack of platters and hissing into the fire. Malowan, who’d managed to avoid the arc of blood by some fastfootwork, leaned against the fireplace stones, gasping for air. Agya pulled free and ran to Malowan.
    “Not hurt, are you?” she demanded.
    He shook his head, too winded to speak.
    She glared up at him. “Lucky you’re not dead,” she snapped,turning on her heel, and stalking back over to Lhors.
    “All right,” Vlandar announced quietly. “Mal, catch yourbreath. Rowan, can you see anyone else out there? What happened to those young ones who spied us? Khlened, you and Maera go where those kobolds went and the ogres came from. See what’s there.”
    “Quietly,” Maera warned the barbarian.
    “Huh,” he growled as he wiped his sword and hands on the deadgiant’s sheepskin vest. “Like we were just now?”
    “I’ve blocked the sound,” Nemis said impatiently.
    Khlened cast up his eyes but followed Maera. The two were back in a matter of moments.
    “There’s a bigger room-empty now-and an alcove, two doors.One smells like it might be a pantry. The other doesn’t close tight. It comesout on that hallway. No one’s in sight, including those kobolds.”
    “If they went for help-” Khlened began.
    “They’d be back by now,” Malowan said flatly. He stillsounded short of breath and was shaking his hands out.
    “Can we go before more come?” Agya asked.
    Vlandar got everyone into the large room north of the kitchen. It was empty except for a cold fireplace and a large table. He and Khlened shifted the one door, and Vlandar went in. He returned at once. “As Ithought. There is a pantry, but the second set of stairs is just beyond the cabbages.”
    The other door was ajar enough for Rowan or Maera to slip through, but Vlandar looked at Nemis, then Malowan.
    “It’s dark out there and quiet for the moment. According tothe map that Mal found, we aren’t far from the back way out. We’ll need to gothrough the barracks to reach it, though. That means more wolves.”
    “We can manage wolves,” Rowan said steadily, “but not a company of ogres orhobgoblins.”
    “We have the map and the scroll Mal found,” Vlandar said. “Weshould go now before the guards in the entry decide to come looking for us.”
    “I will not leave,” Khlened said flatly. “We have foundlittle treasure, and this is a giants’ holding. There must be somethingto make the journey thus far worthwhile.”
    “You,” Vlandar said, “will follow orders. I will not remindyou again who is captain, Khlened. You would not last long in this place alone!”
    The barbarian glared at him. After a moment, he nodded. “Sorry, sir,” he said, though he didn’t sound it. “Forgot myself. I swore anoath to you, I won’t shame my kind by breaking it.”
    “Fair enough,” Vlandar said. “Let us go.”
    He and Malowan dragged at the door, making enough room for the larger of them to get through, but he was back at once. He and the paladin leaned into the heavy slab of wood, forcing it shut. “Those wretched youths haveone of the doors to the great hall wide and they are still arguing about where we went. They’ll see us if we move out, but they’ll likely discover the mess inthe kitchen any moment.”
    Nemis took the warrior’s place against the door, a sleekstone in his hand. “Market charm,” he murmured. “I haven’t many more revealspells memorized. This should work almost as well, though. There’s somethingelse-a party of creatures, I think-coming this way from the south. They’removing fast.”
    Malowan spoke under his breath, and his eyes went wide. “Norkers-a pack of them. I fear the search is on, Vlandar.”
    “We cannot battle a hoard of norkers,” Rowan said.
    “Aye,” Malowan agreed. “We leave-now or never.”
    Vlandar backed away from the hall door and grabbed hold of the other. “Down,” he ordered.
    “No, not yet,” Malowan said. “Only if they come looking forus here. Get that door partway open now. Nemis, be ready with that beneath notice spell of yours. We can wait here, let them think we went on up the hall seeking a way out. Once they’ve passed, we’ll have a chance at the entry.”
    “Better than cutting ourselves off,” Khlened agreed softly.
    “Shhh,” Maera hissed, then went silent herself as they heardsomeone shouting nearby. The voices of several giants came from the hallway, and they were growing louder. They were speaking a heavily accented Common as they approached, but Lhors could pick out a few words here and there.
    “Quick!” Vlandar hissed. “In the pantry!”
    Everyone edged into the smelly pantry, and Vlandar eased the door shut, leaving it open just enough to see out. Lhors, standing just behind Vlandar, could see over the warrior’s shoulder.
    Several heavy-footed brutes stormed into the large room. All of them were armed and looked determined to shed blood. The giants looked around, but none seemed to see anything.
    Lhors clamped his jaw tight and refused to breathe.
    “Door to the hall is open!” the lead giant bellowed. “You,you, you”-he pointed as he spoke-“go after! Check pens and warn keeper to guarddoor! You”-he motioned to the last giant-“come with me!”
    “They’re searching the room,” Vlandar hissed. “Nemis, quick!Use your beneath notice spell.”
    Lhors heard the mage whisper a brief incantation. With all of the noise they were making, surely they hadn’t heard Vlandar. Please, Lhorsprayed, please don’t let them have heard him! Everyone in the party was tired.Even fresh, there was no way they could defeat so many giants. Trapped in the pantry as they were, they would have the advantage of surprise for only an instant before the slaughter would begin.
    Three of the giants ambled off as their chief shook the door latch. “Locked. Guard killers not be this way. You and you, go into slave pensand look for outsiders hiding! You and you, go search sword rooms! Rest come with me!”
    The giants stormed out. Soon, the sound of their footsteps faded.
    “It worked,” Vlandar sighed. “They overlooked the pantry.Praise all the gods at once.”
    “What next?” Malowan asked. “I can’t tolerate this stenchmuch longer.”
    “The large room is empty,” Nemis offered.
    “Move out, then,” Vlandar said. “Rowan, you lead. Nemis stayclose to her. Into the hall and start for the entry. Most of that party went the other way, so we should be safe for the moment. The door through the barracks is barred against us. It’s the main way or none.”
    They made it safely past the doors, but partway into the south passage, Rowan backed against the wall, dragging Nemis over with her.
    “Guards coming!” Rowan hissed.
    Vlandar pulled Lhors close. He touched Malowan’s arm then anddrew a hand across his throat.
    The paladin nodded and tightened his grip on his sword.


    The party made it back into the hall before the guards couldsee them. Everyone fanned out around the door, which the paladin shut, leaving just enough of a crack to see through.
    The hallway was broad enough for the two giants to come on side by side-barely. One of them was grumbling under his breath, and Lhorscaught the word “orders” but nothing else. The two stopped where they were,effectively blocking the passage.
    “Blast Ukruz and his orders!” the first giant snarled loudly.
    The other mumbled something in response. He sounded more bored than upset.
    “You saw ’em out there, Jinag! Old Furks and his brutes andstupid little Hookin. Ask me, Hookin was drunk and said the wrong words to Furks. Furks hated ’im anyway.”
    “Furks hated everyone but his wolves,” Jinag said. “Ukruz’llskin us or feed us them nasty norkers if we don’t get back to-” He turned tolook down the passage. “What’s that?”
    The other giant peered into the gloom of the passage behind them. Rowan eased down onto one knee and drew her bowstring back, but before she could fire, the two went back the way they’d come and disappeared down thehallway to the right.
    “They won’t stay there long,” Nemis said. “I made a voicespell down there, but it’s only good for a few words.”
    “We don’t dare alert the guards searching for us,” Malowansaid, “and there are norkers in the entry.”
    “Not anymore, there aren’t,” Rowan hissed. “Look!”
    Lhors couldn’t make out much in the gloom, but he couldclearly make out the sound of scuffling feet and the occasional clink of armor.
    Vlandar gripped Lhors’ shoulder and pushed him toward thepantry. “Back, everyone! Back into the pantry! Quickly! We’ll let them pass andtry for the entry again.”
    “If they pass,” Maera muttered, but she was on herway, stopping just short of the kitchen to be certain it was empty before easing out of sight.
    Lhors followed, but as he reached the kitchen he glanced over his shoulder, caught his boot on a raised stone and nearly went headlong. Malowan hauled him up, but Agya glared at him.
    “Pick up y’r feet, y’ oaf,” she hissed.
    The youth bit back a retort and followed her into the next room, his thoughts furious. Agya was still mumbling to herself until both Malowan and Maera gestured sharply for her to be still. The little thief glared at Lhors, as if the reprimand was his fault. He glared back defiantly. He thought, my father would never have put me on a quest with such an arrogant, full of herself, spoiled rotten, lousy little flat-chested wretch of a thief!
    It wasn’t necessarily all true, but the outburst-even in hisown head-made him feel a little better.
    Malowan had the pantry door open as everyone filed in, pulled it shut behind them, then laid his hands against the easternmost wall. After several long, unnerving moments, he nodded. “They’ve passed,” he murmuredsoftly, “small, foul creatures and at least two giants or ogre guards. They wentthrough a door, I think. My sense of them diminished all at once, and I am certain I just heard a door shut.”
    “What about th’ others?” Khlened asked softly.
    Nemis touched a finger to the barbarian’s lips. “They’renear. Shhh.”
    Silence. Lhors could hear nothing but the beating of his own heart.
    “Do you sense something?” Vlandar asked the mage quietly.
    Nemis replied, “I cannot be certain it was the same twoguards we just saw, but someone came from down south and went toward the feast hall.”
    “Well then,” Vlandar said, “the feast hall seems to bebecoming too popular for our purpose. We’ll head down the hall and into thearmory. They’ve searched that, and it’s open at both ends, if I read the mapright.”
    “Let’s be at it then,” Malowan said as he pulled the doortoward him. He stepped out first, sword at the ready, but the room was deathly quiet.
    “Fast and quiet, lad,” Vlandar said as Lhors edged throughthe opening. “We’ll get out safe.”
    The youth merely nodded. He wasn’t certain he could trust hisvoice, and he really disliked that musty little chamber with the steps leading down into utter darkness.
    The kitchen was deserted except for the bodies. Lhors wondered why no one had removed them, then realized they hadn’t been dead thatlong-and the only ones who knew about the bodies were the guards who were busysearching for the killers. He swallowed.
    It was quiet across the way as well. The doors into the feast hall were closed. Vlandar nodded then drew Lhors into the hall. They stayed hard against the right-hand wall as the others came out, and Vlandar began to edge south away from the light.
    Lhors fought a sudden urge to run. Vlandar would keep him safe, he reminded himself, if Vlandar wasn’t killed. Most of thecreatures in this place were at least half again the warrior’s height, and thesmaller ones-those norkers-must make up for lack of size in fierceness.
    Nemis edged past them. “No one down there,” he whispered.
    Vlandar nodded.
    Suddenly Rowan, who brought up the rear, hissed a warning. The latch on the feast hall door moved, and the door slammed open. Two obviously drunken giants staggered into the corridor and fetched up hard against the opposite wall. One swung a massive fist at the other. The blow connected, but only slightly. The second giant fell back a pace and grabbed for his blade. The first drew himself up straight with a sottish arrogance and slapped the second open-handed, sending him reeling to the floor. The brute shook his head to clear it and fought his way onto hands and knees. Halfway up, he flailed for balance, sat hard, and his massive, red-rimmed eyes glared straight at Lhors.
    Lhors froze.
    The giant froze for an instant as comprehension slowly dawned in his eyes, then he bellowed a warning in Giantish. His companion turned, drawing a long-bladed dagger from his belt. The other staggered to his feet and reeled back across the hall as he fumbled for his weapon. He hauled a club from his belt, but the heavy weapon cost him his balance and he fell again. The dagger-wielding brute snarled at him, then squared his shoulders and lurched at Lhors, blade raised to skewer him.
    Vlandar grabbed Lhors and pulled him back against the wall. “Take them down! Quick!”
    The mage was already working. He fell back next to Vlandar and said, “Quiet-it’s my last, though!”
    Rowan fired an arrow at the dagger-wielder, but it skipped off his scalp, leaving only a slight gash. She swore and tried again. The second went into his shoulder, but not deeply enough. The brute snarled a curse, then yanked it loose and threw it aside. Blood ran down his face, but he ignored it.
    Maera and Malowan dealt with the other brute, who managed a drunken swing at the paladin. His own momentum threw him off-balance, and Maera drove her spear into his ear. He yanked his head around, bellowing in pain, and the ranger was thrown hard against the wall. Malowan came up behind him and thrust his sword into the brutes eye, killing him instantly.
    Khlened and Vlandar were trying to finish off the other giant. Vlandar got behind him finally and slashed at the exposed backs of the monster’s knees. The giant fell, screaming.
    Lhors yelped as both doors to the feast hall were thrust open. Two of the young giants and a very aged one stood there-none armed orarmored, though they looked deadly enough to him. They could break me in half, he thought.
    “Back, Lhors!” Vlandar yelled. “Ready your spears! Khlened,finish him! Rest of you, behind me and down the hall, now!”
    But Rowan ignored him and ran to help her dazed sister to her feet. Khlened fell back, his sword ripped out of his hands, as the giant rolled away with the barbarians blade still planted firmly in his leg.
    “Damn all!” the barbarian snarled. He scooped up the club andswung it two-handed, bringing it down on the drunks head. The giant collapsed.
    “Leave the blade!” Vlandar ordered. “We’ve company, youfool!”
    Khlened spun around just as the old male drew back, urgently tugging at the giant-youths.
    “They’re afraid!” the barbarian laughed harshly.
    But as he made another grab for his sword, someone beyond the feast hall roared out an order. Four heavily armed giants came charging across the chamber, clubs out. The floor shook with their advance. Lhors could hear another voice-female and very angry, shouting in Giantish at someone inside thechamber.
    “Hells!” Nemis said flatly. “That’s Nosnra himself I put tosleep, and she’s waking him!”
    “Back!” Vlandar ordered. “The south passage is narrow enoughthey’ll have to come at us one at a time. Move!”
    Vlandar, Malowan and Khlened covered their backs as the company sprinted for the passageway. Maera turned just before leaving the room and launched a spear. It sailed into the foremost giant, impaling him just below the sternum. Roaring in pain and fury, the giant fell.
    The paladin shook his head as he entered the hallway with his sword raised. “Too many, Vlandar,” he said.
    Rowan edged past him to draw her bow. One of her arrows buried itself to the fletchings in a giant’s throat, and he fell, bleedingheavily. The younger giants looked down at him, at each other, then turned and ran.
    “Nemis,” Vlandar ordered, “do what you can! We can’t fightthem all!”
    “Kenesthris!” the mage shouted and waved his hands in acomplex gesture. As he spoke, one of the doors swung around on its own and slammed shut. “I can’t control both, and even that may not hold long!”
    Before any of the guards could attack, someone inside the chamber shouted an order and shoved his way into the hall. He was enormous, taller than his guards by a head, and hugely fat. His eyes were bleary, but if he was drunk he didn’t move like it. The brute ducked back into the chamber andshouted another order. One of the club-wielders came out, followed by two more. The fourth was apparently beating on the other door to get it open.
    Rowan shot several arrows in quick order. One of the giants fell, a shaft through his mouth and another in his eye. Another two sidestepped him and came on, clubs upraised.
    Nemis sent a crackling fireball at them. The lead giant could not evade in time and took it head-on. He began screaming and beating his clothes as the deadly flames engulfed him. His own comrades cut him down, probably not so much out of mercy as to get him out of the way. The other giants hesitated at such resistance and backed into the feast hall, brushing sparks from their clothing.
    “Back!” Vlandar shouted and pointed his blade toward thekitchen.
    Nemis turned and ran, stopping just inside to ready another spell. Agya and Lhors went next, followed by Rowan, who was still supporting Maera. The warriors came next, and Vlandar grabbed Nemis’ arm as the mage begananother spell.
    “Save it!” he ordered. “There’s no time.”
    “They’ll know which way we went!” Khlened shouted. He sworeas a flaming arrow zipped past him. The arrow quivered in the door frame as the giant moved out of sight, but Lhors could hear him in there, shouting orders. The female was screaming something, but he could make no sense of it.
    “Move, all of you!” Vlandar ordered. “The whole Steading’llbe roused against us before much longer. Rowan, grab that torch on the hearth and light it!”
    “Down?” Nemis asked as he backed away.
    “No choice,” the warrior replied steadily, but Lhors didn’tthink he looked very happy about it.
    Vlandar picked Maera up and ran with her. Rowan scooped up the torch, plunged it into the fire until it caught, then followed. Everyone else filed in behind her. Malowan brought up the rear, backing around the corner just as loud voices reached them and the bespelled door slammed back into the wall.
    “That cost me a good blade,” Khlened mumbled as he leanedinto the pantry door to shut it.
    “Better than your life,” Rowan snapped breathlessly.
    “Silence, all of you!” Vlandar hissed. “Nemis, what can youdo with stone?”
    “Enough, I think,” the mage said. He was peering down thestairs. “There is no one anywhere nearby down there, but if there is a way out,I cannot sense it from here.”
    “We’ll find one,” Vlandar said grimly. “We’ve no choice now.Go! All of you! Down! We’ll follow.”
    Maera, finally beginning to shake off her daze, edged past them. “My eyes are better in dark, and I don’t trust anyone but me or Rowan withour only light. I’ll go first.”
    She went down a long, straight flight. Lhors went next, with the barbarian right behind him. Some distance down, the youth thought he saw light ahead beside Maera’s flickering torch, and when they reached the laststep, he could clearly see the ranger and the chamber beyond. Two torches were shoved in niches on the far wall-but it wasn’t far enough for Lhors. It lookedlike a short corridor, but it was closed off at both ends, and there were no doors or openings of any kind that he could see.
    Maera turned in place, staring thoughtfully at the walls while her sister laid her ear against one. “It’s not a trap,” she assured Lhors.
    “How can y’tell?” Khlened asked. He looked very pale in theruddy light.
    Agya came up behind him, sling in one hand and a stone for it in the other, then set herself to watch the stairs, only relaxing when Malowan came down. Nemis came last, some moments behind Vlandar.
    “It’s still quiet up there,” he said, “but I would move asfar from the stairs as you can.”
    “Aye,” Khlened said. “The giants’ll know we’ve come here bynow. Won’t be much for ’em to take us, will it?”
    “This is not a trap,” Maera repeated, this time loudenough for everyone to hear. She tugged at Lhors’ sleeve and brought him backfrom the door that led to the stairs. “The giants have no reason to build astair down to a dead end. The doors are hidden, but they are here.”
    “The giants will not come down those stairs immediately,”Nemis said, “not after the fight we just gave them. They will take time toregroup and better prepare themselves. But in a moment, those stairs will collapse. I set a device partway down that is dissolving the bonds between the stones.”
    Khlened caught his breath sharply as the little chamber rumbled and shook. Shards of stone and a puff of dust sifted down from the chamber.
    “I suggest we move away,” Nemis said with forced calm.
    The party quickly shuffled into the rear of the chamber as fast as they could. They had gathered in a tight huddle when the entire staircase fell with an ear-shattering rumble. Everyone spent several moments coughing and sneezing away the dust and grit.
    “There,” the mage said after a while. He looked pleased. “Theway is blocked from bottom to top, and Mal used a spell to seal the upper door. It’s as good as any locking spell I have, but I had learned none for today.”
    “Just as well,” Malowan said. “We had more need of yourprotective spells.”
    “Look,” Maera said. “See? The dust is going. There’s a holeor two in this place.”
    “Holes,” Khlened whispered. The barbarian was sweating, hiseyes fixed on the blocked entry. “What if there’s no bigger opening?”
    “There is,” Nemis said firmly, “and I will find it, but Iwould like a few minutes to rest and catch my breath first.”
    “Huh,” Agya snorted. “If there’s a door from this place, I’llfind it right now.”
    “No,” Malowan said. “Nemis is right. Sit and catch yourbreath. He and I need to be certain there’s no great danger for us out there.”
    The mage smiled tiredly. “Danger? What? In the dungeons ofthe Steading?” His lips moved briefly, soundlessly. “There are creatures near,but not very near. They are not coming any closer. We’ll do here, for themoment.”
    “We’d been better above,” Khlened said, possibly to himself.
    Malowan shook his head. “Four giants and a hobgoblin guardingthe way out, and at least four giant guards with clubs and their chief in the feast hall. We managed by luck and skill to injure or kill some, but that luck would not have lasted.”
    “It would not,” Nemis said, his eyes closed. “Nosnra wasbellowing orders for one of them to loose his cave bear.”
    “Bear?” Agya whispered, her eyes suddenly huge.
    “It cannot come this way,” Malowan reminded her. “Besides allof that, Nosnra’s lady was bellowing for aid. We could never have held outagainst a dozen or more giants.”
    The barbarian grunted.
    “So, that was Yk’nea?” Rowan asked. “I thought itmight be, the way she was shouting orders-especially at the last. Did you hearher? She sounded genuinely afraid.”
    “She was,” Nemis said. “She was shouting at Nosnra-somethingabout ‘they do not accept failure’ or some such.”
    Malowan moved away from the wall where he had been listening. “Nemis, there is more than one stair to the dungeon level, you know.”
    “I know, but there is nothing to be done for it now. We seemto have thrown off pursuit for the time being. I think we are safe for a while at least.”
    “Safe?” Khlened inquired dryly. “How can we be safe when y’just cut off our only way out?”
    “It was not our only exit,” Nemis replied, “but itwill cut off our pursuers for now. Returning to the fortress is no longer an option with the whole place roused against us. We must find another way.”
    Khlened growled something that Lhors couldn’t make out andstomped away.
    “We must take a short while to rest,” Vlandar said, “thenmove on. We’ll set watches two at a time so no one falls asleep. Nemis, wouldyou rather have another watch than the first?”
    Nemis shrugged. “I’m no more tired than you or anyone else.I’ll take first with Agya. She wants to find doors, and I would like to testwhat I can of the space around this chamber.”
    Vlandar nodded and moved into the far corner, pulled his hood low over his eyes, and stretched out on the stone floor. Khlened was already down, eyes closed, and as Lhors looked for a place that might somehow be more comfortable, he saw the rangers settle with their backs against the wall and lean into each other to rest sitting up. Rowan’s strung bow lay by her leg, twoarrows set close to the string where she could readily lay hands on them. Maera had two spears leaning against the wall near her shoulder.
    Lhors feared that despite what they knew from the scrolls, the giants had other ways to the lower levels. He didn’t want to think aboutsuch a thing. He’d be too afraid to sleep, and he desperately needed to rest. Hepulled two boar spears from his case and settled down against the wall partway between Vlandar and Rowan. The warrior seemed to be asleep.
    As Lhors settled his small pack under his head and lay down, he caught Rowan looking at him. The ranger glanced at his spears, smiled at him, and nodded approvingly. She then closed her eyes. Lhors sighed very faintly and closed his own.


    Lhors woke some time later, too warm and disoriented from adeep but inadequate sleep. After his share of the watch, he sought his corner again. It was utterly quiet all around them, leaving him to wonder if there was anyone alive on this level except his party. Don’t think that or you won’tsleep, he ordered himself. Oddly, no one seemed to be trying to dig down through the rubble of the broken stairway.
    Lhors soon fell into a doze, vaguely aware of the others and the hard stone beneath his hip. He woke some time later to find Nemis prowling the little chamber, now and again mumbling under his breath or leaning against the wall and listening intently. He held open the large book that Lhors already knew was the mage’s tome of spells. Memorizing spells, Lhors realized. Vlandarhad said both mage and paladin needed to learn anew each spell they might want to use each time. Malowan sat nearby, helping Vlandar out of his armor.
    “I do apologize if this hurts,” the paladin said as thewarrior hissed in pain, “but the healing touch works faster if I can lay myhands on the wound itself.”
    The warrior grunted. “Just not so quickly, Mal! A man of myyears gets mightily stiff after sleeping on hard stone. Ah, better.” He metLhors’ eyes and smiled.
    “I didn’t know you were hurt up there, sir,” the youth said,and his heart sank.
    Malowan glanced at him. “It’s not so bad, a bit worse than ascratch. Most paladins can heal scratches, and I can heal far worse.”
    Vlandar winced as he raised his arm to look down at his ribs. The skin was very pale except for a massive bruise running from armpit to his hip. “This’ll teach me to be faster on my feet,” he said, forcing a painedsmile. “No blood running down my side. Must not hurt me, as my old father usedto say.”
    Lhors managed a smile in reply, but he didn’t feel muchbetter. Vlandar is a good man, a friend, a little like Father. Suddenly, Lhors couldn’t bear to think that Vlandar might die here. He looked up to see thewarrior’s steady gaze on him. The man often seemed to sense what the villageyouth was thinking.
    “Fortunately, I’m fast enough on my feet and reasonablyskilled with my blades.”
    “And smart enough to back off when the opposition isunbeatable,” Malowan added. He laid his hands lightly on the warrior’s side.Vlandar set his jaw, but a moment later, the warrior smiled and flexed his shoulder.
    Lhors stared in amazement. Where there had been an ugly blue-black bruise, there was now no sign of injury except for a very old scar, much like one of his father’s.
    “And smart enough to bring a paladin with me in case I do gethurt,” Vlandar added and drew his thick blue jerkin down over his head.
    “Khlened,” Malowan said as he rose, “I swear you were cut upthere.”
    “Nothing so bad,” the barbarian grumbled.
    Lhors could see a little dried blood on the man’s hand. Hewas stripping off the few bits of wicker armor he wore on his forearms and tossing them aside. “All the coin I paid that yellow-eyed southerner for thisfancy stuff, man’d think it’d take a blow or two.”
    “Your southerner probably never planned on fighting giants,”Malowan said. He got up and resettled next to the barbarian. “I am surprised itworked as well as it did. Here, sit still a moment. Let me.”
    Eyes apprehensive, Khlened edged away as the paladin held out his hands.
    “You needn’t strip off your shirt for me, man. Or for Rowanand Maera.”
    To Lhors’ surprise, the northerner blushed a furious red.
    “Just tell me where you’re hurt and I can manage.”
    “Two places,” Khlened mumbled, eyes fixed on his hands. Hiscolor was still high. “One on th’ left shoulder under all that broken wicker.It’s more a bruise than a cut, I think, but it stings bad. I think a small bonein my right forearm is broke. Something grinds in there when I move it.”
    “Don’t move it then,” the paladin replied, exasperated, “andhold still!”
    He laid hands on the barbarian’s shoulder, and the manflinched away from him with a hiss of pain.
    “Don’t dig into m’ flesh like that, then,” Khlened snarled,but he set his jaw and closed his eyes.
    Malowan ran two fingers lightly over the soft leather under-armor.
    “Bruise and possibly a cut, is it?” he inquiredsarcastically.
    “No bruise?” Khlened gritted between his teeth.
    Malowan snorted. “Oh, no. Try one the size of my palm and acut as long as my fingers! You’re lucky to be alive, friend. Another knuckle’sworth down and you’d have bled to death in moments.” Light suddenly puddledaround the paladin’s fingertips. “Lucky for you, I’ve the strength for this now.Another time I might be out cold with my own injuries.”
    Khlened caught his breath, then let it out in a relieved sigh. Malowan now cupped his hands around the forearm, not quite touching it. “Before you ask, the bone is broken but not all the way through. You punchedsomeone up there with your fist or that sword, didn’t you?”
    “P’raps. I don’t remember.” Khlened flexed his fingerscautiously as the paladin sat back.
    “Easiest way for a fighter to break a bone like this is toslam his arm or leg too hard into something even harder. Next time you might have to heal on your own!”
    “As I have from childhood, paladin,” the barbarian replied.“And men from my country don’t pull back from battle for fear o’ bruisin’themselves.” He glanced at Nemis, who was again prowling the room. “We’ve beenhere too long. Th’ giants could be sneaking-”
    Malowan shook his head. “I would know if they were so close.Nemis, reassure our northern friend. No one nearby?”
    “No one,” the mage said readily. He closed the book on hishand, marking his spot. “This seems to be a hundred paces or so from any life atall, unless you count a stray rat or a few spiders. There are large and unpleasant creatures some distance away to the west, and some sort of beasts eastward. The latter are moving about, but the others seem to be caged and in a fury because of it. I can tell there are giants and others above us on the main floor. The stairs came down so well that they are having difficulty getting the first stones moved. Among the giants, there is uncertainty and a little fear as well.”
    “Fear?” Lhors asked in surprise.
    “Fear,” Nemis agreed. “Look at us. Smaller than they, fewerthan they, and yet we have challenged them in their very halls.” His sardonicsmile faded. “And we have killed some of them and some of their servants.”
    “’Tis fine,” Khlened grumbled, “but what next? I still seeno way from this place. Do we simply sit here until they come to take us?”
    “No,” Vlandar said. He was lacing his mail shirt close to hisbody. “There are two ways out of this chamber, besides the one Nemis destroyed.Agya and Nemis found them while the rest of us were resting. But you are right We dare not stay here much longer. We have much to accomplish yet.”
    “I agree,” the barbarian said. He scowled at the ruinedwicker. “All the fighting we’ve done so far and for what? One skinny purse. Mostof the coin we’ve found so far-and it wasn’t much-went to those hulking giantlasses.”
    Vlandar sighed. “If we win through with the information theking seeks, he’ll see us rewarded handsomely. Particularly if we spend so muchtime doing his work that we’ve spared none seeking out treasure.”
    The barbarian snorted in obvious disbelief.
    “I agree,” Vlandar continued. “He might not take yourword for such a thing, but I have served him and his father before him. He knows I would not lie-not over a trifling matter like coin.”
    This silenced Khlened.
    Vlandar looked around the room and got to his feet. “Allright, people. You know I wanted to get in, get that map and any other useful information, then quietly leave. Well, at least we have the map. Mal, have you and Nemis examined it?”
    The paladin shook his head. “I wanted you awake so we couldgo over it together. I would also like to compare it with the scroll-”
    “Scroll?” Maera demanded. “What scroll?”
    Malowan stirred. “There was no time to share the informationbefore. Also, I wanted to be certain of its contents.”
    Nemis’ lips twitched. “You did not trust me, youmean. I cannot blame you-”
    “Save that,” Vlandar broke in briskly. “Maera, I chose tokeep that matter to myself. Now I intend to share it. That is my right as commander, is it not?”
    She nodded and settled back against the wall.
    “From now on, our main goal is to escape this place. Bestwould be a forgotten doorway to the surface, but I doubt we will find one. There may be ways guarded by spells or beasts, and even if we do make our way back to the surface, we may have a long journey back to our horses.”
    “There may be other ways to leave, Vlandar,” Malowan saidmildly. “Ever since I first heard Lhors’ tale, I thought these giants must havea spell or some magic device to get them from here to Keoland. Upper Haven is many days’ journey from here, even for giants. I find it odd that they have notbeen seen more often. The land is not that underpopulated.”
    “True,” Vlandar said. “And we may find such devices or magicitems on this level. I have led enough raids against bandits and robbers to know that those who have a permanent hiding place keep their most valuable things apart-often in a secret space beneath the chief’s personal quarters.”
    “I agree,” Malowan said. “I still believe the scroll cases Ifound in that woodpile were temporarily hidden-set where they would not be seenby everyone, but near enough that they could be retrieved quickly. Once the orders written there are carried out, I believe the scroll would be put with previous orders in a locked chamber close by. Perhaps down the nearby stairs?”
    Vlandar nodded. “I agree with you, Mal. I hope to findanother way into that passage from down here. The two staircases cannot be very far apart. We shall see. So far, Nosnra and his crew seem not to have warned any guards down here where we are and what we have done.”
    “How do you know that?” Lhors asked.
    “Because there is no company of giants breaking in either ofthe doors, and… Nemis?”
    The mage murmured a spell-probably the reveal danger one thatLhors knew he used often. Nemis shook his head no.
    Vlandar went on. “We are alone. Nemis would sense anyonenearby. Either this level is largely deserted, which I doubt, or no one down here knows what happened up there, which I also doubt. If there are dungeons and housing for slaves and such down here, as I think likely, the giants are involved in their normal routines. Still, we dare not stay here much longer. We have all rested some. All of you, eat something and drink a little. Nemis, I think it’s time to explain.”
    “As you choose,” the mage said and set his book aside with afaint sigh.
    “Me first, then you,” Vlandar replied.
    Nemis merely nodded.
    Lhors thought he looked resigned, but it was hard to tell. The mage’s face didn’t reveal much.
    Vlandar went on, “The scroll Mal found is written inGiantish. The scroll Mal found gives us written proof that these giants were ordered to attack villages. We do not know why, but we do know who. I can assure you that if we come away with nothing but this one scroll, we will have accomplished part of our task. When we find a way out, I may choose to divide our force and send some of you to take that scroll back to Cryllor. The Lord Mebree’s sorcerers can easily transport it to wherever the king presentlyis.”
    “But if our boats and the horses are already gone…?”Maera asked.
    A muted grumbling rippled through the party.
    “They will not be,” Malowan replied. “I left the mate thischarm.”-he fished a little device from his belt. “At least once a day, I let himknow that we still live. He waits for another signal from me if we need help, and by yet another to tell the Flennish to set sail back east while he and the lad return the horses to Cryllor.”
    “Now,” Vlandar went on, “I see most of you are dissatisfied,but there is more to all this than you know.” He gave Nemis a steady look.
    The mage sighed, but came away from the wall. He looked resigned, Lhors thought. Like the day you had to admit to old headman Yerik that you sneaked into the onion fields and ate bulbs, he mused. The headman had been really angry until Gran broke into her cackly laugh and reminded the headman of his own forays into that same patch.
    Nemis now wore the same look on his face that Yerik had.
    “All right,” the mage said. “I have something to tell all ofyou, and I… well…” He settled cross-legged on the floor and drew a deepbreath. “The scroll was written by a being called Eclavdra, a dread sorceress ofthe dark elves, the drow.”
    Rowan caught her breath sharply, and Maera sat up straight.
    Nemis eyed the rangers. “Yes, I see that you know of drow.For you others, drow are elves, but unlike Rowan or Maera, they are black skinned, silver or white-haired, and they live beneath the ground. Unlike our rangers, they despise growing things. They are selfish, cold-minded, and cruel. Long ago, they fought the other elves for control of the surface lands and lost. They were driven underground where they have since made their home. They do not want to return to the surface, unless they have greatly changed. They prefer the dark depths of the earth, but they hate other elves, half-elves, and all who dwell under the sun.”
    “It is an ancient hatred,” Rowan said. She sounded shaken,and Maera’s face was pale. “Of course we know of drow, but no one has seen themin many of our lives. We hoped they were all dead.”
    “They are not,” Nemis said evenly. “I have seen them.My master was a skilled mage who made a study of the drow. What he learned drove him to fear them, and I think his fears made him a little mad, for not long after I was bound to him, he sought the drow, and they found him. Before that year’s end, my master and I were housed in a chamber far below ground in themidst of a vast city of drow. He had pledged himself as apprentice to one of their most dire sorceresses, Eclavdra. As his apprentice, I was also bound to her.”
    Rowan looked at Maera, who was honing the points of her spears on a whetstone. Maera shrugged.
    “I have never heard that name,” Rowan said.
    “Few have,” Nemis admitted. To Lhors, his eyes lookedhaunted-like Gran’s eyes the morning after the giants’ attack. “She is manythings: sorceress, dour warrior, a black cleric, and”-he swallowed-“extremelycharismatic. She draws people of all kinds to her service. My master went to her from fear. I for other reasons.” He stared at his hands. “She wanted me for herown… personal… reasons. Because I pleased her, I was giventraining in the drow magic. Eventually, I learned enough that I was able to strike down my master and escape.” He looked at Rowan. “Yes, that could be a lieto hide that Eclavdra trained me and sent me onto the surface to spy for her or do worse things. I can only swear to you that I am no spy for the drow.”
    “I know that,” Malowan told him. “You others, remember thatas a paladin, I can discern when someone lies. Nemis is not lying.”
    “In that case,” Maera said, “we have a problem.”

    “Mal!” Agya hissed urgently. She was exploring the east wallas the rest of the party prepared to set out. “Mal, come ’ere! There’s a loosebit just ’ere.”
    Malowan came over to see, and Vlandar followed. Lhors, closest to the girl, could make out the fingertip-sized circle that slid aside as she pressed on it. “Lookit,” she breathed. “I can see out there!”
    She stepped back as the paladin crouched to set his eye to the opening. Malowan nodded cautiously and gestured for Vlandar to look, then signed Agya to ease the cover back into place. “There is no one out there justnow, but someone might come and hear our voices,” Malowan said quietly.
    “What is it?” Lhors asked.
    “A very large, dark chamber,” the paladin replied,“apparently empty for now.”
    “We’ve been quiet enough,” Maera replied. “Besides, ifsomething had been that close, either you or the mage would have detected it, wouldn’t you?”
    “Probably,” Malowan conceded reluctantly, “but our magic isnot infinite. Someone could have crept in and away again without us noticing, though it is unlikely.”
    “Well,” Agya interrupted, “tell you what, just before Iopened that spy-bit, there was somethin out there-not in th’ open, morelike clear across. First off, I caught an echo, then p’raps whatever it was wentbehind some door, ’cause was not so loud and no echo. But I did catch someonespeakin’ what sounded like Giantish, like it was bellowin’ orders. But th’ otherdin’t have words.”
    “What exactly did you hear?” Malowan asked.
    “Ah, wait,” Agya said and shut her eyes to concentrate. “Goorzh, nigheye! Zharhoye!”
    To Lhors’ surprise, it sounded like the guttural, spittingsound of Giantish. “’Tis all I could catch aright.”
    “How’d you know that,” Lhors asked, “if you don’t understandgiant-talk?”
    “I don’t understand it,” the girl retorted.
    Malowan cleared his throat, defusing a potential spat. “Agyadoesn’t read. Like many who don’t, she has excellent recall of sounds-even wordswhose meaning she doesn’t know.”
    Agya waved that aside. “So? It means-well, what?”
    “It is an order,” Nemis said. “‘Stay put, you brute, andguard!’ As if the giant spoke to a pet.” He looked to Malowan, who was pressedagainst the east wall, eyes closed.
    “I sense incredible evil, despair, pain, and anger. I thinkthe giant may be a cell guard, and there is a beast to aid him in that task.”
    “Beast?” Agya looked unhappy. “Like Jufas’ monkey? It weren’t no pet. It bit people, nasty creature, gave ’em awful fever. Jufasnearly got kilt when th’ brute jumped ’im wi’ no warnin’ at all.”
    Rowan nodded. “That is the worst of wild beasts being kept infetters. Bears and apes will usually leave you alone in the wild. Kept prisoner and tormented-well, they act no worse than any of us would in their place.”
    “P’raps,” Agya said. Lhors didn’t think she sounded convincedat all. “But any kept ’ere won’t be yer wild, free things as leaves usalone, will they?”
    “Agya,” Malowan murmured and laid a hand on her shoulder.“Unfortunately, you are right. Beasts here will be pent and angry or trained toattack. And Vlandar, there are three or four other pent-up brutes to the west-Iam nearly certain they are manticores, and it will do us no good to go after them. Remember where we are in the northwestern corner of the Steading. The west door may not lead anywhere but to a trap.”
    “I agree,” Vlandar said. “Better to avoid manticoresaltogether. The sting from their tails is said to be bad.”
    Nemis laughed, but his eyes weren’t amused. “Call it lethal.”
    Vlandar nodded. “Yes, I know. We go the other way, then.”
    When he turned to pick up his armor, Agya cleared her throat. “Wait. If y’ask me, we better learn ’xactly what’s there. I mean, what’s yonsounded mad to me and prob’ly not fussy if its dinner’s still alive. Seems senseto me if someone takes a look proper-like.”
    “We have Nemis-” Vlandar began.
    The girl shook her head. “Aye, and we have Mal-both of ’emfor magic. But sir, we need a real search. ’Tis no time to be trustin’ only tomagic.” She eyed Malowan sidelong. “’Member when you looked in th’ thievesguildhall for Mobwef and nearly got skewered?”
    “I did not,” the paladin replied with dignity, “nearlyget skewered. I merely-”
    “’E had a noble’s spellstone e’d stolt,” the girl remindedhim sharply, “and it was good enough that you wasn’t aware of ’im. Someone might’ave a thing like that ’ere.”
    “And you would see him?” Nemis asked mildly.
    Lhors thought the mage was holding back temper-but only justfrom the way his eyes looked.
    “No,” she replied, “but I might smell ’im. Back in th’ city,Mobwef and ’is crew weren’t much for baths. Things ’ere ain’t either. I smeltMobwef and warned Mal. Any of us go search out there first, it’s me.” Her facewas a study in frustration. Probably, Lhors thought, she didn’t have use wordsas persuasion very often. “Master thief Mobwef, ’e had a rule back in th’ city.Job gets tricky so’s you maybe lose a thief or so, don’t risk th’ good onesor your green ’prentices neither, or them’s as don’t have experience in th’kind of place they’re robbing. Pick so th’ loss won’t hurt yer guild, but stilluse one who knows ’is job.”
    “She’s saying,” Malowan added tiredly, “that she and Lhorsare the most expendable of us all, but that Lhors wasn’t raised in a city andshe was. She won’t be fazed by stone mazes.”
    “That’s it,” Agya replied then settled back on her heels. She spared a glanceat Lhors, but then divided her attention between Malowan and Vlandar.
    Like I’m of no account, thought Lhors, like what shesays matters-not what Vlandar decides! His face felt hot, and he hoped hissudden anger didn’t show. Oh, for a chance to see her out in hill country whereshe can feel as lost and useless as I do, he raged internally. I’ll show theskinny little-
    He knelt and busied himself rearranging things in his pack. It wouldn’t be so bad if she wasn’t at least three years younger, so set onherself, and so gods-blasted self-sufficient.
    Agya’s voice tightened the back of his neck. “Stone and darkby themselves don’ scare me. I’m little, a thief, and good at it too. If not,I’d be dead by now. And ’member you tested me back in city. I can go ’bout aplace I ain’t been afore and give you a proper map of it.”
    “I’m persuaded,” Vlandar said as she paused for breath. “Iknow you can help me map this place, but Mal will go with you.” He held up ahand when she would have protested. “Do not argue with your commander. Rememberthat Mal has weapons and other skills that you may want if that beast attacks you.”
    Lhors turned back as Agya nodded. She seemed pale and momentarily beyond speech. Vlandar, the youth thought with some satisfaction, must have done that on purpose. Wisely, too. It would do no good if any of them went out there so overconfident that he or she died. His father had warned him against overconfidence on the hunt.
    Malowan and Nemis were already pressing aside a panel on the north wall that the mage had found earlier. The panel slid aside, revealing a heavy iron wheel. Khlened and Vlandar had to work hard to get it moving. Lhors gaped as the east wall of the little chamber slowly lifted into the ceiling. The whole system must have been recently oiled, because everything moved smoothly and in silence.
    The chamber beyond the door stretched for some distance north and east. The south wall and most of the cavelike ceiling were lost in gloom.
    Malowan gazed around for a long moment, then touched Agya’sarm. “There is a door almost straight across. Do you see it?”
    “A bit of light,” the girl agreed in a low voice, “andthere”-she pointed just north of the light-“maybe another passage.”
    The paladin met Vlandar’s eyes. “Let the door down behind us.Nemis will know when we need it raised again.”
    The warrior nodded and clasped his arm. “Trithereon’s cloakcover you.”
    The two slipped from the little chamber. Vlandar waited long enough to be sure that some guard hadn’t spotted them, then he and Khlenedlowered the door.


    Faced with nothing better to do in the quiet dark, Lhors satand watched Nemis go through his supplies. The mage’s hands were steady and hismien thoughtful as he brought out the bottles he’d taken in the maids’ quarters.He seemed to be testing them, though he never removed any of the stoppers. Lhors wanted to ask how he did that, but he felt a little foolish around the self-contained Nemis. The man’s story about dark elves had made little sense tohim, but it sounded frightening and the tale had certainly upset the rangers.
    He couldn’t ask the mage anything now anyway. Nemis had justmurmured a spell of some kind and looked as if he were in a trance, eyes closed but lips still moving.
    Lhors glanced at the watch-vial Vlandar had pulled from his pack: a sand-shifter that marked time, much like the one Lharis had owned. The warrior only turned the thing over once before Agya and Malowan returned.
    Vlandar settled them down near the closed door and handed them water.
    Malowan passed the water bottle to his ward. “The main roomis joined by passages, north and east. They’re as narrow as this one but longerand unlit. They seem deserted-no one lives in either, and they are seldom used.There is an apartment about this size just across from here, and the giant Agya heard lives there with his two apes. All three are inside and sleeping. To the south, a long passage ends in a cross-corridor. We did not check further, but I sensed guards: bugbears or possibly orcs.”
    “Bears?” Agya’s voice rose sharply. “You dint say nothin’bout bears! Bears and apes?”
    “Bugbears,” Nemis replied. “Bears are animals. These aredifferent. They’re intelligent as half-witted humans and good fighters, muchlike ogres, very strong and evil. They hate our kind.”
    “Don’t care,” the thief replied flatly. “Long’s they ain’tbears. Nasty things, bears. One used to juggle in th’ market and et ’ismaster. I know, ’cause I saw ’im do it. Filthy way to die. These… bugbears,is it? Let ’em hate. I’ll hate ’em right back.”
    Malowan gave her a distressed look but went on. “At the farend of the south corridor, I could see a door. There are prisoners kept there. Somewhere beyond that is a smithy. The whole area was quiet, oddly so, to my mind. Still, it is daylight up there. Nosnra and his followers may believe that we are trapped and that they can sleep the day away as they normally would, then seek us out at their leisure.”
    “Perhaps,” Nemis said. “I just completed my own search. It isvery quiet out there-except for the manticores to the west. I also sensed asmithy southward and prison cells here and there.”
    “Very good,” Vlandar agreed. “We won’t trust to our beingalone here, but it is reassuring. I think we can trust to this, however. Nosnra and his fellows have no magical communication with those down here, or else we would have had company waiting when we opened that door.”
    “Maybe they wanted to lure us into the open instead?” Maerasuggested.
    “Why,” Vlandar asked, “if they could surround this passageand take us without a fight? Sensible of you to suspect such a trap,” he addedwith a smile, but Maera did not smile back, “but there’s no sense in ouranticipating traps within traps. If hill giants were good at tactics, I would never have come against them with so few companions.”
    Khlened laughed. Maera gave the barbarian a dark look but let it drop.
    Nemis smiled briefly. “I found more. I am not sure what allof it means, but I can also help you map this place. One of my own spells is a variant on one the drow taught me: how to let the shape of a maze come to you.”
    Malowan puffed up at this. “That would have been nice to knowbefore I risked my life and Agya’s-twice now! — in scouting out this place.”
    “Forgive me,” Nemis said, “but the magic works only todetermine the layout of caves and buildings. It would not help in finding guards and such, which is what you and your ward were searching for.”
    The paladin nodded, but still looked very unsatisfied to Lhors.
    “What’s done is done,” Vlandar said. “What have you found,Nemis?”
    “Two ways out, but neither is useful to us. One is at the endof a long, black passage that leads to a pool. To reach the outside, we would have to swim below a wall deep inside the pool. Beyond that, if you survive the depths, is a way out.”
    “I’m not one for swimmin’, way out or not,” Khlened said.
    “Peace, Khlened!” Vlandar said. “All of you! Let the manfinish.”
    Nemis nodded thanks to Vlandar, then continued, “The otherway out follows an underground stream, but the way soon narrows such that I fear we would soon be forced to swim again.”
    “Then it’s swim or fight our way out?” Lhors asked. Hecouldn’t decide which would be a worse way to die.
    “No,” the mage replied, “I think not. There is a vast complexof caverns south and east of here, and I think they are cells and slave-pens, which will surely be filled with those who have no love for the giants and their allies.”
    “But that does not make them our allies,” Vlandarsaid.
    “Of course,” the mage said as a mischievous smile spreadacross his face, “but if we do not find those who would be willing to aid us, wemight at the least free them and loose enough chaos that the giants will have more to worry about than finding us.”
    Malowan stirred. “The plan has merit. If for no other reasonthan it is the lesser of three evils.”
    “Yes,” Vlandar said in resignation. “Well then, let’s be-”
    “Shh!” Rowan broke in. “Do you hear that?”
    Lhors sat still, not even breathing. Everyone else did the same. At first, there was utter silence, then ever so faintly, he caught the distant echo of picks and faint voices.
    “Can you hear that?” Rowan said. “Unless I am very mistaken,Nosnra or his underlings are digging their way down through the rubble of the staircase.”
    “All the more reason to be off,” Vlandar said. “This passageis no longer a haven for us-if it ever was.”


    “Wait.” Malowan laid a hand on Vlandar’s arm as the warriorreached for the door wheel. “A moment, my friend. About prisoners the giants areholding down here. If there are humans…” He shook his head. “You know Icannot leave them behind.”
    “Are you mad?” Khlened demanded.
    “No,” Malowan replied steadily. “Merely a man trying toachieve what purity of heart I can. I cannot neglect my duty any more than Rowan or Maera would ignore an elf or a half-elf if they knew one was here.”
    The barbarian sighed heavily. “What then? You’ll crawlthrough all th’ pens down here? Didn’t Nemis just say there’s more’n one? Andthere’ll be guards-d’ye chance us all gettin’ killed by whatever brutes areguarding ’em?”
    Nemis cleared his throat. “It will not be necessary to gointo the cells. Either Mal or I can search other ways. But Mal, I trust you do not plan to free everything down here? The orcs and trolls you save may not thank you.”
    “A bargain,” Vlandar put in. “Mal won’t put us all in dangerto save one human captive. That would go against your code also, wouldn’t it?”
    The paladin didn’t look very happy about it, but he nodded.“In exchange, Khlened, you and everyone else, keep this in mind. Someone who’sbeen a prisoner here may know his way around this level.”
    “Huh,” Khlened replied shortly. “Know ’is way from where ’ecame in to ’is cell.”
    “Possibly,” Rowan said, “but the giants often use prisonersfor laborers, and prisoners share information when they can. If I were penned down here, I would learn all I could about the place. Wouldn’t you?”
    “And think of this,” Vlandar added. “The person we rescuemight be the one who saves your life down here.”
    “Now you sound like a paladin,” Khlened grumbled, buthe sighed faintly and shrugged. “Something to that, I s’pose.” He brightenedthen. “Could be ’e’d know where treasure’s hid too.”
    “Just so,” Vlandar said, his face expressionless, thenstepped aside so the barbarian could help him raise the door.
    The outer chamber was vaster than it had seemed when Lhors had seen it through the spy hole. The roof was vaulted, its upper reaches hidden in gloom.
    “No wonder the staircase was so long,” Rowan murmured.
    Vlandar gestured for silence, listened intently, then led them along the west wall where there was little or no light from the one dim torch burning between a north passage and a rough door. Agya touched the warrior’s hand, pointed toward the door and signed, Giant. Beast. Thewarrior worked this out and nodded. After a moment’s consideration, he indicatedfirst the dark opening straight across from them, then the ill-lit door just south of that.
    Passage? He signed then pointed toward the opening.
    Malowan nodded then pointed at the door and signed back, Prison.
    The prison door rattled slightly, and someone behind it cursed in a hoarse, thick voice. Vlandar looked around, then stabbed a finger toward the far side of the chamber. Malowan touched Agya’s arm to get herattention, then sprinted across the vast stone floor to vanish in the darkness of the hallway, the girl right on his heels. Vlandar put Lhors in front of him. Khlened came behind and the rangers, and Nemis brought up the rear.
    The mages lips and fingers were moving in his personal beneath notice spell as he gained the east passage. The man spun around and knelt just behind the opening, one hand fumbling at his belt as everyone else crowded close behind him. Lhors could see a little box, but before he could study it further, an enormous, shaggy creature stumbled into the open, backlit by torches in the cell area. The sudden light hurt the youth’s eyes, and heshrank against the wall, blinking furiously. Vlandar’s hand closed reassuringlyover his forearm-the warrior had his sword in the other.
    “It’s a bugbear,” he whispered against Lhors’ ear. “We’reprotected by Nemis’ spell.”
    The brute snarled an oath at someone in the pens and gestured furiously. The door slammed behind him. Nemis seemed half-blinded by the light as well. He worked the lid from the box by feel, then froze as Malowan touched his shoulder.
    “It’s only me,” the paladin breathed against his ear, hisvoice prudently low even with the beneath notice spell in place. “What have youthere?”
    Nemis held the box out. “Illusionary wall.”
    “Not a good idea. The creature sees a wall where there shouldnot be one and he’ll raise an alarm. Save your box. I know how long it takes toprepare that powder.”
    “What would you use?” Nemis whispered.
    The paladin grinned, his teeth ruddy in the faint light. “Fear.”
    The mage shook his head. “That takes as long as the wall toprepare!”
    Vlandar tapped both hard on the shoulders and drew a meaningful hand across his throat.
    Nemis eyed him sidelong and nodded. “Won’t do, Mal. He sensesfear, he’ll raise an alarm or run yelling for help. Wait.” He leaned forward,keeping a close eye on the massive brute. It was mumbling to itself in a nasty-sounding guttural voice. The creature shambled off straight south. A little dim light leaked into the chamber as the south door opened, but it cut off as the door slammed. “Save your spell. We are clear for the moment.”
    Vlandar eased around mage and paladin. He froze as the door into the prison slammed open again. Lhors swallowed dryly. Someone in there was wailing in a high, broken voice and two guards were bellowing furiously at each other.
    How can Vlandar bear that? he thought. The warrior showed no emotion whatever as he looked a question at Nemis, who nodded. I hope that means his spell is still working, Lhors thought.
    Another door-the one set in the south wall perhaps-bangedinto stone, the sound echoing briefly through the chamber before it was swallowed by a blare of arguing, shouting, and fighting. Someone stomped into the open and bellowed what sounded like an order. The prison door slammed shut, and a moment later, the second door cracked into its frame. Utter silence followed.
    Vlandar sighed and eased back on his heels. “All right,” hewhispered. “Unless the guard and his ape came out unheard during all that, wehave the space to ourselves. I suggest we make use of it and get ourselves down that long hall before someone else comes.”
    “No one else is out there,” Malowan said. “I would know. Getgoing, Vlandar, and I will catch up in a moment. My business is against the north wall. If there are giants close by, I may be able to learn what they plan.”
    The mage eyed him. “If-”
    “If I can, then we may have useful information. If not, wewill not have lost anything. Either way, I will join you at once. I do not seek a martyr’s death here, my friend.”
    Agya stirred.
    “No,” he added. “You stay with them. I am safer alone.”
    To Lhors’ surprise, the girl nodded and slid back intoshadow while the paladin edged along the east wall, heading north. He gave the doorway around the guards’ room a wide berth, skirted the north opening, thensettled against the middle of the north wall, listening intently.
    Vlandar got to his feet and led the party straight across the open, the shortest distance between east passage and south corridor.
    There was light in the vast open area, most of it leaking around the door leading to the prison cells. Once they plunged into the corridor, however, the darkness was daunting. There were no openings of any kind along either wall, and it seemed to go on forever.
    Halfway down the corridor, Malowan caught up to them.
    “Anything?” Vlandar asked softly.
    The paladin nodded. “Not now.” He sounded short of breath.
    Near the end of the long passage, Vlandar stopped and drew the company around him, then gestured for Lhors and Rowan to check the cross-passage. The youth nodded and moved out along the west wall, glancing now and again at the ranger, who had set her back to the east wall and moved in utter silence. He hoped he didn’t look as afraid as he felt.
    Rowan reached the corner and dropped to one knee, then went flat, listening for a long moment before she edged the top of her head into the open. She looked behind her first, then turned her head slowly so she could look over the west tunnel. She made no sudden moves, Lhors realized, and she moved the way his father had taught him when they hunted deer. Silent, slow, steady, cautious moves were unlikely to be noticed by those who called an area home. He suddenly felt more confident than he had in all their journey. This is something I know, something I’m good at, he thought. Sliding down the wall, he slippedquietly into the open to check the east corridor.
    There wasn’t much of it. Seven or eight long strides on,enormous boulders blocked the way as if there had been a slide. He could see this clearly, he suddenly realized, because of an opening to his left, halfway between him and the stones, where a torch was burning. The sputtering flame cast an uncertain light on the shaggy bugbear guard who sat bolt upright just inside the doorway, its back against the nearest side of the opening, its attention fixed on that boulder-pile-or possibly something beyond it.
    Lhors brought his head slowly back around. There was a door just beyond the guard on the other side of the hall. There was a door opposite Rowan also, and a dreadful smell came from the hand’s width of space betweenfloor and ill-fitting slab of wood. Possibly a prison, Lhors thought. The door didn’t seem to fit well enough into its stone sill even to latch, but there wasa thick iron bar on the outside, holding it shut.
    Somewhere to his right, he could hear the distant but unmistakable rhythmic clang of a hammer on an anvil. There was a smithy down here.
    He looked over at Rowan, who was waiting for him. She sent her eyes sideways, back the way they’d come, then slowly began easing away fromthe opening. He did the same, only getting to his feet after she did. With one last look toward the cross-hall, the ranger came over and wrapped an arm around Lhors’ shoulders, briefly hugging him.
    “Well done,” she murmured against his ear.
    Lhors nodded. His face felt hot, and he was too embarrassed by the unexpected praise to know what to say. Besides, it was hard for him to remember that she was at least as old as his mother would have been. She was warm and sleek-bodied, like a very young woman. Her hair was soft. He forced his mind back to more serious matters-such as how to briefly let Vlandar know whathe’d seen down there.
    Vlandar drew him back a little farther up the broad passageway where he squatted near the wall close to Malowan. Agya crouched by his feet, eyes moving constantly. The paladin’s eyes were closed, his handsoutstretched, and his lips moving soundlessly. As soon as the two passed Malowan’s fingertips, Vlandar nodded and spoke in a low voice. “You can talkhere. Malowan has worked a spell to keep sound within the tube of space formed around his arms.” A faint smile turned his lips. “Had he longer arms, everyonecould hear at the same time.”
    “I’ll pass on to my sister anything she needs to know,” Rowansaid. She glanced up the hall where Khlened and the Maera stood.
    Lhors gave a brief account of what he had seen. Once he was done, Rowan took up the narrative.
    “There is a long passage, half the width of this, and achamber at the end with no door. There are two giants asleep on a mat near a fire, and there may be others. I know there are more fires. I could see the light of at least three. It must be a torture chamber. I am sure I saw a rack and a spiked crown of pain hanging from a chain. There is a door straight down from here flanked by matching doors. Both are barred. Farther west, an opening seems to angle southwest. There may also be another passage going north. I could just make out shadow but nothing else.”
    Vlandar nodded, then fixed his gaze on the opposite wall as he decided on a course of action.
    Lhors studied the rest of the group while he waited for Vlandar’s decision. Maera seemed to be talking to Khlened. As Lhors watched, theranger drew the man into the middle of the corridor away from the wall. What Lhors could see of the barbarian’s face was unnerving. He was dead white andsweating freely. His eyes were screwed shut, and he was chewing on a corner of his moustache.
    “He fears caves,” Rowan murmured against his ear, “any darkand enclosed place. He admitted that last night when Maera and I pressed him about it. Do not let him know you know it. It shames him to be afraid of anything, but he cannot control it.”
    “Two of the women in my village had such fear,” Lhors said.He eyed Khlened for a long moment. “It must be hard for such a brave man tolearn he can fear something.”
    “Yes. He can learn to bear it, if he will listen to Maera.”
    Vlandar nodded sharply and dismissed them, beckoning for Nemis, Khlened, and Maera to join him. Lhors watched from nearby. He could see Vlandar’s lips moving, then Maera’s and Khlened’s. Nemis merely folded his armsand listened, but Lhors could hear nothing of what was said.
    Several moments passed before Nemis beckoned. Rowan gripped Lhors’ shoulder and drew him back over to the rest of the group. The magecaught hold of Mal’s hand and stretched his own arms as far as they would go.
    Making a bigger tube, Lhors realized.
    Vlandar gestured for all of them to come close. The air inside the tube felt as if a storm was coming-Nemis’ contribution, perhaps.Lhors swallowed dread and tried not to think about the last time his hair had stood on end.
    Vlandar cleared his throat. “We can’t stay like this for long. Anyone oranything down here sensitive to magic will sense the tube and surely know we aren’t their kind. If you must say something, it better be important.” Thewarrior quickly laid out his plan. “We won’t go east. Nemis says the regionbeyond the rockslide leads to the caverns he sensed earlier-with the way outthrough water and the other through dread creatures. Besides, there is one bugbear just visible, and it seems to have orders to keep constant watch on the ruined passage. There are others inside the chamber, and they are ready to fight.”
    “Why?” Lhors asked. “What enemy could they have back there?”
    “Mal thinks they are orcs-a good many of them. From what wesaw of the way these giants treat their servants and slaves, I believe there may have been rebellion down here. The bugbear on guard down there feels anxious, Mal said, and his companions are very alert.”
    “Bugbear guards… afraid of orcs?” Khleneddemanded.
    “Orcs are as big and as bloodthirsty as bugbears. If theywere enslaved and are now armed and spoiling for revenge… well, they wouldbe a dangerous enemy even if there were only a few of them.”
    Several of them nodded agreement, then Vlandar continued, “Sothat is no way for us, even if we chose to face the pool or chance the other portal. Nosnra is also our enemy, but that would not make the orcs our allies. The three chambers across that hall are orc housing, but Mal does not think they are prisoners-servants or trusted slaves perhaps.”
    “Trusted?” Rowan protested. “They are barred from theoutside!”
    “A loyal slave is still a slave,” Vlandar reminded her, “butthey are not our business. Now, down the right-hand corridor where Lhors heard what could be a smithy, Nemis sensed… you tell them, Nemis.”
    “I was aware of several sources of strong emotion: fear andhate mixed, and in some a sense of hopelessness-also extreme heat and at leasttwo giants. Besides the giants, there are slaves-possibly human, perhaps elf ordwarf-I cannot be sure, but they are not orcs or the like. That I can tell.”
    Malowan’s eyes fixed on Vlandar, but he said nothing.
    Vlandar looked at the paladin and nodded. “Yes, Mal, we willgo there. Nemis, have you another of your beneath notice spells?”
    “Better to save those for special need,” the mage replied. “Ican create invisibility, though we will need to be as quiet as possible to pass unnoticed by the two giants in that torture chamber. You do not want to attack the bugbear?”
    “No,” the warrior said, “not unless we are seen or heard bythat guard. Their hearing is not keen, and he is concentrating on his task anyway. I’ve fought them before. The noise would alert every giant in thevicinity. No, we deal with those in the torture chamber and the smithy, and then take on the bugbears if we must. We aren’t enough to battle enemy fromboth sides. So, the west passage.”
    Nemis nodded. “And move with care around here.”
    “I plan on it,” Maera said flatly.
    “More than usual,” the mage replied. “These walls-all thisdown here-it was not built by giants, you know.” He smiled, but it wasn’t apleasant expression. “Something older and darker…”
    “Set me at it with m’ sword, and I’ll gut it!” Khlenedsnarled, but he’d gone very pale again.
    “The gods grant you the opportunity and the strength shouldsuch a chance come,” Nemis replied.
    “My arms are growing tired,” Malowan added, “and we havestayed here long enough.”
    “Agreed,” Vlandar said.
    Vlandar led the way, waiting at the end of the north-south corridor while Nemis cast his spell of invisibility. He then divided his company, placing himself at the fore with Lhors and Maera, then Nemis who wanted to be central should he need to reinforce his spell or create a new one. Khlened came next, then Agya and Malowan with Rowan moving silently behind, a drawn bow in her hands and her eyes fixed on the bugbear guard.
    Things went well for some moments. They could hear a faint noise from down the east passage, as if someone were dragging stones away from the other side of the barrier. The guard was halfway off his stool, a morning star clutched in one hand and his whole attention fixed on the boulder wall and beyond.
    Suddenly he yelled what might have been an order, his voice a hellish roar that echoed in the relatively narrow space.
    Vlandar gestured furiously for everyone to back up against the north wall and stay still. Before they could obey, half a dozen bugbears, all heavily armed, poured into the hall, most of them pelting straight for the boulder wall. Unfortunately, the last of the lot stumbled on loose rock, caught the guards stool to right himself, and wound up on his knees, staring straight into Rowan’s eyes. His jaw dropped and he sucked in a loud breath to yell.
    Rowan loosed her arrow, which slammed into his throat. The cry became a shrill howl of pain. The other bugbears stopped dead and turned.
    “That’s torn it,” Rowan said grimly, and went to one knee,hauling the arrow case over her shoulder and bracing it against her thigh where she could rapidly draw shafts. Maera came up to take a place behind her, loosing a javelin as the other bugbears came pelting toward them, swords, morning stars, and axes ready to strike.
    Vlandar edged around the rangers, bringing Malowan and Nemis with him. The three ran straight for the bugbears, holding to the south wall of the passage to give the rangers and Lhors, who found himself between the two, a clear line on their targets.
    “Save your javelins until they’re nearer!” Maera told him.
    Lhors merely nodded. His mouth was very dry.
    Malowan and Vlandar engaged the first of the hairy creatures, Vlandar blocking the morning star on his sword. Malowan dodged the swing of a bugbear’s axe, then swung around reversing his sword and digging in his heels ashe thrust the blade back through thick fur. The bugbear staggered back, clutching its belly and squalling in agony. Vlandar swung his own weapon in a full circle before bringing it crashing down on the back of the brutes head. The creature fell with a crash.
    Another set on them at once, and then more. Khlened came running up, snarling. He brandished a sword in each hand, and he clenched a thick, nasty-looking dagger between his teeth.
    Out of the corner of his eye, Lhors could see the rangers firing into the crowd of monsters.
    The startled bugbears fell back a few paces, a few falling to the rangers’ arrows and javelins. Lhors saved his own spears in case any of thecreatures managed to break past the three warriors. Rowan finally let Maera drag her and Lhors back out of the way. Nemis came running up, stopping just behind the three men who were barely keeping the creatures at bay.
    “Vlandar!” he yelled. “Help me! Get them in a line!”
    “What kind of a-? Are you mad?” the warrior yelled back as heswung his sword at the nearest bugbear. Blood splurted from a deep gash on the brute’s forearm, and its morning star fell from its hand. “Will you set themdancing?”
    “Get them in a clutch then! I have a spell readied, but itwon’t work on them all otherwise!”
    “We’ll get them bunched for you!” Vlandar said as he parrieda strike. “Khlened, to that side! Mal, ease back this way with me!”
    The three men formed an arc with Vlandar at the center. The bugbears ignored Nemis-the mage wasn’t wielding a blade like the other three,Lhors realized-and threw themselves forward. The air crackled, and a thick,bluish fog wrapped around the shaggy creatures. When it faded, the bugbears were simply gone.
    Nemis heaved a sigh. “Apparently they weren’t fluent inanything but their own nasty language-if that. Stupid brutes.”
    “Giants might be,” Vlandar said evenly. “Keep that in mind ifwe need to make plans on the spot, will you? Mal, you and Khlened-”
    But the paladin had already moved in the direction they’dbeen heading and stood motionless in the corridor. He came back, shaking his head.
    “There is at least one enormous blaze going in that chamber.The two giants I sense may be lying in wait to catch us by surprise, but I believe they are asleep or unconscious.”
    Maera smiled grimly. She was coming back with all the javelins she could salvage, running the shafts between her hands to test them before stuffing them back into the case. Rowan was doing the same with her arrows. “Better if we know for certain. That would be work for rangers, I think.Come, sister.”
    Lhors stared at the spear he held. He hadn’t even thrown one,he realized. The creatures hadn’t come close enough for him to have been of use.He hoped no one else had seen the panic he’d felt when those monsters camecharging.
    Rowan touched his shoulder. “We’re going to make certain thegiants up there”-she gestured toward the doorless chamber and the glow offire-“somehow did not hear all that just now. Come help, will you?”
    “I… help? Me?” He blinked then nodded. “If I can.”
    “You’ll do, lad,” Maera allowed. She melted into deepershadow along the north wall, edging sideways toward the distant firelight. As the rest of the party sought a hiding place away from the scene of battle, Lhors and Rowan went after Maera.


    As they neared the open doorway, Maera gestured for Lhors toease over to the south wall with her while Rowan kept to the north. She fit an arrow to the string as she vanished into the dark opening that went straight north. Maera signed for Lhors to stay where he was and watch while she slipped partway down the angled passage.
    It wasn’t quite as dark that way-enough that Lhors could tellthe passage branched again farther on. Ruddy light stained the walls down there, and he could hear the distant sound of a hammer battering metal into shape and, when that ceased, the loud huff of a bellows. I was right about the smithy, he thought. He felt a little better. Maybe he had contributed something after all.
    Maera was back almost at once, and Rowan came back a moment later. The rangers exchanged rapid and complex sign Lhors couldn’t follow, thenMaera moved light-footed toward the opening straight ahead. Lhors tightened his grip on the spear and was glad the rangers couldn’t hear his wildly beatingheart.
    The chamber was a horror of bloodstained flooring, instruments that left him sick and weak at the knees. Some had obvious uses. Others he couldn’t begin to imagine their exact purpose. High-burning fireslicked at metal clamps or turned huge twisted branding irons a glowing red. In the midst of all this, two giants slept heavily, back to back on a filthy mat. The one facing out was smiling, as if in the midst of a pleasant dream.
    Maera edged forward, gesturing for her sister to come with her, but Rowan shook her head fiercely, then beckoned, drawing her sister and Lhors back up the hall and into the shadow of the angled hallway.
    “You want to kill them, Maera? Why?”
    Maera sighed, clearly exasperated. “Can you even ask? Theyare torturers. They deserve to die!”
    “Yes,” Rowan replied sourly. “So what do we do then, murderthem while they sleep or let them waken first and then kill them?”
    “Why let them waken?” Maera demanded. “Go in, kill them, andbe done with it! It is not sporting, but this is not sport, sister. This is survival.”
    “Do not lecture me, sister,” Rowan retorted. “Whateverthey are, whatever they have done, that does not justify acting in the same fashion. Leave them. I doubt they will waken while we are here. If they do, then death is their fate, but I will not dishonor myself with their blood, nor allow you to do so.”
    “Arrogant,” Maera hissed. “Is it not arrogant of youto assume we will be able to kill them if they waken?”
    “If, was, could have been,” Rowan replied evenly. “It doesnot matter, Maera. I will not aid you in this.”
    Maera’s lips twisted, but she finally sighed and gesturedassent. “You would better serve Heironeous than Ehlonna,” she said acidly.
    Before Rowan could reply, her twin was gone, moving at a swift pace to rejoin the others.
    Rowan laid a hand on Lhors’ shoulder. “I am sorry you had to be party tothat,” she said quietly. “My sister is a good person, but she has a specialgrudge against giants.”
    “I hate giants,” Lhors said after a moment’s thought “Myfather… my village… But I could not have killed those two while they sleptHowever evil they must be to work in such a horrid place, it does not make it right for me to act the way they do.”
    “You speak for me,” Rowan said as she eased back into themain corridor, “but I would not share such opinions with Maera were I you.”
    Maera had apparently failed to convince Vlandar either. She and Malowan had drawn aside and were arguing in fierce whispers as Rowan and Lhors rejoined the company. Rowan went over to Vlandar and briefly explained what the three of them had seen.
    “South up there is the passage leading to the smithy. Northare slave pens or prison cells with bugbear guards. And there is”-shehesitated-“a trail of blood, fresh and old both, that goes between the northpassage and the torture chamber.”
    “There are prisoners that way,” Nemis said softly. “Nohumans, no elves-orcs and trolls. I pity them, but I will not risk my life tofree them.”
    Vlandar nodded. “Even Mal agrees we dare not try to helpthem. Most of them would not thank us and might even try to kill us to win favor from Nosnra.”
    “Let us go before any other guards come out of thatbarracks,” Malowan said. “There are more bugbears in the farther rooms-behindclosed doors, fortunately for us. But they are not the only enemy that might come through here.”
    Vlandar nodded and took up the lead, the rest following as they had before, but this time Rowan moved sideways so she could both watch where she walked and keep an eye on their back trail.
    Once inside the southwest passage and out of the light from the torture chamber, Vlandar halted again and beckoned Malowan up with him. The two exchanged a few brief signs. Lhors could follow some of it, including “search,” and “caution,” but some of it must have been personal sign between thetwo. Vlandar held the rest of the company back with him while Malowan and Agya stole quietly forward, stopping at the barely visible bend in the hallway. They were back almost at once.
    “It is very loud in there, so no one will hear us,” Malowanwhispered softly. “There are dwarves in there. The ones I could see are chained,but there were others that I could sense but not see.”
    Vlandar frowned at the opposite wall. “Some are prisoners,but some might not be. Some of them might be allies of the giants, especially if they are not all from the same tribe. You could not tell, Mal?”
    “I would have to get closer to use such a spell.”
    “Hmmm.” Vlandar considered this briefly. “Some are prisonersat least. How many giants?”
    “Two,” Agya whispered. Lhors thought her eyes seemed huge.Whatever was in that room had scared her, it seemed. “And they’rebigger’n those rotters up above and blacker’n a cook pot.”
    “Fire giants,” the paladin said evenly. “We will need to hitthem hard and fast.”
    “I know,” Vlandar replied tiredly. “No Mal, I’m not arguing.I’m of your mind. A warrior who won’t help the broken and downtrodden is nothingbut a thug with free room and board from his king. I just-”
    “Consider this,” Malowan broke in. “The guard-change off thatbig chamber happened just as we came out. Have you ever known a lair where guard-changes were not all done at the same time? So the guard on that rockslide likely just changed also.”
    “You’d trust to that?” Maera demanded.
    “No,” Malowan said, “I call it likely. But stay ready for theunlikely all the same. It is likely that any dwarves imprisoned down here are not used only in the smithy. Once the fires here are banked, they would be put to work elsewhere. If that is so, at least some of them will know their way around down here. Freed, they could be strong allies.”
    “Damn you for a logical man anyway,” Vlandar said with afaint smile. “I wish I could find fault in your argument, but I can’t.” Hetapped Nemis on the shoulder.
    The mage, who had been keeping an eye on the corridor, turned and asked acerbically, “Can we leave this place before we are discovereddithering out here?”
    “At once,” the paladin assured him. “One question. Do youhave a spell to make a wall of silence across the entry to the smithy, should we need one?”
    Nemis shrugged. “I memorized a number of them, knowing wewould need them.”
    “As soon as we’re ready,” said Vlandar, “put it up so thatthe noise doesn’t travel.”
    Agya started and shivered as the distant roar of a great ape suddenly echoed down passage.
    “Yes, we are getting away from that,” Vlandar assured her.
    “Aye. To go after brutes in a room wi’ more swords’n I cancount. You’re certain on this?” she demanded of the paladin.
    “Certain I must try,” he said with an unapologetic shrug.
    “Get yourself killed yet,” she said tiredly, “but if you’reon, so’m I.”
    Khlened licked his lips. “I’ve fought with dwarves before.They’re not all so bad, though it’s a job o’ work to make ’em divide treasureup.”
    Maera stirred, but Rowan gave her an urgent and complex sign. Maera cast her eyes up and shrugged when Vlandar glanced at her, clearly awaiting her response.
    “It wouldn’t be my choice,” she said brusquely, “but I’ve nosay. Go on.”
    “Thank you,” Malowan replied simply. He led the way down-halland then down the angled passage toward firelight and an increasingly loud din of hammers and harsh voices that sang a guttural song to match the rhythm of the hammer strikes.
    Vlandar eased to the fore, stopping just short of the ruddy light, and waited for Nemis to create his wall of silence. The mage knelt and drew a square of red cloth from his pack. The man was grinning, Lhors realized in astonishment. His black eyes glittered as he got back to his feet and moved up next to Vlandar. The warrior eyed him curiously, then shrugged and moved to the other side of the hallway so he could see more of the chamber. He beckoned for Lhors to join him.
    The smithy was an odd-shaped room, almost a corridor that ended abruptly. One branch seemed to go around a corner north, the other east. Storage, perhaps. Lhors could see two dwarves, bound with enormous chains around their throats and one wrist, carrying pikes and swords in the direction of a-
    No wonder Agya looked scared, Lhors thought. The brute he could see was much taller than the hill giants he had seen, and his skin was a glistening black. He wore only thick hide pants and a buckler that held a hammer so huge that even he must need two hands to use it. The only other giant in view, his skin also a deep black that seemed almost blue in the firelight, was the smith. Slightly shorter but much more muscular than his companion, he wore pants, a leather apron, and a close-fitting cap.
    Malowan said there were only two, Lhors reminded himself. The paladin had ways of knowing these things. Only two. Vlandar seemed aware of his thoughts, or maybe his fear was showing on his face, because the warrior gripped his shoulder and gave him a reassuring smile. Lhors managed a smile in reply, then turned back to study what he could see of the chamber.
    The hammer wielder waited just at the edge of sight while his two captive dwarves trudged out of sight along the southern wall. They returned empty handed some moments later. As they passed the giant, he reached down and yanked at the loose chain snaking across the floor, then burst into harsh laughter as the two fell.
    The smith turned and snarled something at him. He had to bellow to be heard above the racket of hammers. Five other dwarves were chained at anvils, two working bellows while two others beat spear blades. A fifth sorted through a pile of spears, separating heads from broken shafts and apparently choosing which weapons were capable of being mended and which would need to be melted down and reforged.
    Vlandar eased back a pace and cautiously pointed out to his young companion the several piles of weaponry between them and the forge. There were stacks of pikes and spears, another pile of shields and warhammers, a double handful of maces leaning against a wobbly-looking metal rack. Lhors nodded his understanding. Don’t trip on anything.
    Across the hallway, the rest of the company was eyeing the room and the obstacle course. Malowan gestured an assent. Better if they don’tknow we’re here until we want them to, Lhors thought. He wasn’t sure he wantedthose two giants to know he was anywhere about, but when Vlandar stealthily eased his sword free and raised a hand, Lhors drew a boar-spear and nodded. He eased back to his usual place with the rangers while Malowan moved back into shadow to draw his blades. Khlened came forward to join him. Agya, to Lhors’surprise, also came back to join the rangers-either Malowan had convinced her orsight of those two monsters had. A thief whose best weapons were knives had no business in there. Nemis eased over to a place between Vlandar and the paladin.
    Vlandar looked at his people, nodded, then brought his hand down.
    Lhors and the rangers ran into the open, Rowan flanked by her sister and the youth. Maera threw two javelins in quick order, Lhors one that just missed its target. Maera’s were foiled by the smith’s apron and bouncedaway. Rowan’s arrow caught the second giant high in the shoulder, but her nextstruck the hammer and spun high, lodging in the ceiling.
    The two giants bellowed in fury, and all the dwarves fell to the ground and covered their ears. The one giant drew his hammer and strode forward, bringing his weapon up to strike while the smith was howling for aid.
    “That spell of Nemis’ had better work!” Khlened yelled.
    Vlandar ran past him. “Rangers! Lhors! Get back! Pick yourshots and don’t waste any! Khlened, Mal, to me!”
    The three men fanned out, forming a human shield as the two giants came at them.
    Agya shrieked, then clapped her hands over her mouth so as not to distract the paladin. Even against such enormous brutes, Malowan still gave the smith first strike.
    The hammer arced down, roaring through the air. Malowan leaped aside, and the huge weapon splintered stone as it struck the floor. Lhors swallowed. Anyone struck with that would not get up again.
    Malowan brought his sword around in a blurring sweep. The tip pierced the giant’s thick pants. The monster roared with pain and fell back justenough to rip the sword from the paladin’s hand. One of Rowan’s arrows burieditself just above the giant’s waist, and the creature retreated in pain. Malowanthrew himself forward, snatched his sword off the ground and eased into line with the other two.
    Khlened held his heavy slashing sword in his left hand, and with his right swung one of the bugbear’s morning stars. The second giant swunghis hammer, intercepting the chain, and ripped the thing from the barbarian’shand. Khlened howled a berserker oath, reversed his sword and plunged straight up, but the giant was more agile than he’d expected and was already out ofreach.
    “Damn ye!” Khlened roared. “Stand and fight!”
    Vlandar shouted suddenly, mixed surprise and pain. The smith’s weapon had bounced off a hanging chain and recoiled into the warrior’sshoulder. A direct blow would probably have taken the arm, Lhors realized. As it was, Vlandar’s armor was dented and his arm hung limp. Without Malowan bracedagainst him, he would have fallen.
    The giant brought his weapon back to finish Vlandar. In that instant, the smoldering fire that had been building in Lhors suddenly blazed. Between one heartbeat and the next, he saw his father impaled on a giant’sspear, saw the blood gush from his father’s mouth, saw women and childrenwailing in terror as they were cut down or trampled, saw little Amyn as the life departed his eyes.
    “Noooo!” In one swift, fluid motion, Lhors hefted his spear,stepped, and threw.
    The spear sailed through the air and plunged through the startled giant’s throat. The massive hammer fell to the floor as the monstertried to scream and pull the shaft from his throat. Malowan dragged Vlandar away and deposited him next to Rowan. The smith finally managed to grab hold of the spear and yanked. The javelin came out, followed by a gush of blood that pumped with the beat of his heart. He stared for a moment as his knees gave way, then his eyelids sagged and he slumped to the floor. He did not move again.
    There was roaring in Lhors’ ears, his heart was racing, andhe was having trouble seeing. He took a deep breath, and the room slowly solidified about him.
    “Khlened! Get back!” he heard Nemis shout.
    The barbarian swore furiously but began slowly backing away. The giant came after him, howling what Lhors thought must be curses or threats in his own language. Nemis yelled again, more urgently.
    “Damn it all, I’m doing it!” Khlened snarled. “Tell him!”
    “Not like that! Turn and run!”
    “You’re mad!” The barbarian clearly had his hands full andthen some. As far as Lhors could tell, the giant either hadn’t understood theexchange or was making too much noise to hear them.
    Malowan came running, his reclaimed sword a dark red.
    “Do it!” he bellowed. “One, two, go!”
    Khlened bellowed, turned on his heel, and sprinted back toward the corridor. He leaped over a pile of spears, but one shaft caught his foot and he stumbled, sending poles spilling in all directions. He managed to keep his feet and gasping for air, shot past Nemis, who was muttering into his scrap of red cloth. Once past Lhors and the rangers, the barbarian turned back, sword at the ready.
    The giant was coming toward them, licking his lips and shifting the hammer from hand to hand. Suddenly, he stopped dead, stumbled back a pace, and dropped the hammer as a cloud of enormous bees arrowed straight for him. He yelped in surprise and then in pain. Swinging his arms wildly, he suddenly bolted forward in a panic, but his foot caught on his fallen hammer. He tripped and went sprawling.
    Maera was ready. She took three quick strides and threw her javelin. It pierced the vulnerable skin between neck and shoulder. Nemis came right behind her and ripped a torch from the wall. At his order, Rowan and Lhors also grabbed torches and the three moved to contain the maddened swarm and try to drive it away.
    The thick swarm buzzed in a black cloud about the giant, but the smoke of the smithy combined with the nearby torches was too much for the bees. Before long, they had all dissipated into the hall and were gone.
    The giant was a dreadful sight. Bleeding freely from the neck, his face puffy, his hands already too swollen to even try to pluck the shaft from his shoulder, he wheezed fearfully. Possibly, Lhors thought, he’dbeen stung in the mouth. He almost felt sorry for the creature, but Khlened swore a vicious sounding oath and ran forward, sword high over his head. He had to bring it down across the back of the giant’s neck twice before the brute laystill.
    Malowan eased past the two dead giants and contemplated the dwarves. They gazed back at him, quiet for the moment. Most looked wary, but one fellow-shorter than his fellows, his brown hair shot with gray, and his beardand moustache a mix of brown, gray, and red-gave the paladin back the samemeasuring, thoughtful look. Malowan broke the silence. He tried two different languages before the dwarves seemed to understand him. The ruddy-bearded one answered him at some length.
    Suddenly, Khlened came across to stare closely at him. “Bleryn?” he asked. “Is that you?”
    “Fist?” the dwarf replied in guttural common. He grinnedsuddenly and would have come forward to embrace the barbarian, but his chain caught. “My old friend Khlened, the fool of a Fist?”
    Khlened swore, happily this time, and closed the space between them, pounding the dwarf on the back. “Ye great idiot, which of us isfool now? Knew ye’d wind up some place like this someday.”
    “Hah,” the dwarf retorted as he freed himself from the roughembrace and gripped Khlened’s forearms. “Much help you would have been!Some surprise to me that you’re alive at all.”
    “I’m not the one wi’ silver in m’ beard,” the barbariangrowled then turned to grin at Malowan. “This ’un you can trust beyond alldoubt. I know him, I fought with him, and I’ve reason to owe him.”
    “Ah, that,” the dwarf said easily, “was nothing. Happened tobe where I could be of use when I was needed.”
    “Saved my mother and sister from certain torture at the handsof frost giants up in the Griff Mountains,” Khlened said flatly. “Wasn’t for himand his helping us in battle, well…”
    Back near the entry, Agya stirred and mumbled something under her breath. Lhors eyed her curiously. “What was that?”
    Her lips twitched. “Ain’t it a good finding someone hetrusts? Makes me want ’im for companion.”
    “You don’t think…?”
    “Wager we gained us a dwarf-one at least,” the girl repliedsourly. She suddenly spun partway around, throwing dagger in one hand. Lhors brought his own spear to the ready, but they both relaxed when a familiar form emerged from the gloom.
    A half-breath later, the mage-who must have slipped back upthe hall after containing his bee spell-came walking into the light.
    “How do you do that?” Lhors asked the girl. Sheshrugged, clearly not understanding, and he continued, “Your reflexes, how canyou be that fast? And how did you know he was there? Did Malowan teach you his magic or something?”
    “Me?” the girl snorted, but she was grinning now. “Learnpaladin magic? There’s a good ’un. Takes all kinds of purity to do what ’e can,and not just body purity-if it was only that, then p’raps I could.” Her grinwidened as Lhors felt himself blush. “Nah. ’Tis where and how I lived, and how Ikept alive.”
    “You mean stealing?”
    “Nah, not so much that as…” She frowned at the dagger,returned it to the sheath in the side of her boot and considered this. “City,especially th’ poor parts, is a trap like ’ere. You want t’ eat, it means y’steal food or steal that as lets y’ buy it. And that’s th’ simple bit. Then yaneed th’ right allies to ’elp ya avoid enemies.” She shrugged.
    Lhors merely nodded. So far as he could recall, this was the first time she had actually spoken to him without being rude or sarcastic. His eyes sought out Vlandar. The warrior leaned back against the wall not far away, but as the youth took a step that way, Malowan caught his eyes and shook his head. Lhors swallowed and tried to fight dread.
    Agya looked up as Malowan came over. “What’s t’ do?”
    “Vlandar will be all right.” The man smiled faintly, turningto Lhors. “He’s one of those who can’t bear being fussed over when he’s hurt orill. But I told him you were worried, and he said for you to come. Both of you need to come listen, anyway. Khlened’s old ally knows the dungeon level well,and he’s willing to share the information if we take him with us and give him anequal chance at battle and at treasure.”
    Agya glanced at Lhors. Her eyes seemed mocking again. “Tol’you, didn’t I?”
    Malowan merely gestured for Agya and Lhors to follow him, and together they went back to Vlandar. The warrior was leaning against Rowan, his teeth tightly clenched. The back of his hand and his fingernails were bloody.
    “All right, everything’s under control, Vlandar,” the paladinsaid. “It’s safe for me to take the time to heal that-and no, I will not insiston removing your armor.”
    “It won’t do you any good,” the warrior gritted between histeeth. “I will not let you, and if you even think of touching that…”
    “Lhors is here to help me,” Malowan said evenly.
    Vlandar swallowed, then managed a faint smile. “So he is.Hullo, Lhors.”
    “Sir,” the youth managed.
    Malowan patted his shoulder. “He’ll be fine. It’s not muchmore than a scratch, is it, my friend?” He moved his hands just above thewarrior’s armored shoulder.
    “Aye,” Vlandar smiled, but Lhors could tell it was forced.“But it would have been much worse for me if not for you, Lhors. Rowan told mewhat you did. I owe you my life.”
    Lhors tried a smile of his own, but he could feel the heat rising into his cheeks and forehead.
    “That was you?” Agya gasped incredulously. “I thoughtit was Maera!”
    “Not Maera,” Rowan answered. “I saw it myself. Lhors felled afire giant in one shot.” She gave Lhors a nodding salute.
    “Ha!” Agya said as she eyed Lhors up and down. “Well, well.Seems ya might not be so useless after all, Lhors Giant Killer.”
    “Is someone besides Nemis keeping watch, I hope?” the paladinadded, mercifully drawing attention away from Lhors.
    Rowan nodded, and she eased Vlandar into a more comfortable position against her. She brushed damp hair from his brow. “Maera is. And I’vebeen paying attention to what’s going on here. Khlened is working on his friendBleryn’s chains.”
    As if on cue, the dwarf’s fetters clattered to the floor. Theother dwarves were still chained and looking restless, but Khlened brought Bleryn over and squatted next to Malowan.
    “Tell ’em,” he ordered the dwarf.
    The dwarf’s voice was very deep-not giant-deep, but deeperthan any human voice Lhors had ever heard. “This Fist say I can trust you, youwarrior and yer folk. These others are dwarves like me, but they aren’t family.I’d not trust ’em, though. All they want’s to flee. They know this undergroundbetter’n me, been here longer. I’d be glad of it if y’could free ’em where theywon’t run into guards and give us away. Selfish, aye, but there it be.”
    “Sensible, rather,” Khlened growled. “’E tells me th’ othersare from th’ south, and so far’s ’e can tell, they’ve all been ’ere since theygot caught. Bleryn knows a little more of th’ place. Tell ’em.”
    “Wait,” Malowan said and murmured under his breath.
    Vlandar drew a deep, shuddering breath and let it out in a gust as he cautiously moved his arm.
    “There,” the paladin said grimly. “Thank me by not doing thatagain.”
    “I would just as soon,” Vlandar agreed and gripped Lhors’hand. “There, good as new, my young friend.”
    Lhors managed a smile for him, but he felt sick. This was twice now. Hadn’t his father said three times paid for all?
    “Go ahead,” the warrior added with a nod to Bleryn, “finishyour tale, but quickly. We dare not stay here much longer.”
    “I speak Common, but thems”-he sent his eyes toward thestill-bound dwarves-“don’t. As this Fist says, most of ’em hasn’t been beyondthis room and th’ far corner where we sleep. Me, I got talent at buildin’, makin’bridges and such, so when I got took, it seemed only sense to me to act like I’dcooperate with ’em.”
    “Sensible,” Khlened agreed. “You cooperate, they trust you,you escape. I’d’ve done the same.”
    “Worked-all but th’ last part,” the dwarf admitted. “Still, Iknow this level. Up there is the torture chamber. There’s a temple back down thelong way and over the barrier, but it’s not a good place. And the caverns beyondwhere stone is piled-forget ’em.”
    “We know about the barrier and the orcs beyond it,” Malowansaid. “What about the prisoners kept across the main passage?”
    The dwarf pursed his lips. “Spent time there myself and wished I hadn’t.Nasty place, lots o’ little reeking chambers with bugbear guards. Hate ’em.”
    “Y’ speak for me,” Khlened growled. “What about th’ otherdwarves, though? Leave ’em and th’ next giant as comes in…”
    “Yes, they might think the dwarves helped kill these two. Wecannot leave them chained. Bleryn, tell me this. If we simply free them, what will they do?”
    “Run,” the dwarf replied simply. “We all know of the passagebeyond the rockfall, and there is also one with a way out through water. It’sabove the main prison where the ‘masters’ come down from the main level or sendservants with orders.”
    Malowan eyed Vlandar then Nemis, who nodded. “The passagejust north of the prison cells ends in a well, as I told you. It is a way out, if you fear water less than you fear this place. I say loose them. They can arm themselves here and be no worse off than we.”
    “If they alert guards-” Vlandar began.
    Nemis shook his head. “They stand as good a chance as we. Ihave read their hearts and doubt they would stand with us. They will be no worse off if they go down fighting the giants or their guards than if they stayed here.”
    “They are not our responsibility,” Malowan said to Lhors’surprise. “Let them go, and let us go. Khlened, if you vouch for Bleryn, that isgood enough for me, but your oaths bind him as well. He follows orders same as everyone else.”
    “Aye,” the barbarian said with a sudden grin. “And y’vetested ’im in yer own way, ’aven’t ye?”
    “Pay no heed at yon Fist,” the dwarf said and held out bothhands to grasp Vlandar’s. “He told a little of what y’ plan to do here. Maybe Ican help some. Said y’ need a way from ’ere, and somethin’ ’bout treasure. Was achamber I could show you, if I can trace back th’ way from here. Small place,wit’ ten giants guardin’ me and a pair of orcs. We was stuck buildin’ a pit thatguards the way between a door and a small room wit’ but an odd chest or so init. Odd, they’d guard us so well if there was nothing of value in there.”
    “Odd,” Khlened replied, grinning fiercely.
    “It’s a plan,” Vlandar said. “Let’s get going on it and getout of here.” He eyed the still-chained dwarves. They looked back at him, mostlyexpressionless. “Let us free these fellows and then be gone. We have business tofinish here.”


    Vlandar led the way back toward the main east-west passage,but as they neared it, Malowan drew him back.
    “You were wounded back there.”
    “And you healed that,” the warrior replied.
    The paladin shook his head. “You and I both know you don’tget over the shock of such a blow right away, even healed. Be a sensible leader and delegate.”
    Vlandar sighed faintly but nodded agreement.
    “Nemis,” the paladin added, “if you have a spell of heavysleep that you can use from here, put it on those two.” He indicated the torturechamber with a nod of his head.
    “Get me to the end of this passage, and I can,” the magereplied softly.
    “Maera and I will look first,” Rowan said, “to be certainnothing is waiting for us.”
    Malowan laid a hand on her shoulder before she could leave.
    “Nothing is,” he said. “I searched.”
    Agya came up to join him, but he sent her back with Lhors and Maera. When she was about to argue, a finger against his lips and a stern look silenced her.
    “You are not here as a fighter,” Malowan said, the wordsbarely reaching Lhors.
    “And a good ward don’t argue with ’er protector,” Agya mumbled under herbreath. “Yessir.”
    The girl turned away, her lips twisted in frustration.
    Malowan gestured for Bleryn to join him-probably learningwhere things were, Lhors thought. He couldn’t hear any of that, but the dwarfseemed to be glancing at him-or maybe Agya or Rowan who were also close by-as hetalked. The youth leaned against the rough stone wall, then settled on his heels to wait.
    Vlandar came over to crouch next to Lhors. His hand was dark with dried blood, but as he caught the younger man’s troubled look, he pulled acloth and his water bottle out and scrubbed the mess away.
    “It wasn’t half as bad as it looked,” the warrior assuredhim, “and it’s completely healed now. I’m fine.”
    Yes, Lhors thought, this time. He had precious few people left in the world whom he could call friends, and he didn’t want to lose any ofthem.
    “We’re just waiting for Nemis to deal with those giants yousaw sleeping earlier,” said Vlandar.
    “But aren’t they already asleep?” Lhors asked.
    “A sleep spell will keep them asleep until someone comes towaken them. With no doors on that chamber they may not wake for hours. With a little luck, we will be able to get to where Khlened’s friend the dwarf knowsthe way into another passage.”
    “You think we’ll find a way out from there?” Lhors asked. Tohimself he said, maybe we will never find a way out. Maybe there is no way out except back up through a hoard of giants and others who are waiting to kill us all. Not a good thought, especially in this gloomy passage.
    Vlandar shrugged and smiled. “Their chief must come down heresometimes. He wouldn’t do that if he couldn’t get out, would he? Even hillgiants aren’t stupid enough to build only one way out of a place.”
    Lhors looked up as Nemis came back to join them. The mage closed his eyes briefly and made a pillow of his hands, his mouth sagging open, pantomiming sleep. Vlandar got to his feet and held out a hand to help the youth to his feet. Lhors felt a little less worried. They might not be strong as giants or as big, but they had a company with experience and skills.
    Malowan beckoned everyone close. “The two giants in thatchamber won’t waken now unless someone shakes or kicks them. But remember thereare other guards about. We must go quickly and quietly, but Bleryn has just told me something.” He eyed the rangers.
    “It’s the ears,” the dwarf rumbled. “When giants first tookme, they brung me down some stairs and into th’ cells ’cross the main roomyonder. They kept us separate, but I could see others when they was took out. Your ears reminded me there’s an elf down here.”
    Maera shook her head. “An elf? Malowan, we can’t-”
    “I know we cannot ignore such a prisoner,” the paladin brokein, “but there are barracks near the cells. We must be quick and quiet.”
    “Fine,” Maera said evenly. “Get us there, and we will.”
    Malowan merely nodded, gestured for Khlened to bring up the rear, and took the dwarf with him as he led the way into the east-west hall.
    They eased into the long passage and waited against the south wall while Agya flitted across to listen at the end of the north passage. Vlandar and Lhors watched that way. Malowan and the others kept a close eye on the east passage. The girl shook her head and gestured, None close, then glanced into the torture chamber and quickly away. But as she looked down the hall the way they were about to go, she clapped both hands over her mouth and froze. Lhors heard Rowan draw a startled breath. The hair on his neck stood up, and it was an effort to turn and see what frightened them so.
    A hideous hill giant and a long-armed hairy brute shambling on all fours came out of the north passage to the main chamber. The keeper and his ape.
    The keeper was a crook-backed creature. When he turned to glare through the open barracks door, Lhors could see that one of the giant’seye sockets was empty and a portion of his nose was missing. A thinning shock of filthy hair stuck straight up from his head like rotting corn stalks in a winter field. The one ear Lhors could see was torn and bleeding. Light glinted on a grubby rag of a jerkin that exposed more than it hid of a chain-mail shirt. He snarled something, baring a few misshapen teeth, perhaps calling for the guards who should be in that chamber.
    Lhors glanced back. Agya hadn’t moved. The giant seemedpreoccupied with the missing bugbear guard, but the ape rose to its hind feet, head moving as if testing the air. Maybe it smelled fresh blood, Lhors thought.
    The party hadn’t been seen yet, but they soon would be, Lhorsknew. If they moved, that ape would be aware of them. Possibly it could smell them from where it was; the distance wasn’t that great, but enough light pouredinto the passage from the torture chamber that the guard and his ape would see them as soon as they turned this way.
    The ape tugged at its chain. It knew where those guards were. Lhors was certain of it. The guard snarled what might have been a name or a curse, then dragged the ape back and cuffed it. The creature fell back, but still sniffed the air suspiciously.
    The giant turned to look down the long end of the passage. At first, he stared at them blankly. When his one eye took in what it saw, he hauled a two-edged battle-axe from his belt and yanked hard on the ape’s chain,dragging the creature off its feet and sending it sprawling. The beast opened its mouth to scream, but he yanked on the chain again.
    Agya shrieked-a faint little cry that Lhors barely heard-butthe ape was suddenly aware of them as well. It rolled onto all fours and bared its teeth, snarling.
    “That’s done it,” Rowan muttered. She ran across the hall tograb the girl and haul her back to the relative safety of the company. Nemis began mumbling under his breath as Rowan drew the girl close and began talking to her in a low voice. “It won’t get you, child. We will keep it away from you.”Agya nodded and drew a steadying breath as Malowan, Khlened, and the dwarf pelted down the hall straight at the two monsters. The keeper stared at them, then smiled unpleasantly and freed the ape.
    The beast shambled toward them on all fours. It looked awkward but moved at astonishing speed. Malowan brought up his sword to slash at it. Khlened and Bleryn braced, back to back, the barbarian with his morning star and the dwarf with a massive axe in one hand and a thick-shafted pike in the other.
    Lhors drew a spear, but both enemies were out of range. He’dnever get enough arc to his throw.
    “Clear the center!” Rowan shouted. “Arrow, mid-hall!”
    “You two, hug that wall!” Malowan gestured with his sword forthe pair of fighters to go south. He leaped for the north wall just as the ranger’s arrows zinged between them. Two hit the ape. It yammered in pain, thenswiped the shafts free. An instant later, Maera ran forward and threw a javelin deep into the creature’s shoulder.
    The ape charged once more, eyes red with hate and pain, its mouth wide and foamy slaver dripping from horrid fangs.
    “Lhors, you and Agya behind me!” Rowan said as she steadiedanother arrow on her string.
    “Watch that giant!” Malowan ordered Khlened as he turnedback.
    “We’ve got it!” Vlandar said. “Stay there!” He drew Lhorswith him, putting Rowan and Maera behind a second line of defense. Agya came behind them close to Nemis.
    Lhors clutched a boar spear with two hands. He could hear the brute panting, slowing now and looking surprised at the number of them-ordeciding which of them to kill first. He could hear Nemis behind him, talking in chant that meant a spell. The stones seemed to shift slightly beneath his feet. Khlened shouted a wordless warning as the giant came toward them, swinging his axe. Lhors saw Bleryn and Khlened jump back as the weapon bit into the stone floor, then brought his attention back to the ape.
    “Bleryn!” the paladin shouted. “Does the creature speakCommon?”
    “Not as I know, why?” the dwarf responded.
    “Good!” Malowan shouted back. “You two get as far along hisblind side as you can. He can’t judge distance with only one eye!”
    “He’s got enough reach, ’e don’t need to see so good!”the barbarian gritted.
    Rowan shot another arrow, and Maera threw one of her spears. The ape yelled and plucked both free, then backed away from them-perhaps to fleeor in response to whatever his keeper was shouting.
    Lhors glanced at Malowan, who had his back against the wall so he could keep an eye on both giant and ape.
    Khlened was now mid-passage, swinging the morning star furiously over his head. He suddenly released it, staggering back into the south wall as the spiked ball slammed into the giant’s chest and stuck there. Themonster wailed much like the ape had and pawed at the weapon to no effect. Blood stained the mail-but not enough of it to cause him lasting damage.
    “Damn all! Most of it was took by ’is mail!” Khlened shookout his numbed arm.
    The dwarf snarled and ran forward, pike back and ready to strike.
    “Get his other eye!” Khlened called out. The giant left offtrying to pull the morning star free and swatted at the pike. More by luck or skill than good vision, he succeeded. The point bounced off the wall, and Bleryn went down. Khlened ran to help him up, and Malowan came after. The ape snarled low in its throat, then to Lhors’ astonishment, seemed to freeze in place.
    “He will not come after us now.” Nemis’ voice reached Lhors.A moment later, the mage came around him, his hands moving. “Mal, Khlened! Downflat, all three of you! I’ve spelled the brute! The jailer is now his monster!”
    “Are ye mad?” Khlened demanded. He’d hauled Bleryn out of thegiant’s reach and had drawn another blade.
    Malowan slashed at the giant, who was trying to free the morning star with one hand and swiping at the paladin with the other. The man’sblade slammed into the giant’s leg, bounced off bone or hidden armor, and flewbehind him to hit the north wall. The creature clamped his teeth together and gripped the spiked ball with both hands.
    Malowan backed away to scoop up his blade. “I know what he’sdone, Khlened! Both of you, over here, now!”
    The barbarian swore but grabbed Bleryn and hauled him over as the paladin threw himself flat. Lhors stared as the ape suddenly came to life and shook itself. Khlened dragged the dwarf down under him moments before the ape thundered past them. The giant stared dumbfounded as the ape threw itself on him. Both went down.
    Before Malowan could get back to his feet, the rangers darted past him, weapons ready to take on the survivor. When Lhors would have followed, Vlandar held him back.
    “There may be guards back that way,” he said. “Watch forthem.”
    “There are, but they heard nothing,” Nemis said. “I blockedthe corridor on all ends with a spell of silence before I bespelled that ape.”
    “Watch anyway,” Vlandar ordered the youth. “The rangers andMal have matters in hand up there.”
    Lhors glanced that way briefly as the giant grappled with his ape. The creature was much smaller, but it seemed far stronger. With a final, hellish shriek, the giant went limp and blood poured over the stone floor. The ape rose high on his legs, beating his lest, hissing and grinning before he crouched to feed. The youth turned away again and bit his lower lip.
    “He won’t notice us,” Nemis reassured them. “That spell willhold him as long as-”
    Maera snorted. “What? Until he runs out of meat? I’m notleaving that thing alive, mage.”
    “Nor I,” Rowan said grimly.
    “Kill it now,” Vlandar ordered.
    Lhors stole a glance at him, then down the hall-carefully notlooking at the ape. Rowan approached the creature cautiously, bow fully drawn. She took careful aim and launched an arrow deep into the creature’s back, thenbacked quickly away, dragging Maera with her. The creature spun to search for the source of the arrow, and Khlened brought his sword down across the ape’sneck.
    “Good,” Vlandar said.
    Lhors looked, but all he could see now was the motionless ape sprawled across the body of its master.
    Malowan stole down the hall to peer up into the north passage that led back to the destroyed stairs. Agya came up behind Lhors and swore under her breath as the paladin vanished that way, but he was back almost at once, signing that the passage and the vast chamber beyond were quiet.
    In a few heartbeats, the party was moving again. Fires still burned high in the torture chamber. Lhors thought he could hear snoring but nothing else. He wondered if the dwarves had made it beyond the rock wall.
    No one emerged from the prison hallway. If there were prisoners and guards that way, they wouldn’t come out unless it was time for achange of guard or if a prisoner was being moved.
    “No one outside this corridor can hear anything,” Nemis said.
    “But someone might come out and see us,” said Vlandar. “Weneed to go. The giants were digging down through that stairwell when we left, and that was some time ago.”
    He sent Agya ahead to join Malowan and Bleryn, put Khlened and Nemis at the rear, and stayed in the middle between the rangers and Lhors.
    “Sir,” Lhors asked as they skirted the dead giant and hisfallen ape, “are we just leaving them? Is that wise?”
    “Rowan took her arrows, and Khlened has that oversizedmorning star back. We shouldn’t waste the time moving them, even though thisseems to be an hour when not much moves around down here. We don’t need anotherfight just now. But look at them, lad. Wouldn’t it seem to you that the twofought, the ape killed his master, then died of his own wounds? Keep things simple, when you can.”

    They made it up the broad passage and into the open roomwithout seeing or hearing anything. Once up against the south wall of the chamber, Lhors could hear someone quarreling on the other side-but at adistance, as if another closed door or another wall was between him and the fighters.
    Malowan laid his hands lightly on the wall, then whispered, “Bugbears. None near. Many asleep.”
    The door to the cells was slightly ajar. Light leaked around it and through a narrow peephole. None of the party were tall enough to see anything but the ceiling through it. Maera whispered something to Khlened, who knelt and made a cup of his hands for her foot then hoisted her up. She gazed through the slit for some moments, then leaped lightly down.
    One guard, she signed. Four, maybe five cells. Someprisoners, one human for certain.
    Guard where? Malowan signed.
    Close, the ranger replied, then gestured for silence.
    Lhors suddenly heard the bugbear stomping toward the outer door, muttering under his breath. Malowan signed for the rangers to move to the hinge-side of the door and for Khlened and Bleryn to take up position on the other side. He braced himself directly in front of it, sword in one hand and a long poniard in the other.
    Silence again, broken this time by someone inside giggling in a pain-thinned voice. The guard had begun to draw the door open, and Lhors could make out a bugbear’s shadow on the wall. The creature turned away to snarlsomething. Malowan nodded once sharply, then ran forward, half-turned, and slammed his foot into the heavy door. The splintered wood swung into the bugbear, sending him flailing for balance down a short passage. He caught himself on the thick bars of a cell, swung back and felt for his morning star. Too late. Malowan was on him, sword point under his hairy chin. The rangers stood between the guard and his weapon, and Khlened and Bleryn now held the north wall. The dwarf snapped something that sounded like an order, but Lhors couldn’t understand a word of it. It sounded more like the bugbear’s language,all spitting and snarling. Whatever he said, it took the fight out of the guard.
    “What’d you say?” Agya demanded.
    The dwarf shrugged and grinned broadly.
    “Told him that ol’ One Eye’s gone and ’is ape’s dead. Toldhim the wizard there”-he pointed at Nemis-“controls th’ other ape and hebe its lunch.” The dwarf chuckled. “Not too happy ’bout being et, is he?”
    The bugbear was sliding slowly down the bars, huddling in on himself.
    Malowan sighed. “I cannot kill the brute like this!”
    “I can,” Bleryn said, all trace of humor gone. His eyesglinted, and he said something else in the other language.
    The bugbear whimpered and curled up like a bug.
    “No,” the paladin said firmly. “You and Khlened guard it. Dootherwise and you’ll answer to me.”
    “Lhors, Agya,” Vlandar added, “find fetters for him.”
    “Unnecessary,” Nemis said and spoke under his breath.
    The bugbear went limp.
    “He’s asleep, paladin,” said the mage. “Find your prisoners.I will keep watch to make sure we are not surprised.”
    Malowan found a bunch of keys hanging from the wall and opened the first cell. The mad giggle began again, weaker this time, though the door was now open.
    “Get me a light,” the paladin said. “I can see nothing.”
    Agya clambered onto the guard’s bench to pull a torch fromits niche and held it up for him. Her eyes fixed on something inside and she gasped.
    Malowan took the torch from her and gave her a little shove. “Don’t look. Just go.”
    Lhors froze where he stood. He could clearly make out a wraith of a man who rocked back and forth on a filthy bench. Black, gaping holes gazed where his eyes had once been. One arm ended in a bloody stump, and both his feet were missing.
    Gods, how could anyone do that? Lhors thought. How can he still be alive? Lhors suddenly couldn’t remember how to breathe, and he scarcelyfelt Vlandar’s hands on his shoulders, turning him away from the opening.
    Behind him, the laughter faded. He could hear pained, harsh breathing, then Malowan’s voice. The paladin sounded as if he were weeping. “Icannot heal you. If I could, I could not restore your wit or cleanse the horrors from your mind. I can only release you and let Holy Rao restore your spirit to grace and peace.”
    There was the faint sound of metal against metal. Malowan had drawn a blade.
    “You will feel no pain,” the paladin rasped. “I swear it.”
    The paladin drew a shuddering breath, and Lhors turned back just as Malowan plunged his dagger into one of the wretch’s empty eye sockets.
    Lhors swallowed past a tight throat.
    Malowan turned away, knife hanging loose, tears spilling over his eyes. The paladin fought for control, then drew a deep breath and turned back, blotting his eyes. “Dread Heironeous,” he said huskily, “see into my heartand show me the way to cleanse this blood from my hands, for you know me, and you know that I acted out of pity and gave him what mercy I could.” He turnedthen and left the cell, gently closing the door behind him.
    Agya was very pale. She took the dagger from his fingers and shoved it back into its sheath. Malowan gave her a watery smile.
    The rangers were already at the next cell and had it open. A tall man emerged, and Lhors blinked. He had very dark, bronzed skin, and hair as black as coal. He smiled, revealing very white teeth. “Dare a man hope this is arescue? Not much I wouldn’t do for that.” He looked around at the company. “Mustbe a tale here, so many warriors in old Nosnra’s cellars.”
    “There is,” Vlandar said, “and if we get back out of Nosnra’scellars, you’ll hear it. I’m Vlandar out of western Keoland.”
    “I am Gerikh,” the man said with a slight bow, “from Istivinon the Davish River, and unfortunately, no swordsman.”
    “We won’t leave you here,” Vlandar assured him.
    “Good. I’ve been here with two others since maybe amoon-phase ago. We were working on a bridge near Flen. I’m an engineer. Giantsset upon our party. By the time we got here, I was the only one alive.”
    Malowan was already at the next cell, hands resting on the lock. “I’ve found your elf,” he announced.
    Rowan bounded over, peeked in the cell, and immediately set to work on the lock with her dagger. After several moments of mumbled cursing, she drew back in frustration. “Damn all dwarven steel! Bleryn, can you get thislock open?”
    Taking Khlened’s thick sword, the dwarf walked over to thecell, and with one sharp crack from the sword’s pommel, the lock fell tothe floor.
    “Trouble’s with yer method,” the dwarf said with a crookedsmile, “not our ‘damned dwarven steel’.”
    Maera went in as her sister got the door open. Rowan set her jaw, then followed.
    The paladin and the rangers were back out moments later, a tall, slender fellow held up between them. A grayish rag encrusted with old blood hid one eye, but Maera tugged it loose, and Lhors saw with relief that it had covered a nasty scrape. He’d imagined much worse.
    The rangers got the fellow over to the guard’s bench and lethim down. Rowan shoved his long, filthy hair back He seemed only half-conscious. She tugged at one of his pointed ears and quietly said, “We have come to rescueyou.”
    No response. She said something in another language. His eyes opened warily, and he looked at her and then at Maera for some moments, then replied in what might have been the same language.
    “He’s Florimund, a half-elf” Maera said as Rowan continued talking to him.“He remembers very little. Woods and giants, and then pain. Rowan, we need toget him out of here.”
    “I agree,” Rowan replied. She and Maera got Florimund to hisfeet and brought him up by the door where Nemis was keeping watch.
    Malowan came away from the last cell, its door unopened. “It’s a trap. Leave it be.” Then he too left the room.
    “We have what we came for,” Vlandar said. “Let us go beforethe guard changes. This is no place for us.”
    The paladin drew his sword. “Nemis, same sleep spell on thisguard?”
    “He won’t waken on his own,” the mage said.
    “Good. We’ll shove him in that cell and lock him in.” Malowanwaited while Khlened and Bleryn moved the unconscious guard, then turned the key in the door and tossed the ring in the other cell.
    “Mal, you stay back with Agya,” Vlandar said. “Bleryn, staywith me. Which way?”
    Bleryn pointed back in the general direction of the fallen staircase. “The treasure room’s through there.”
    “Small room off by itself?” the engineer asked. “I know it.They had me working on the locks not long ago. Couple of the guards were talking about the things supposed to be inside.”
    “Let’s get there first,” said Vlandar.
    Nemis gestured that the main chamber was clear. Some moments later, Lhors found himself back in the small chamber where they’d slept earlier.The torches were guttering. Once Khlened and Bleryn lowered the door, it felt almost safe here, but he could still hear the distant thud of workers above them.
    “We can’t stay long,” Vlandar said. “Bleryn or Gerikh, do youknow of any guards nearby?”
    “At least one guard, a giant,” the engineer said, “assigned to guard thetreasure room. But I overheard the prison guards saying that Nosnra had caught him pilfering and had him torn apart. I don’t know if he’s been replaced.”
    “Heard about ’im,” Bleryn said. “Figured between that and allthe guards on us when we repaired the traps, there must be wealth in there.”
    “It isn’t so much wealth, I heard,” Gerikh said. “That chiefof theirs comes down now and again, and he comes back with a scroll-orders, oneof ’em said his captain told him. And sometimes he comes down here after thoseorders come, and he goes in-but he isn’t in there. Way their captain got it fromhis boss, the chief has some magic thing that takes him to other giants, and he has to go when they say.”
    “We’ll go now,” Vlandar said.
    Maera, who was blotting Florimund’s face with a wet cloth,looked up, her mouth set.
    Vlandar saw her look and said, “Tell our companion we willtend his wounds properly once we’re free of this place.”
    Rowan whispered something to her sister. Maera nodded, but she still looked angry.
    Agya had the panel moved away from another wheel that, when turned, revealed a chamber nearly the size of the main one, but more dimly lit. Vlandar put Bleryn and Gerikh with him to help guide the way. The rest came close behind, Nemis last.
    A wild howling and shrieking suddenly shattered the silence. Agya jumped closer to Malowan, and Lhors tightened his grip on his boar spear. Everyone turned frantically, but they could see nothing in the dim light.
    Silence once again.
    Lhors could just hear Bleryn whisper. “Manticores. They’repenned.” They moved out, hugging the wall, and stopped short of the entry to apassage heading east. In the silence, they could hear giants’ voices, but theysounded distant.
    The dwarf pointed. “Stairs back that way down a side passage.Chief comes that way, I think.”
    Malowan asked softly. “Nemis, what are they saying?”
    The mage leaned against the wall. “Nosnra is there, andsomeone else wants to put down another ladder. Nosnra says no, his sub-chief has already been killed in the stair’s collapse, and they will break through to therubble on the other stairs by middle night. The other argues that is too long.”He listened a few moments more. “They don’t know where we are, and it seems ourassumption was correct. Some orc workers revolted and have killed two giants.”
    “Where are the orcs now?” Khlened asked. “Are they stillroamin’ down ’ere?”
    “They did not say,” the mage replied, “though I would surmisethat the orcs have been dealt with, since Nosnra’s main concern seems to be withus.”
    Vlandar said, “We need light. I cannot see a thing downthere!”
    Nemis fished a small object from his belt and threw it down the passage. A bail of light rose from the floor partway down the short passage, illuminating walls of finely dressed stone. A dark opening yawned to their right. Lhors thought the distant voices were that way.
    “Straight,” Bleryn said. “Main trap’s just beyond the door. Ican point it out.”
    “We can manage a trap,” Nemis said mildly.
    Once Gerikh located the lever to shift the door, it required him, Khlened, and Vlandar to move it. Lhors tried not to listen to the angry voices echoing from above. Gerikh went through first, closely followed by Khlened and Bleryn. Agya jumped as something heavy and metal squawked in protest at being moved. Something else rumbled briefly, then all was silent.
    “It’s fine,” Malowan assured her quietly. “Nemis has thesound blocked for us again. Let’s go.”
    He put his ward and Lhors ahead of him. Nemis came last, the ball of light following him like a pet firefly. Once the chamber was sealed, Vlandar beckoned everyone close. “Mal, you and Nemis will know what we want fromhere. Find it quickly. We haven’t much time. The rest of you look around.Khlened, remember there are things we need more than gold. Lhors, help Rowan. Look for scrolls, written messages, maps. None of us except Mal and Nemis are to open anything-there will likely be traps.”
    Lhors eyed the jumble resignedly. He could see one large chest, a metal box close by, some smaller chests, and a pile of wooden rubble against the opposite wall. Another wall,vas thick with a dampish looking yellow growth that smelled like moldy bread.
    Maera had braced Florimund in a corner. She, Rowan, and Lhors waited until Nemis used a reveal spell on the chests and boxes. Agya came behind him with her lock picks, but Bleryn had already broken the lock on the iron box with his knife. There were coins-more than Lhors could ever have imagined in oneplace. The thief gasped, then grinned broadly and plunged both hands into the pile.
    “Treasure,” Rowan said. “Remember you may have to carrywhatever you take here for some time.”
    “Thought we were going back to th’ river,” Agya said as shelooked up from the chest.
    “That depends on what we find here to get us out of here,”Malowan said. He’d come quietly up behind her. “Take a purse’s worth of coin.You’ve have earned it.” He turned to one of the rangers. “Rowan, look there.”
    Lhors turned as he heard the ranger gasp. He was almost afraid to look. The smelly yellow stuff had vanished, revealing swords, spears and other weapons. Rowan crossed the chamber and took down a quiver of long arrows. She drew one. The fletching-feathers shimmered.
    “These will do nicely,” she said admiringly. “Besides, I haveonly two of my own arrows left.”
    “Magic arrows?” Lhors asked as the ranger fastened the quiverto her shoulder.
    “They are from the Valley of the Mage,” Maera said as shecame up. “Is this safe, Rowan?”
    “They are not evil, as some tales say,” Rowan replied. “Touchthat spear, and tell me what you feel.”
    Maera eyed her mistrustfully but laid a hand on the shaft. She smiled then, took the weapon down and ran loving hands over the shaft.
    “They were made for good and will serve you well,” Malowansaid as he came over. He turned back just as Agya reached for one of the swords. “Do not-”
    But he was too late. The girl wrapped her hand around a hilt then cried out in pain. Malowan pulled her away from it and cupped the hand gently. Blisters covered her palm and ran up her thumb and fingers. “Easy,child.” He murmured under his breath and ran gentle fingers across the back ofher hand and, when it relaxed, across her palm and fingers. Agya eyed it fearfully, then in wide-eyed astonishment. There was no sign of injury.
    “Touch nothing else unless I tell you it is safe,” thepaladin warned her, then took both swords down. Agya stared up at him, and he smiled. “For me, these are safe. I will take one. Nemis?”
    “I am not pure enough to wield the thing,” the mage said fromacross the chamber, “even if I could use one-or needed it. Mal, come here. Youbrought that red powder, didn’t you?”
    The paladin settled one sword against his back, reluctantly put the other back on the wall, and fished a tiny box from a pouch at his belt. He handed it to the mage, who sprinkled some of it over the shattered wood that might have been a barrel at one time. There was a faint explosion and a bloom of ruddy smoke that cleared to reveal a solidly built cask. Another pinch of the red powder, and this too burst open.
    Agya came around Malowan to peer at the contents with them. “Just a map!” she said dismissively.
    Nemis had the thing spread across his knees. Lhors could not make out any of the writing on the hardened sheet of skin, but Nemis and Malowan seemed to be making sense of it.
    The mage held up a black oblong box. “This was under the mapVlandar, and the map is a plan of the frost giants’ hold-Nosnra’s guide, fromwhat is written here. And here”-he pointed-“are instructions for the device thattakes him to the Rift.”
    “Rift?” Agya asked warily. “Frost giants?”
    “The Rift is a place of ice and cold, such as frost giantslike” the paladin explained. “I doubt we will care for it, but Nemis”-thepaladin glanced over his shoulder and lowered his voice-“will the drow bethere?”
    “I doubt it,” Nemis said quietly. “Those I knew prefer heatto cold, and they would not trust Nosnra with anything that took him straight to them. They may travel to the Rift to meet with him, or he may go beyond the Rift.”
    “We’ll learn when we get there,” Malowan said as he openedthe oblong box.
    Lhors hoped the man felt as confident as he sounded. Lhors merely felt ready to be done with fighting and headed back home.
    But you have no home anymore, the back of his mindwhispered. Lhors pushed the thought away. It was true enough, but that was a matter to deal with once he was far away from giants and bugbears and orcs.
    The box held a chain, a hide scroll, and another black chain that reflected the dim light. Nemis took the black chain. “Don’t touch it, Mal,”he warned as he unfurled it. “You won’t like it.” He looked down to read fromthe scroll again. “Instructions for the chain, from ‘the Jarl, Chief of theRift.’ He addresses Nosnra as if the brute were his slave.” He glanced up. “Mal,you’re monitoring them up there?”
    “As best I can,” the paladin said. “There are no giants inthe passage out there, no one nearby except those manticores.”
    “That won’t last much longer,” Vlandar said. “I fear our timeis almost gone. Tell me how this chain works.”
    Nemis read down the scroll, set it aside to scrub his hands vigorously on his pants, then spread the chain out across the floor. It was longer than it had looked in the chest.
    “I won’t loop it properly until we are ready,” the mage said.
    Vlandar got everyone together. “We’re leaving here soon, bythe magic in that chain. We have no choice at this point. It is this or fight our way out against impossible odds. It will be very cold where we’re going, sowhatever warm things you have in your packs, put them on now. And be ready to fight. There may well be guards where we emerge, frost giants. Khlened, you said you’ve fought them before.”
    The barbarian’s eyes narrowed, and he grinned fiercely. “Aye.Tough brutes, and far more cunning than these hill giants, but they bleed same as you’n me.”
    “Pardon me, Vlandar,” Lhors spoke up hesitantly, “but how canwe be sure that this chain won’t drop us into a frost giant’s cook pot or in themiddle of a dragon’s nest?”
    Vlandar looked grim, but before he could answer, Nemis jumped in. “It is a possibility. I won’t deny it. But things of this nature are seldomthat precise. Nosnra is a thickheaded brute, but even he would want to travel safely, and the frost giants wouldn’t want others dropping in at any time. Thatwould be dangerous should the device fall into the wrong hands.”
    “Like ours, y’mean,” Bleryn said.
    “Precisely.” The mage smiled. “In all likelihood, we willemerge some distance from the frost giants’ hold, well out of any ‘danger zone’.”
    “True enough,” the paladin conceded, “but Lhors does have apoint. Wherever we emerge, it will likely be watched. You don’t leave a magicdoor to your stronghold and not guard it.”
    Vlandar sighed. “All you say is true, but the point remains: we have no choice. We can’t swim out of here on the river. One set of stairs iscollapsed and being cleared by who knows how many giants, and the other exits are surely heavily guarded. It’s this way or no way, but I advise everyone to gowith weapons at the ready.”
    Everyone nodded reluctantly. Not one of them seemed pleased.
    Lhors watched as the mage felt the links, then picked three in a row and drew the outer two together, touching the new join with his fingers. When he let it go, the two stayed together and the third locked between them. He twisted the chain into a double loop, then squatted to hold the upper off the lower.
    “Half of you stand in one loop, half in the other,” Nemisinstructed.
    Vlandar divided them into two groups. Khlened, Bleryn, the rangers, and their injured comrade composed one. Nemis, Malowan, Agya, Lhors, and Gerikh made up the other. Everyone who had a weapon held it ready. Nemis looked them over, then glanced behind him.
    Lhors could suddenly hear giants-many of them. The mage gotto his feet and dropped the chain. It hit the floor with a muted clank.
    The treasure room flared a brilliant blue-white and vanished. Lhors clutched Vlandar’s arm, scared and dizzy both, but the sensation of beingnowhere was gone as quickly as it had come. In its place came snow, ice, and a hellish wind that cut through every layer they wore.
    Khlened spat. His moustache was already stiff with ice.
    “Frost giants,” he snarled. “I hate frost giants.”


    Icy wind shrilled, blowing snow and ice crystals around them.The sky seemed to be night-dark, but it was hard to tell with so much wind and snow. Agya huddled in on herself, teeth chattering. Lhors, who had enjoyed snowfalls in his village as a boy, stared in horror at the blizzard. His face felt frozen in just the few moments they’d been here. He dragged the thickwoolen scarf up over his nose and mouth and peered at a tree maybe four paces away-the only thing he could see besides blowing white. The branches were soladen that he could barely make out that it was a tree.
    Khlened tapped his shoulder. “Stay clear of trees!” heshouted in order to be heard over the gale. “Tree like that hides pockets underth’ branches. Means you step in the wrong place, you could fall far enough tobreak your neck!”
    The barbarian turned to Vlandar. “We can’t stay out in this!Even a Fist won’t stay in th’ open, and the rest of ye-you’ll freeze in notime!” He peered around, then walked past the warrior and eased down between twoice-coated boulders. He was back in moments. “’Tis no true shelter, but there’snext to no wind back there. Get close t’each other. Me’n Bleryn’ll find someplace better.”
    “If not, we can dig snow tunnel,” the dwarf said. Agya stared at him inhorror and Bleryn chuckled. “Surprising, how warm it is in a snow tunnel. Nowind.”
    “Go,” Vlandar ordered tersely.
    “Do not go down,” Nemis said. “The giants’ hold is down. Andbe careful.”
    “Careful, huh?” Khlened snorted. “Man can’t spend treasure if’e’s dead, eh?”
    With that, he was gone, following Bleryn. They were lost to sight before they’d gone ten paces, and their footprints were already fillingin.
    Vlandar led the way down between the boulders and back as far as he could. Lhors sighed faintly. The wind dropped away almost entirely in this rough shelter, and while the snow beyond the stones was deep, it only came to his ankles here.
    Rowan left her sister to keep their wounded companion close under her cloak, while she and Lhors helped Malowan compact a high ridge of snow on three sides to block what little wind still came at them.
    “Everyone, get as close together as you can,” the paladinordered. “Watch each other. None of us must fall asleep here.” He settled downnext to Agya, and the girl gratefully burrowed into his fur-lined cloak.
    After making sure everyone was settled, Vlandar asked, “Nemis, where are we?”
    “Near the entrance to the Rift, a major hold of frost giants,”the mage replied. His teeth chattered. “I shortened that chain by a link so wewould not appear inside the Rift itself.”
    “Well thought, but we’ll talk later,” Vlandar said. “Listenand watch, for now.”
    Even bundled close between Rowan and Vlandar, Lhors felt half-frozen, and the noise of the storm frightened him. Anyone could be out there, and they wouldn’tknow until too late. But would giants be out in such a storm as this? He doubted it, but then again, he had no experience with frost giants. They were used to weather such as this.
    Fortunately, Khlened was back while the youth could still feel his fingers and toes.
    “Found a cave,” he announced, visibly pleased with himself.“Slopes uphill, low entry, high ceiling inside. Better, some beast ’r ’notherpacked in trees, p’raps to make a nest. Bleryn stayed t’build a fire.”
    “Beast?” Agya demanded. All Lhors could see of her was hereyes peering out from Malowan’s cloak. They were wide and scared.
    “Is it safe for fire?” Vlandar asked.
    “No creature of late, we checked. Wood’s dry enough t’won’tsmoke, and th’ ceiling will keep it off us and still inside. But no fire’s moredeadly in such a storm than th’ chance beasts or giants’ll smell th’ smoke wherenone should be.” The barbarian shrugged. “Way th’ winds are, who could tellwhere it came from anyway?”
    “If yon fella says fire, can we go to it now?” Agya demanded.“P-p-please?”
    “Lass is right,” Khlened told Vlandar.
    Vlandar nodded. “Of course. Lead, we’ll follow.”
    “Stay alert, best you can,” Malowan warned. “I also knowcold. It would be easy for one of us to fall by the way and be lost. Watch out for each other. Do not worry about guards. I made a search just now, and I can assure you that there are none outside the Rift in this storm-certainly none upon this ledge.”
    “Are you always so cheerful?” Maera demanded waspishly.
    “Call him sensible,” Rowan suggested. “Let us go.”
    To Lhors’ surprise, she laid a gloved hand on Vlandar’sshoulder. “You were wounded earlier. I know how magic healing works. You cravesleep after. Maera, if you can manage Florimund, I will stay with Vlandar.”
    They toiled back into the open and followed Khlened. Lhors gasped and his eyes teared as the wind sliced through his cloak and makeshift face mask. He freed a hand to drag his hood down to his nose before yanking the cloak back snug around him and squeezing his hands into his armpits where they might thaw.
    Moments later, his feet scraped on bare stone, and the wind was gone again, replaced by flickering ruddy light. He blinked and shoved the hood back. Khlened’s cave was bigger than their last haven. The youth movedinside, making room so Rowan could come in with Vlandar. The entry was a low, only slightly taller than Lhors and no wider than he could reach. Wolves might use such a den, but giants couldn’t. Mal or Nemis could keep wolves out, he wascertain. But he forgot all that as his eyes touched on the fire.
    The dwarf sat cross-legged on a ledge of yellowish stone, his axe embedded in a thick branch just behind him. Fire, Lhors thought with longing and moved toward it.
    “We had the luck,” Bleryn was saying as the youth came near.“Ledge is riddled wit’ caves, but we found this and all this wood on our fourthtry.”
    “Luck indeed,” Vlandar said. Rowan was getting the warriorsettled on a blanket where he could get warm, his back against the rock wall. The man looked tired and old at the moment, but the ranger caught Lhors attention, sent her eyes sidelong, and nodded. He is just tired because he was hurt, she means. Lhors hoped, but he couldn’t ask while Rowan was hovering overVlandar.
    “No beast tracks in this cave, no gnawed bones, no scat-fresh or dry.”
    “Scat?” Agya asked. She sounded even more tired than Vlandar.She leaned gratefully forward to warm her hands at the fire. Malowan wrapped his spare blanket around her.
    Rowan laughed. “Food goes in, scat comes out.” The girlmanaged a faint grin in response. “Speaking of food, I can make a passable soupor stew.”
    Lhors sighed. “Hot food. It sounds wonderful.” He dragged hispack from under his cloak. “Take anything you need. I can’t remember when I lastate.”
    “Still growing, are you?” Rowan replied cheerfully. She wassorting through her own bag and hauled out an odd-looking bit of metal. “One ofyou fill this with snow for me to melt for soup water. It will take several trips, I fear.”
    Khlened took the thing and shook it. To Lhors’ surprise, theflat piece opened into a tin pail made of overlapping segments, complete with handle. “My task,” the barbarian said. “Done this most of m’ life.”
    Maera eased Florimund down flat and covered him with her spare blanket, then dug a similar item from her own pack: a small pot of blackened metal, the base forged to a low tripod. Rowan extended it with a snap of her wrists, then began rummaging through the pile of food the others had set out for her. She separated things, putting aside packets of cracker-bread and dried fruit, then rummaged through two bags of dried beans. She took the canvas bag Vlandar gave her and scooped out several handfuls of dried vegetables, then pulled a bundle of herb-packets from a side pocket on her pack. She plucked a fat brown onion from the braid of them that Khlened carried and tossed two sticks of jerky into the pot. Over all, she poured the first batch of melted snow.
    The stew took some time to cook, but the apple and spiced hot water that Rowan prepared kept Lhors comfortable. Gran had known that trick, and so had his father. The flavor of fruit seemed to soothe his mind as well. He turned to Vlandar to see if the man needed another cup, but the warrior had fallen asleep.
    By now, the cave was almost warm. Even Agya was moving around and had shed the spare blanket. Vlandar was awake again by the time Rowan pulled the pot from the ashes, and Gerikh had fed more logs onto the fire twice. They all felt like friends, Lhors thought, but a snowstorm and an unexpected hot meal could do that for people.
    Even Maera seemed to feel it-or maybe she was very hungryherself. “We’ll want real bread with that, sister. The cracker-stuff we may needlater.” She broke out a packet of flour and leavening, swept leaves from a flatrock, then began working water into the dry stuff. Lhors watched as the half-elf kneaded the brownish mess, tore it into strips and deftly braided and shaped it into a round loaf that she shoved it into the ashes.
    Rowan tested the soup and nodded. “Cups or bowls, everyone,”she announced, then dipped them into the pot and handed them around. Maera brushed ash from her crusty loaf and broke it into equal shares.
    Lhors blew on his soup to cool it, sipped cautiously, then stared at Rowan over the rim. “You said passable! It’s-” He couldn’t find theproper word and contented himself instead with draining his cup, then swabbing the last drops up with Maera’s bread.
    Rowan laughed and refilled the cup, then handed him part of her bread. “No, take it,” she assured him. “Such praise deserves reward, and anear-grown man needs his food.”
    Florimund still slept, but Lhors thought seemed Vlandar almost normal thanks to the warm meal. “All right,” the warrior said mildly. “Ifeared we might somehow wind up here, even before we left Cryllor. The frost giants have raided the Yeomanry before now, and Keoland too.”
    Maera snorted. “The rangers of Keoland have long suspected analliance between frost and hill giants.”
    Vlandar shrugged. “Now we are certain of it. You may haveoverheard me talking to Nemis and Mal back in that locked chamber. We found proof that Nosnra is now under orders to attack Keoland hill villages. We found a written command from the chief of the frost giants along with the chain that brought us here. Who knows how long Nosnra has used that chain to come here to report his successes or failures and receive new orders?”
    “Wait,” Khlened said. “Frost giants are behind allthis? They haven’t the brains for it!”
    “They are not in charge,” Nemis said quietly. It was thefirst time he’d spoken in hours. “They are also under orders… fromelsewhere.”
    “Oh? And where’d that be?” the barbarian demanded.
    The mage shrugged gloomily.
    “I hope to learn that information here in the Rift,” Vlandarsaid, “And that is all I think we can hope to learn here. Mal, have youthat scroll?”
    The paladin fished out the clear tube he’d found in thewoodpile and held it up. At Vlandar’s gesture, he handed it to the mage. “Nemisspeaks and reads many languages, including Giantish. That is written in Giantish, though not by a giant. Nemis tells me the one who penned the scroll is unlikely to be here and I believe him. In short, I see the Rift as a passage to another place, not a destination in itself. We must all listen to Nemis and Malowan-and Mal, I hope you both will prepare for tomorrow by choosing spellsthat help us remain unseen and unheard, but just as importantly, spells that will locate devices like that chain.”
    Khlened said, “So we look beyond th’ Rift ’cause it isn’t afrost giant in charge? Suits me fine. I left Fist-lands ’cause cold like this isnasty. No sane man’d stand it, if ’e didn’t have to.”
    Bleryn put in. “I dislike cold. Never want to see a whitebear again.”
    “Bear?” That, predictably, was Agya. “How’d y’see ’em throughall this white stuff?”
    “I can sense them,” Malowan assured her, “but Khlened isright-and so is Bleryn. We’re here because the alternative was dying in theSteading’s dungeons, but this is not much better because the cold will kill usif the frost giants and their allies do not.”
    Vlandar nodded as he got to his feet. “Nosnra knows by knowthat we were in his secret room and that we stole his chain. If he has any other such device to transport messages or himself, the Rift may already be preparing for us.”
    “If deer had wings, the wolves would starve,” Maera repliedsarcastically.
    “And if the rangers stay alert, no tree will fall,” Vlandarretorted-almost as sharply, to Lhors’ surprise. He smiled suddenly. “Apologies,ranger. Stay alert, but I know you all will. Do not be led astray. We seek a quick way from these frozen heights, either back to Keoland or on to find the master who ordered the attacks on Keoland.”
    Lhors started as the name bit into his mind.
    Vlandar’s hand gripped his shoulder. “Yes, we can return toKeoland with what we know, and I am certain the king will reward us. But what matters wealth if we see the chance to wipe out a dire enemy-and we hesitate?”
    “If the conditions and the numbers are against us…” Maeracountered. “But I agree, warrior. Turn your back on such an enemy, allow her togrow stronger-”
    “Her?” Nemis said sharply.
    The ranger smiled at him, but the smile did not reach her eyes. “He, they, us, you, them, another, whichever. If there is a chance todefeat such a one-yes, I am of your mind, Vlandar.”
    Khlened spat. “More sneaking? Never met a frost giant asdeserved t’live! Kill ’em and be done!”
    “I side with the Fist,” Bleryn said flatly. “Happens myfolk-their shades’ll curse me forever, did I not kill every bastard son of ’em Icould.”
    Silence. Vlandar and Malowan waited. Khlened and Bleryn stared back challengingly.
    “Remember who leads this party,” Vlandar finally said.“Remember I may know things you do not, about this place and about our goal.Still, I will not stop you from killing giants-but only if you will swear to methat you will not act recklessly. You will not draw attention to us, you will not get us killed, and”-he added sharply as dwarf and barbarian grinned at eachother-“you will both pledge to keep a close eye on the less winter-hardy of us.We do no good if we die here of cold, and frozen heroes cannot spend treasure. Also, ten of us have a better chance of winning through than two crazed fighters who have no one to back them.”
    “A point,” Bleryn said promptly, and drew Khlened aside sothey could talk.
    Vlandar turned to the rest of the company. “I will setwatches by twos tonight. We dare not let the fire go out.”
    In the end, he chose himself and Malowan for the first, Maera and Gerikh for the second, Lhors and Rowan for the third, Bleryn and Nemis after, leaving Khlened as most winter-wise of them all to build up the fire and set a pot of hot gruel to soaking.
    “What of me then?” Agya demanded sharply.
    “Sleep and plenty of it,” the warrior replied. “We will needyou alert tomorrow.”
    Lhors wondered when she didn’t argue. Perhaps the cold hadsapped her temper. One good thing about this place then, he thought as he wrapped up in his cloak across the fire from her.
    Rowan settled close enough to the youth, he could have touched her. “Maera?” she said quietly. “Florimund ate and he’s sleeping, but heis restless.”
    “Do you wonder at that?” Maera asked sourly.
    Lhors eased his eyes open a little. The sour twin-as he hadcome to think of her-managed a thin smile. “Rowan, I told you I will stay withhim and wake him from his bad dreams. I said he would be my task.”
    “Of course,” Rowan murmured.
    Maera got up and left, leaving the cave silent.
    “Lhors?” Rowan asked quietly.
    He hadn’t been asleep, and of course, she knew that. His facefelt hot. “Yes?”
    Rowan laughed, deep in her throat. “When we share watchlater, pay attention to my sister and her charge, will you? She’ll know if I do,and it will make her angry.”
    “Whatever you ask,” he said.
    Rowan laughed again and patted his stubbly cheek. “Don’tpromise such a thing. It’s dangerous.” Her face suddenly turned more serious. “Ido not trust Florimund. I can’t say why. Maera does, but she chooses her martyrswith her heart. I do not.”
    Lhors frowned. “I think I see. She believes whatever he hastold her, but you are afraid there may be something, um, behind the words?”
    “Just so,” Rowan replied gravely.
    “But he was a prisoner of the giants, and they-”
    “Tortured him?” Rowan finished for him. “Yes. Still, I havelearned by hard experience to trust my distrust, if you see what I mean. Thank you, Lhors.” She gained her feet gracefully and went to shake out herblankets.
    Lhors sighed faintly, then eased onto one elbow and looked around. Khlened and Bleryn seemed to be asleep-at least one of them was snoring.Gerikh huddled almost on top of the firepit, while Agya was only visible as a tuft of ruddy hair poking out of a pile of blankets. The paladin lay close by, wrapped only in his cloak. Nemis bent over his spellbook. The last vision Lhors had before he fell asleep was of the mage, a blanket draped casually over his shoulders, his lips moving soundlessly as he turned the pages.

    Watch followed watch, and outside the sky grew slowlylight-briefly very bright indeed as the sun speared through heavy cloud. Butgloom returned at once. The wind died down, but never for long. The shriek of harsh air storming the stones outside made sleep hard to come by, but the fire kept the immediate stone floor warm, and each of the watches brought in pots of snow to keep two pots steaming, one of plain water, the other one of Maera’steas. During the last watch, Nemis stirred up a large pot of gruel, then sought his blankets while Khlened kept the fire going.
    By the time Vlandar was awake, Khlened was pacing, eager to be off. “We need t’find entry-”
    “Already found,” Nemis said. He sounded half-asleep andseemed to be having trouble getting his gruel from his clay cup to his mouth. “Ihave the map of the Rift-both levels-that was hidden in Nosnra’s secret roomwith the chain.”
    To Lhors’ surprise-and Nemis’ visible displeasure-Vlandarsent Khlened and Bleryn out to scout the area. Vlandar must have been aware of the mage’s mood. After the two had vanished in the still-swirling snow, he said,“Nemis, this is not mistrust. I know you have the map, and you have searched asfar as your magic can reach. But those two are used to action. Give them a little now, and they may be easier to control later. Who knows? They may actually find something your spell did not.”
    Nemis actually smiled. “Now you throw young Agya’s words atme, but you are right, of course. They know this kind of country, and I do not.”He settled next to the fire and opened his book. “This also gives me a littletime to find more useful spells.”
    “Both of us,” Malowan said as he sought a quiet corner tocommune with his god.
    “Thank you,” Vlandar said. “Nemis, if I may have the map-andRowan, I know rangers are usually good at maps. Come help me with this one, will you?”
    Lhors hesitated, empty mug in hand, but both ranger and warrior beckoned for him to join them over the map. I know nothing of such things, the youth thought. He sighed quietly. But I suppose I can learn.

    He didn’t feel so confident some time later after the scoutscame back. The writing on the map was nothing but oddly shaped marks to his eyes, and all he was certain of was that this Rift was vast, cold, and consisted of two levels with guards everywhere.
    Bleryn muttered into his beard as he settled close to the fire. “Fell,” he said briefly.
    “No surprise t’me,” Khlened retorted. “’Tis hellish slickeverywhere.” He turned to talk to Vlandar. “We saw a path into th’ Rift. Therewas rutted ice from huge prints, nasty place. No guards outside as we could see.”
    Bleryn snorted. “Tell ’em about yeti,” he said.
    Khlened rolled his eyes. “Y’ didn’t expect ’em, place like this? Was twogoing that way.” He pointed where Lhors thought north might be. “Yeti tracks allover up here. Nasty creatures love it here. We also say one roamin frost giant wi’ two wolves on his heels. Mind now, wolves ain’t bugbears! Th’ wolves canhear and smell all too well, and a pack of ’em is bad news. And yeti. Even theFists avoid yeti.”
    “I can agree with that,” Malowan said mildly. He looked overat Agya, who was drawing on thick, oversized mitts Lhors thought must be the paladins. “Agya,” the man said, “remember that I can keep you safe from them.”
    “Yessir, I know it,” she replied and managed a smile, butLhors could see her eyes were worried, and the hands under the mitts trembled.
    “We will leave as soon as we can,” Vlandar said. “But all ofyou, make sure you are clad as best you can be and that your weapons are to hand. There will be guards at or near this entry. Our goal is to get through this place before cold can kill any of us, and we first and foremost seek the key-whatever it is-that will guide us beyond the Rift. Leave the fire to dieout. We’ll want the warmth to the very last.”
    He turned as Maera touched his arm. She was holding up a very pale Florimund. “Warrior, he recalls something I thought you should know.”
    “Tell him, yes,” Florimund whispered. “Such cold, the screechof wind. This-I think I was-was first brought here when I was-was taken, youknow. I recall giants wrapped to the eyes in thick furs and a white-furred brute like a hairy man. Tunnels of ice and such cold…” He licked pale lips, andhis eyes kindled. “I was not afraid, only angry they dared lay hands on me!” Heglanced sidelong at Maera, who patted his shoulder. “Still, they eat our kind.Frost giants. But there was another, a giant called Nosnra. They gave me to him, and Nosnra’s guards hauled me over to a double circle of chain. I do notremember anything after that-except dark and pain.” He choked and buried hisface in long-fingered hands.
    Maera she stroked his hair. “You are safe, cousin,” shemurmured. “Rowan and I will protect you until you are strong enough to do battleagain.”
    “Battle. Yes.” Florimund stirred under her hands. “Yes Iwill. I will wreak death among these… oh gods, cousin, I am so very weak! Andthe cold wakens each wound the torturers inflicted. No, I will not speak of it!”
    Maera spoke urgently against his ear, then drew him away.
    Vlandar glanced at Lhors, who frowned at his hands. He came over to sit beside him and whispered, “Lhors?”
    “I know Rowan spoke to you after some tiff with her sisterlast night-over Florimund. What did you think of all that, just now?”
    His father had asked such questions this last year, over game trails, Lhors remembered. “Sir, the fellow was locked in that cell, but whocould have known we would be down there?”
    “Yes,” Vlandar said gravely. “He truly was a prisoner.Still…?” He looked a question.
    Lhors shrugged. “Rowan worries. She told me so-because Maeratrusts him too much. I understand they are kin, if only because they are half-elves, but my own cousin from New Market was not my friend, and I would never have trusted him.”
    “I agree,” the warrior said. “Sensible youth.” He looked upas Gerikh and the dwarf came over.
    “Uh, sir? This Rift…” the engineer began apologetically.
    “Thing is,” Bleryn added, “We know it. Him ’cause of ’istrade, and I’m from cold near as bad as this. Both of us should be able t’ spottraps before they get any of us.”
    Vlandar nodded. “Good point. One of you up front and one atthe rear. Your choice.”
    The paladin broke in. “But whoever goes ahead with Malowanmust accept Agya.”
    “Agya-the girl-child?” the dwarf asked.
    “She’s Mal’s ward, once a street-thief. Ask Khlened. She can smell thingsmost of us wouldn’t.”
    “That keeper and his ape,” the barbarian agreed.
    Vlandar nodded again. “A spell might hide wolves or yeti. Agya’s nose willwarn us anyway.”
    “Like it,” the dwarf said. “Me for the front.”
    “Done,” Vlandar said and swung his pack over his shoulder.


    The sky was a pale gray, proof the sun had risen, but therewas no hint of where it might be under the thick mass. The wind had lessened but still gusted strongly. To Lhors it seemed even colder outside. Khlened, who had taken last watch, told them it wasn’t much past daybreak. “An hour when thechiefs will be sleeping, if they’re like frost giants I’ve battled.”
    “Good,” Vlandar replied. “But the guards may not be asleep.”
    Vlandar and Nemis spent a few more moments with the map of the Rift while the others finished getting ready, then the warrior put Bleryn ahead of him and the mage, Lhors just behind, with Khlened to bring up the rear.
    Agya was just behind Lhors and quietly grumbling as she toiled on. The youth heard Malowan, who was on the girl’s heels. The man’s voicesounded soothing, though Lhors couldn’t make out the words. Agya sighed as ifshe was annoyed but soon fell silent. Lhors glanced at Mal. Unlike his ward, the paladin seemed unaware of the cold, though he did wear thick mitts.
    Nemis walked easily up ahead. Despite the deep snow and slick spots, he held an oiled rag that he had dipped in some silvery powder-to testfor invisible enemy, he’d told Vlandar. Lhors looked to both sides. With allthis wind and snow, any enemy might be invisible! he thought. Wonder if that herb Malowan gave him to add to the rag really can find evil. But anything here would probably be evil.
    A steep-sided ravine cut across their path. They followed the side of this for a little ways, and then Nemis pointed out something below to Vlandar. The warrior nodded in response, and the mage turned to grip the side and scrabble for footing. He dropped down gradually and finally vanished below. Vlandar followed. When it was his turn, Lhors realized there was a trail down there, and a few rough steps were cut into the side-or maybe the wind had carvedthem, since they didn’t seem large enough for giants’ feet. The trail was clearof snow, but it looked icy. Nemis and Vlandar waited a few paces on for the others to catch up.
    “The entrance to the Rift is just down there, according toour map,” Vlandar said quietly. “Remember that there are wolves and yeti about,and there may be giants along this path. But there is no other way in that Nemis and I could find.”
    “We should be aware of them before we see them, Nemis and I,”Malowan agreed. He glanced at his ward “Agya?”
    The girl scowled. “Nose still works good, but th’ wind ain’t’elping.”
    “It gets steeper from here,” Nemis said. “Watch where youstep. It is slick and steep. One wrong step and you won’t get a second.” He sethis feet carefully and walked sideways, Lhors noticed, like his father’d taughthim. Lhors turned sideways and followed.
    The ice was chipped into rough steps, but for legs much longer than their own. The surface of the ice had been cross-hatched and in places covered in ash, so footing was reasonable. The wind was an unpleasant constant at their backs, but it kept the ice clear at least.
    Vlandar drew them off to one side when they reached the bottom where the path forked. Lhors stared aghast at the steep drop-off just beyond. They might have been alone in the entire world. The silence was absolute, except for the high-pitched wail of the wind high above and the stealthy hiss of it down here.
    “That deep defile,” Vlandar said, “is the Rift itself, notour path. The main entry is ahead. If our map is correct, there are two levels to this hold, but unlike the Steading, the upper is for storage and guards and the like, while the chief lives below. His kitchens are there, and the best guest quarters.”
    “Just beyond the entry,” Nemis said and pointed down theleft-hand path, “there are marks on the map to indicate guards, but the markswere not made by the originator of the map. I believe Nosnra noted the places he would be challenged when he was forced to come here.”
    Lhors shook his head. None of it made sense to him. “If thatchain could bring him anywhere, then why not set him down in the throne room or the council room? I mean-” He fumbled for words. “He could fall out here, breakhis neck, or be caught by something like his own cave bear.”
    Vlandar smiled grimly. “But if the chief here meant to shamehim? To walk even from the entry just below there would remind him each time that he is a servant here. Think. The great chief of the Steading must walk the entire way to the throne room and answer each guards challenge. It may not be so, but it seems likely to me. We will be able to test my theory, if the guards match the marks on this map. Let us go.”
    Vlandar and Nemis led the way down the left path and into a high-vaulted ice tunnel.
    It was still dreadfully cold, but the wind lessened even more. Enough greenish light came through the thick ice that they could make out the path heading south on the east side of a steep dropoff. Perhaps twenty paces ahead, a tunnel branched right.
    Nemis and Vlandar slowed at branch passages heading north and south, and the warrior signed a halt. “Dead end ahead,” he said. “Guard quarterssouth, no door. North, a guarded passage, and the way to the living quarters is beyond them.”
    Bleryn drew his axe and went over to join Khlened. Vlandar put Nemis at the rear to keep an eye and a sense on the guard chamber to the south. He then brought Agya and the paladin to the fore, gestured for Lhors to join him, and signed for silence. Agya licked her lips and glanced at Malowan, who nodded and smiled as if to say, “You can do it.” The girl cast her eyes upbut moved out, swiftly and silently working her way up the crooked passage, pausing now and again to listen intently. At the innermost point of a right-hand bend, she stopped cold, gestured urgently for silence, and held a hand to her ear.
    Listen, she must mean, Lhors thought. He could hear giants, their harsh laughter echoing up ahead. The chamber must open out. He found himself wishing he understood maps better and promised himself he’d seek outVlandar or Nemis for a good look at the map the next time they stopped for a rest. If I survive the next few minutes, a corner of his mind added. He made Gran’s sign for averting disaster and ill thoughts, then pulled a boarspear from his sheath.
    At the point where they could almost see into the chamber, Agya stopped, pressed back against the wall, and tested the air once again. Malowan came up behind her, hands moving in a reveal spell. He held up three fingers. Vlandar nodded, then beckoned for Bleryn and Khlened to join him in the lead. Lhors glanced back. Nemis was back against the frozen wall watching their back trail.
    Lhors could see little ahead. Still, the youth was aware of a large space just ahead. The ceiling arched into a vault, and from where he stood he couldn’t make out east or west walls.
    Vlandar gestured urgently and faded back against the right-hand wall. Dwarf, barbarian, and paladin joined him, and for one brief moment Lhors could make out what was in there.
    The space ahead was an ice cave, longer than it was tall. The floor littered with cast off bits of old clothing and broken weaponry. The only properly clear path through it was a rut as wide as the youths arms could stretch. It eventually bent right out of his line of sight.
    Greenish light made the three fur-clad giants look unwell, but they stood out clearly against the surrounded ice. Only one was armed at the moment, and even he wasn’t paying much heed to the passage. He leaned against amassive pike, egging on his companions who were wrestling. The din was awful.
    Vlandar gestured with his drawn sword and ran forward, Khlened and Bleryn on his heels. The fellow with the pike came slowly around as he sensed movement or heard their feet pounding the filthy ice floor. He stared blankly then bellowed a warning-likely to the wrestlers, though Lhors thought hemight be trying to alert the guards back in the barracks to the south. Not a good time to think about that.
    Nemis passed Lhors, his lips and hands already working his wall of silence spell. Lhors hoped he wasn’t too late. Khlened had freed hismorning star and threw himself away from his companions so he could swing the massive weapon. He hurled it with a pained grunt, then chuckled grimly as it wrapped around the pike-holder’s throat, trapping the weapon against the brute’sear. The giant fell, and the blade sliced into his unhelmed scalp. He came unsteadily to his feet, blood soaking into his fur cloak, as he fought to unwrap the chain. But his hands were trapped, and the spiked ball had caught on his armor. Injured, bleeding, and disoriented, he fell again and this time stayed down, thrashing feebly.
    Khlened hefted a large rock from a pile nearby-the giantsmust use them as weapons, Lhors realized. The barbarian held the stone high above giant’s head. He was grinning madly as he let go. The brute grunted andlay still, breathing heavily.
    It had all happened so quickly that the two wrestlers had time to do no more than separate and sit up, dumbfounded. They stared blankly. One ran for his pike, but Vlandar and Bleryn were there first. The dwarf staggered under the weight of the massive pikestaff as he swung it away from the wall. He managed to brace the pole against the floor just in time, letting the giant’s weight do the rest. The monster stared in shock at the length of shaftsticking from his belly. He fell to his knees, gasping in pain and fumbling for the broad knife in his belt. Bleryn was behind him by then, bringing his sword down two-handed across the unmailed neck. His first stroke bounced off thick skin or bone, but the second reached its mark. The giant toppled slowly onto his side and lay still.
    The third yelled a clear warning down the passage, trying to be heard by the other guards down that passage, Lhors was sure of it. The brute began edging away from them along the wall, easing toward the east.
    “Stop him!” Vlandar shouted. “He’s after reinforcements!”
    But Nemis was already halfway across the room, pelting the creature one-handed with small objects. In his right hand, he was waving a feather.
    “Man’s gone mad!” Khlened said, aghast, and hurled himself atthe giant. To his astonishment, the massive brute turned and eyed him glassily, then snickered. The laughter welled, tears rolled down the giant’s cheeks, andhe clutched his sides. As Khlened stared blankly, the giant gasped for air, still laughing hysterically, then sagged into the wall and slid down it.
    Lhors gaped at the giggling, fur-clad mass of giant, then eyed Nemis sidelong.
    The mage grinned at him. “One of my favorite spells. He’lllaugh until he passes out from lack of wind. By the time he recovers, we shall be long gone.”
    “But he’ll raise the alarm,” Lhors said.
    Nemis shook his head and held up a pinch of powder. “Withthis under his nose he won’t recall a thing that’s happened this entire day.”The mage had to raise his voice to be heard over the crazed laughter.
    The giant tangled in the morning star was beginning to show signs of consciousness. Bleryn came up behind him and drove his sword deep into the creature’s throat, then backed away as blood arced across the chamber andran down the far wall. The dwarf turned away, teeth set in a mirthless grin. “Soshould all’ve ’em die,” he snarled.
    “Not all,” Malowan said evenly.
    The dwarf glared at him. Khlened tugged at Bleryn’s sleeveand led him aside, talking rapidly in a low voice. Probably explaining about paladins-at least this particular paladin, Lhors thought. The dwarf lookedskeptical but finally shrugged.
    The insane giggling had been fading and suddenly ceased. The giant lay limp against the wall, eyes closed and mouth open. Nemis mumbled to himself a moment, then nodded in satisfaction and smeared the powder under the creature’s nostrils. He was vigorously scrubbing his finger down his cloak as hestepped back.
    “Let us go,” Vlandar said. He led the way into a passage inthe east wall that immediately bent south. A short distance on, Malowan, Gerikh, and Agya edged around him. Nemis again brought up the rear.
    Like the previous passages and chamber, the ice let in a greenish light so that they could see a goodly distance both ways. The floor was solid ice, but so tracked with hair from hides, mud, dirt and bits of crushed stone that it might as well have been stone. They stopped halfway down to rest, then went on around the bend, heading toward the Rift ledge once again.
    They emerged from the tunnel to a bone-chilling wind. At Vlandar’s gesture, Agya and Malowan crept close to the edge while the rest ofthe company waited in the shelter of the tunnel. Florimund, who leaned heavily on Maera, whispered something against her ear. She nodded and led him over to where he could sit with his back against the wall. Malowan and Agya returned swiftly, and the paladin signed something to Vlandar that Lhors couldn’t follow.The warrior brought them back up the passage and took out the map from the Steadings trove. He set Nemis to keep watch while Malowan did the same to the rear.
    “Our way is out there,” he told them quietly. “Left though.See here”-he pointed at an area on the map-“where another tunnel heads east thenbends south from a three-way join? The center tunnel opens into a cavern where there are hiding places with guards behind them. We shall see.”
    Florimund whispered something to Maera. The ranger, who’dsettled herself and Florimund several paces back, murmured something to her sister, who cast up her eyes but came over to speak to Vlandar.
    “Warrior,” she said softly. “Florimund remembers this place.He thinks. He recalls cold and three tunnels branching. He says his guards went by the lowest one. He remembers little from there except for a vast chamber and a throne. He says his guards were afraid of the middle way.”
    “Afraid?” Vlandar asked. “Why?”
    She shrugged, but Maera came over then, her lips set. “Hedoes not speak Giantish, Vlandar. Oh, certain words as any prisoner might learn. But like most of our kind, he is sensitive to atmosphere, even if not as sensitive as a true elf. He sensed the fear in his guards’ speech the same as Iwould.”
    Rowan grimaced. She looked apologetic. Likely because Maera is always angry, Lhors thought. It seemed a foolish point for anger. Vlandar was right to wonder what the ex-prisoner knew and how, since he seems to remember so little otherwise. Maera was already deep in some discussion with Florimund, their heads close together.
    “We will not take the south passage,” Vlandar said quicklyand very quietly, as if he did not want the rangers or Florimund to overhear him. “There is a mark on the map-Nosnra’s, if Nemis is right-and it cuts acrossthe south passage. Nemis or Mal can check for us, but by this map, Nosnra saw the left passage as a dead end but the other as deadly. This leaves the middle passage or the Rift itself.”
    “Was up t’ me,” Agya broke in firmly, “th’ Rift is dead last.Somethin’ down there smells worse’n anything I ever found in city, even in th’Sink. I’d wager somethin’ nasty down there kills things but eats only bits andleaves th’ rest to stink.”
    “I agree,” Malowan said. He’d come back to join them. Hecupped a small charm in his hands, and his eyes were still fixed on their backtrail. “Pure evil dwells in those depths, but the descent would kill usbefore we encountered it. The walls are steep and iced, and the wind is dire. There is nothing close behind or aware of us back there. We had better go.”
    Vlandar nodded and put Lhors next to him as they set out again. Nemis lead the way, and Malowan brought up the rear.
    They paused briefly at the three-way branch when Agya gestured urgently. The little thief clutched Malowan’s free hand as she slidinto the left-hand passage, her nose twitching. Her hands moved in sign, too rapid for Lhors to follow, and the two retreated quickly.
    “Ogres,” Malowan whispered, “and no moving air. It’s a deadend.”
    Florimund seemed to be arguing with Maera and Rowan and gesturing feebly toward the southwest branch. Lhors thought Maera looked angry with her sister, but the two rangers came quietly, holding up their fellow as Vlandar started down the center passage. He slowed as the passage narrowed, tested the air himself, listened intently, then sent Nemis and Malowan both ahead, keeping everyone else back.
    “Giants, or somethin like,” Agya whispered. She was right atLhors’ elbow and cross because Malowan hadn’t taken her with him. “No wolves,though-I don’t think.”
    Khlened and Bleryn argued briefly with Vlandar. Of course they’d want to bellow and charge in, letting surprise give them an advantage.Vlandar simply shook his head and shifted the grip on his sword as he settled against the wall to wait.
    Malowan was back almost at once. He held up eight fingers, then the sign for “giants.” Nemis returned some moments later and beckonedeveryone close.
    “I used my beneath notice spell and got into the chamberitself. There’s a giant at the entrance to a fairly large cave, here”-he drew aknife and scratched lines in the ice wall. “They cannot all be seen from theentry, and they can watch each other. They’re an elite bunch, not like the lastones. One hidden south of the entry and four back behind a ledge that divides the cavern.” The mage waited until everyone had a chance to look at his sketchedmap, then used a spell to melt a little of the ice, erasing it. “There’s onethat’s different, though. The rest were all business, but he was laughing,gossiping, or just nattering from the sound of it.”
    Seven elite guards and one elder. It didn’t sound to Lhors asthough it made better odds for them. Vlandar seemed to think the same way. His face was very grim. “Weapons?” he asked.
    “Pikes and spears, plus some boulders to throw. There’s toomany for a straight-on attack, and the ones behind that ledge are ready to ambush anyone who attacks the others. We need a plan before we go in.”
    Vlandar squatted on his heels and brought out the map. Nemis indicated where the ledge was and where he’d seen or sensed guards. “Eight ofthem, ten of us, but we aren’t all fighters.”
    “And they’re at least twice our size and in familiarterritory,” Malowan added.
    “Two of us have magic,” Khlened put in, “plus a thief, andth’ rangers and Lhors with spears and bow.”
    Lhors was surprised. The berserker might actually be learning that not every battle had to be a melee. Dead berserkers cannot spend treasure, the youth thought.
    Vlandar nodded. “Good thinking. The way the chamber is, itwon’t be easy getting Lhors and the rangers in good position. Still…” He wasquiet for another long moment, then sat back on his heels and began to talk quickly and quietly, outlining his plan.
    Only Florimund objected. “This is not the way,” he whisperedfretfully. “I have been here, and the chamber beyond this one-” He shudderedthen broke into tears.
    Nemis hastily spoke one of his silence spells, and Khlened turned away, embarrassed. Maera glared at the Fist’s back, then gathered thehalf-elf close, speaking quietly against his ear. Rowan watched them both, her face expressionless. Finally, she came over to squat next to Vlandar and Nemis, her eyes moving from one face to the other.
    “How certain are you of the way, mage?” she asked softly.Nemis stiffened, but Rowan laid a hand on his forearm and shook her head. “No, Imean no insult. I must know if you are truly sure of our way.”
    The mage nodded, but his eyes were still angry. “You werethere when we found the map. Do you think I am a spy?”
    Rowan shook her head firmly.
    “I am not,” he said, and Lhors thought he looked much lessangry. “Perhaps you will trust no oath of mine. Believe this, if you can. I amfond of my life such as it is, but I will never again serve the dark elves, even if it costs me my life.”
    Rowan gazed into his eyes for a long moment, then nodded. “Ibelieve you.” She sent her eyes back toward her sister, who was trying to getFlorimund to his feet. The male clung to her weakly. “This is not easy for me,”she said reluctantly. “Maera does not trust non-elves very much, as you mustknow by now. I am not so certain as she that he is cousin, and I am less…”She gazed blankly at the wall, then met the paladins sympathetic eyes. “I do nottrust him, but she does. I pray you keep an eye to Florimund, sir.”
    Malowan gripped her fingers. “I will. Indeed, I have since hemakes me… uneasy, let us say.”
    Rowan inclined her head and got to her feet. She went over to help her sister with Florimund, and Maera managed a faint smile at whatever Rowan said. Florimund seemed to get hold of himself, enough that Rowan left the injured half-elf in her sister’s care so she could crouch herself at Lhors’side.
    “Caution, my young friend,” she murmured. “You and I willhave a hard role to play here. Mind you don’t let me down!”
    “I-” He gaped at her. “But Rowan, I would…” He leanedback, the corners of his mouth twitching. “It’s another of your jokes, isn’t it?So I don’t get too scared to help?”
    “You’ll do fine,” she assured him. “I’d do the same for Maeraor Malowan-or even Vlandar. Relaxed and ready, that’s what’s best for you.”
    Vlandar gestured ready, and Nemis eased around him. Agya caught at his sleeve. “No wolves?” she whispered.
    He smiled faintly and shook his head.
    Malowan pressed past her, a gesture reminding her to stick close to Maera. Bleryn and Khlened followed paladin and mage, all hugging the south wall.
    Lhors swallowed hard as he got his first look at the entry guard: a brute of a giant with some sort of patch-possibly a captain’srank-roughly slapped onto his fur jacket. The fellow had a good view of thecorridor all the way up to the narrows, but at the moment he’d turned away andwas shouting something at another somewhere deep in the chamber. By the sound of the other voice, it must be a giant with too little sleep, too much ale, too many years, or altogether too few brains. Possibly all of them at once. The captain swore an oath that set the corridor ringing and turned back to his post.
    Too late. Khlened and Bleryn were already in place, and while the dwarf brought his axe down across the brute’s calf, Khlened launched theblood-darkened morning star at the monster’s neck. It sank into the mail coifaround the fellow’s neck, tangling in it. The giant swore savagely as he fell,dropping his pike so that he could use both hands to free the weapon. Khlened caught up the pike, staggered back under its weight, and then ran forward to plunge the sharp end deep into the captain’s throat. Blood arced across thechamber, and in two heartbeats the giant was quite dead.
    Vlandar shoved past the barbarian as two other giants came running up. One was a graybeard who came from Nemis’ marked post in the southend of the cavern. He settled into place, blocking an ill-lit greenish passage, The other stood with his back to the shining black rock ledge, brandishing a manic grin and two long swords.
    “Ynk-knecht-Ogre-Gutter,” Khlened said. He’d stopped coldat sight of the giant and his weapons. Lhors shuddered, but the barbarian was smiling happily, his eyes dreamy. “Look at ’em,” he sighed. “Kord ’imself wouldrisk all for a blade like that!”
    “The god Kord is mad,” Bleryn said flatly. “Do I have towatch yer back so’s ya can steal that monster’s blades? If so-well, I’m notthat wild to die, Fist!”
    Khlened shook himself. “’Course not!” But before anyone elsecould say a word, he’d howled out a challenge and launched himself across thechamber.
    “Deliver me from berserkers!” Vlandar swore, and Lhors wasready to agree with him, but to his surprise, Khlened stopped short of the giant, waited for him to raise both his swords, then shifted grip from hilt to point, and threw his sword. At that distance, he couldn’t miss. The blade burieditself in the giant’s throat, and the Yrik-knecht hit the floor with a clang.The giant landed on them half a breath later.
    Khlened swore in obvious frustration, but before he could seize either sword, a bulky giant with a massive stone in each hand came from an alcove in the west wall and headed straight for him. Rowan shot arrow after arrow at him, but they bounced off his armor or stuck in the fur he wore. Lhors and Maera’s spears fared no better.
    Nemis pressed her aside to launch a barrage of fireballs from his fingers. The giant was unaware of him until his fur jacket and hair caught fire. He dropped the stones and ran, arms flapping wildly as he tried to put himself out. Another giant came from behind the wall to help him. Both went down together, the burned one clutching his companion as both of them shrieked in agony. Agya clutched her hands over her ears and retreated behind Malowan, eyes tightly closed.
    Nemis shifted his angle, hurling more fireballs as another giant came around the north side of the ledge, but the giant brought up a broad-bladed axe and parried them. Finally, one hit the floor by his feet. Nemis grinned hugely.
    “Khlened, stay back!” the mage roared as the barbarianstarted toward the axe-wielder. “Floor’s slick where that fireball hit!”
    The barbarian raised his just-retrieved morning star in salute and braced his feet wide so he could swing the weapon as the giant glared at him and raised the axe. As the fur-clad brute tried to close the distance between them, his feet went from under him and his chin cracked on the icy floor. Vlandar ran up and plunged his sword through the dazed brute’s eye.
    He swore. The blade wouldn’t come back out. “Someone guard myback while I free this!” he shouted, but Lhors and Rowan were at already insidethe chamber.
    The ranger turned with a cry of warning and began firing a deadly stream of arrows toward the south end of the ledge. Lhors turned to see two giants charging from around the stone barrier.
    “Beware, Khlened! Two are behind you!” Vlandar bellowed.
    “See ’em!” the Fist shouted back. He threw himself across thegiant he’d killed and dropped the morning star to tug furiously at the hilt ofone of the swords, only letting it go at the last moment to catch up the ball and chain. He swung it furiously and let it fly. The giant ducked, then went to pick it up.
    “Ah, frozen hells!” With a massive effort, Khlened draggedone of the enormous swords free, wrapped both hands around the hilt, and began to swing it. The second giant, who’d just come around the ledge, retreatedpromptly, but the first had just retrieved the morning star and was in the process of turning back to kill his enemy with his enemy’s own weapon.
    Khlened roared out a challenge in his own language and let the sword’s weight carry him around. He dug in his heels at the last moment andlet the blade do the rest. It sliced through thick fur and whatever hardened leather the giant wore beneath. Blood sprayed everywhere. The barbarian was momentarily blinded, but even as Malowan leaped forward to protect him, the giant went down.
    Khlened tottered back, bringing the weapon up again with an effort that corded the tendons in his throat. As he turned, Nemis had just finished off the last of them with some spell that left the monster swollen, blue-faced, and very dead.
    “Do not ask,” he said crisply.
    “Wouldn’t of” the Fist replied flatly and knelt to wipe hisnew sword on the giant’s fur before going back to retrieve his own sword.
    Nemis went to help Khlened retrieve his blade. The Fist finally dragged it free and wiped it on his dead enemy’s trousers.
    “We go quickly,” Vlandar said as he gathered his companyclose.
    Nemis spoke. “Our way leads to the lower level through thatpassage there.” He pointed to the south where Lhors could just make out a dimlylit opening. “The master’s throne will be there-and his personal chambers. Thereis no indication of a stronghold on the map for this level, but I think it unlikely anything like the chain that brought us here from the Steading is up here. It will be where the master can lay his hands on it.”
    “Why’d we want t’go someplace else, eh?” Agya wanted to know.
    The mage shrugged. “Because I know the drow. The dark elvescontrol the Steading giants. You and Malowan found the letter of orders from drow to Nosnra. Because the drow are cautious and devious, they would never hide in a place once removed from the hill giants. Likely their safety is another spell or charm away from this place. Their mistress may well be beyond that.” Heshrugged again and managed a faint smile for the girl. “I know them. Drowdislike such cold as this even more than you or I do.”
    “Sensible of ’em,” the little thief allowed.
    “Fought ’em once, that’s enough,” Khlened agreed. He lookedcheerful though, as he shoved the blood-blackened morning star into his belt and mounted the scabbard for the two-handed sword on his back. Lhors tried not to stare. The effort of drawing it corded the barbarian’s muscles, and the bladeand hilt together were nearly as tall as Khlened himself.
    Bleryn snorted. “You’ll break your arms, swinging thatthing.”
    Khlened laughed. “Yer just jealous that you didn’t think ofit first.”
    “Th’ thing’s overlong for me,” the dwarf said with somedignity. “Jealous of a blade,” he muttered under his breath as they started outonce more.
    Agya and Malowan led the way through the cavern and out into a passage that turned south for a short distance, then went sharply west. A ways on, a branch went south and steeply down.
    Agya sniffed cautiously but shrugged. Nothing near, Lhors hoped it meant.
    Malowan murmured a spell-another reveal one, perhaps. Hepointed west and shook his head almost at once, indicated the south way and nodded firmly. Vlandar stepped aside to let Nemis ease partway down the south passage. Whatever spell he used caused a very tiny puff of smoke. The mage looked at Vlandar and gestured, Giants. Others.
    “Beings-many of them-well down the west tunnel,” Malowanmuttered, “but none close by. The passage stays level for a long ways and goesaround the Rift. That”-he nodded toward the south passage-“is our way.”
    “Mmm,” Vlandar murmured agreement. “Remember,” he added toall of them, “we get in and get what we need. We do nothing else here, unless Isay!”
    Lhors saw Khlened and Bleryn exchange exasperated looks, but neither said anything. Gerikh merely nodded and clutched his spear. Nemis was already partway down the south passage.
    “We keep quiet,” Vlandar cautioned. “Mal or Nemis will go infront, and the other at the rear to keep us as undetected as possible. My nose,”he added with a scowl, “is frozen and so are my ears. I want out of here beforethe rest of me turns to ice.”


    Greenish light still leaked through the ice, but it was notas bright now that they were going deeper into the hold. They could still see each other and ahead for at least four long strides, but beyond that was only emerald dimness.
    They reached level ground and emerged into a long, high-vaulted cavern. Passages vanished into gloom south and east. It was very quiet here, and neither Malowan nor Nemis could find any sign of guards down the passages. The mage froze, hands moving in some spell and eyes fixed on an enormous boulder leaning against the east wall.
    “There is a dragon beyond that,” he breathed.
    “Dragon?” Khlened demanded softly. His eyes gleamed, butbefore he could move, Vlandar gripped his shoulder and shook his head. The barbarian cast his eyes up but turned away.
    “Remember what I said above!” the warrior ordered quietly.“We are not in this place for treasure or to kill dragons!”
    “Aye, sir.” Khlened cast one last wistful look at the blockedentry. “Which way’s ours, then? Yon?” He pointed at the south passages.
    Malowan shook his head.
    “Giants?” asked Rowan.
    “Something unpleasant,” Malowan whispered. “To the west,giants. Our way.”
    Nemis was already across the chamber, hands flat on a massive slab of stone. Malowan went over to join him while Vlandar beckoned the others close. “There are guards in the chamber beyond,” he whispered. “They will bewarned someone is here when that stone is moved. It won’t be quiet. If we canlure them into this area…”
    Lhors swallowed dread. Was Vlandar asking him to volunteer?
    But the warrior had already turned to Agya. “You’ll go intotheir sight, hesitate only long enough to draw them, then run.”
    The little thief was very pale. She bit her lip and nodded.
    “Good lass. Everyone else, along the west wall where no oneinside will see you. Go.”
    Vlandar drew Lhors with him to the north. Khlened and Bleryn joined them, while the rangers, Gerikh, and Florimund went south. Agya raised her chin, shoved the hood from her short red hair, and found a place nearly mid-cavern to stand where she’d be seen.
    Nemis motioned for Malowan to get back then raised his hands. The boulder vibrated and emitted a clear, deep tone, like an enormous bell. In the silence that followed, they could hear two or more guards mumbling just beyond as the stone silently moved toward them. At Nemis’ gesture, it glided tothe side and came to rest against the south wall. Lhors could just make out Rowan kneeling behind it, an arrow at the ready. Malowan blocked his view south. The youth turned his head so he could watch Agya.
    The little thief’s eyes were huge, but she held her ground astwo leather-clad brutes, one clutching a huge chunk of ice, emerged cautiously and stared at the girl. Her lips twitched in a nervous grin. “N-nice t’see it’sonly two ’f ya in there!” She turned and sprinted toward the upper level,and the guards casually went after her. One was chuckling, and the brute with the ice tossed it over his shoulder. Easy prey, they clearly thought.
    Malowan stood so near Lhors, he could hear the paladin quietly praying. “Heironeous, see my need and judge of my worth: I ask of you ahammer.” It made no sense to Lhors, but suddenly a ruddy light formed above theman’s head, elongating and shifting to resemble a warhammer. The paladin gazedat the giants who were nearly upon his ward and whispered, “Go!” The hammer flewacross the chamber, slamming into one enormous head and then the other. The first giant went to his knees, clutching his skull. The second fell flat and did not move.
    Before Malowan could use the weapon again, Khlened, Bleryn, and Vlandar were across the room, weapons drawn, and the guards were dispatched without a fight-and with scarcely any sound other than the bell-like soundNemis’ spell on the stone had made.
    The two dead guards were dragged partway up the tunnel near the entry passage, which Nemis had already checked. “It goes nowhere, andnothing lives there,” he assured Vlandar.
    Rowan got Lhors’ attention and drew him into the nextchamber with her, leaving Maera to manage Florimund. The youth glanced back, caught Vlandar’s nod, and went, a spear ready to throw in one hand and threebunched in the other.
    This new chamber was long and relatively narrow-a true caverninstead of an ice cave. Other caves branched off here and there, and outcroppings of rock blocked their view ahead. He could only tell that much because there was light somewhere beyond them.
    Plenty of places to hide, Rowan signed as the others cameup. Malowan nodded. Agya leaned against him, eyes still huge. Guess she really was scared, Lhors thought. She didn’t seem to like letting the paladin hold hervery often. Beyond the pair, Lhors could just make out Nemis, resettling the great stone against the entry.
    It was very quiet here, and though the wind at their backs died away as the rock settled into place, it was still dreadfully cold. Lhors’fingertips were going to ice prickles through the thick mitts.
    Malowan drew them to a halt midway down the cavern where it suddenly narrowed. A broad opening went south into darkness. Agya hesitated here, sniffing gingerly. Her nose wrinkled. Something unpleasant there, Lhors was certain. As they passed the entry, even he could smell the unlovely mix of unwashed bodies, rotting bits of meat, and foul blankets.
    The cavern widened again, and there seemed to be rock walls everywhere, making lighting from the west uncertain. Lhors thought he could see another boulder to their north-perhaps another doorway. He shifted his grip onthe spears so he had one ready to throw and hoped they weren’t going to gothere-or into a lot of unpleasant dead-ends and near-traps, as they had in theSteading. Vlandar won’t let us, he reminded himself. Indeed, Vlandar glancedthat way and as Khlened eyed it curiously, Vlandar tapped the barbarian on the arm and firmly shook his head. The Fist shrugged, then nodded, and turned his attention back to the main way.
    Vlandar sent Rowan and Lhors out ahead, getting Malowan to test north and west while Nemis used yet another of what Lhors thought must be an endless supply of reveal danger spells on the south cave. At least you do not need to understand magic for it to protect you, he told himself as he followed Rowan along the south wall.
    The ranger stopped abruptly and held up a hand for silence. Lhors listened. He could hear nothing out of the ordinary. There was just enough whine of moving wind through openings in the stone high above to make everything sound like a stealthy enemy to him. The ranger drew him close and sent her eyes into the passage where it bulged wide and turned south.
    He could see them all at once. Guards surrounded three giantesses.
    Rowan signed urgently, and Lhors backed away. As soon as they were out of sight, they both turned and ran. Guards! Lhors signed to the others. It was all he could recall at the moment.
    It was enough. Vlandar got everyone around the back of a tall ledge and into gloom just as three fur-clad giantesses sauntered up the hall. Several ogre servants and a pair of armed giant guards loped just behind them.
    The company held their breath, except Florimund, who seemed to be fighting a sneeze. Nemis dove into his belt for something and moved his hands. The wounded half-elf’s jaw went slack and his eyes shut as he sagged atthe knees. Maera clutched him in dismay as the giantesses and their servants wandered by. They turned right at the bend and kept going out into the entry. Lhors could hear the stone shift gratingly, and then they were gone.
    “What is wrong with Florimund?” Maera breathed.
    “I sent him to sleep,” the mage replied, “in a way. If he’dsneezed just now-”
    “What do you mean, in a way?” the ranger demanded.
    “He’ll follow where you lead him, but he won’t be aware,”Nemis replied. “He won’t speak or cry out-and he won’t feel pain, as he clearlyhas all the way here.”
    Maera gave him a scorching look before she turned away to help the blank-faced Florimund to his feet.
    Vlandar looked around. “We should-Mal, what is it?”
    He broke off as the paladin came up to him. In the faint light, the man’s face was grim. “There is another ledge to our west, and aprisoner is locked away beyond it. I sense fear and hatred of frost giants, and pain.”
    “An ally?” Vlandar murmured as he tugged his cloak closer. Hegave Maera and Florimund a glance. “Or just another…?” He let the statementgo unfinished.
    “I cannot say. If not an ally, we can bespell it and leave.If an ally, though…” The paladin let the thought hang.
    Vlandar nodded-reluctantly, Lhors thought. He gestured forMalowan to lead on.
    “I will wait here with my cousin,” Maera said stiffly. “Tokeep watch.”
    “Watch south,” Rowan told her. “I will tend to the east.”
    Malowan was already gone the way he’d come, Agya on hisheels.
    Nemis met Vlandar’s eyes. “I will stay as well,” he saidquietly. “There may be things here we cannot see.”
    The warrior gestured assent and put Lhors in front of him. He motioned for the others to follow. Lhors glanced back at Maera, who knelt next to her sleeping companion. Why does Vlandar not seem to trust her, all of a sudden? he wondered. He had seen the same lack of trust in his father toward certain village boys who’d once hunted with them-but they weren’t just aftermeat for a village here. If Vlandar really was worried about Florimund or Maera, wouldn’t he just get Nemis to send them away? Perhaps Nemis couldn’t do that, ormaybe something else was going on.
    Another massive boulder blocked part of the west wall. It took Khlened, Bleryn, and Vlandar to shift it far enough for them to enter the chamber beyond. Vlandar left Bleryn and Gerikh at the opening and let Malowan lead the way in.
    The chamber was poorly lit and sparely furnished. A huge pallet with massive chains was bolted to the wall at head and foot, and a giant three times Malowan’s size lay fettered to the bed. Just out of the giant’sreach, a low table held an ewer and some bits of bread and bone. Malowan was already next to the bed, speaking quickly and urgently to the prisoner in Giantish. Agya was glaring at the little table, and Lhors’ nose wrinkled as hecame close enough for his own chilled nose to work. The pitcher held swampy-smelling water. The bread crust was white and the rest pale greenish. The bone was huge but bare of meat, and he could see where it had been gnawed.
    He blinked as the prisoner answered Malowan. The voice was deep, but not masculine-deep. What could one of their females do to deserve this? Lhors wondered. He backed away. The pallet smelled dreadful, and the sheer size of the creature frightened him, even bound as she was.
    He turned away to find Khlened staring open-mouthed at another table. Two massive chairs flanked a table covered in fine cloth and golden plates. The food there looked and even smelled as if a proper cook had prepared it. Two goblets with stems as thick as his spear held dark wine. A few gems and coins spilled from a leather bag, and Lhors assumed this was what the Fist stared at so avidly.
    “Smells good,” the barbarian muttered.
    “Don’t eat any meat you find in a frost giant’s hold!”Vlandar hissed.
    Lhors backed away hastily, and Khlened looked slightly sick.
    “Yes,” Vlandar added with a faint smile. “It smells good tome, too. It may be no more than what it seems: stolen beef roasted plain over a fire.”
    Malowan gestured then, drawing them close so he could translate. Lhors listened from where he was, eyes searching the chamber and glancing out into darkness, now and again. “She is Nghora, a storm giantess froma distant hold. The Jarl took her prisoner some time ago, believing she would willingly become his mistress. She refused the ‘honor’, and so he had her puthere. Now and again he has her beaten, but mostly he leaves her like this: cold, hungry, and unable to reach proper food and drink, though she can see all that will be hers, if she submits to him. She loathes the Jarl, but I can tell she is distrustful of all males.”
    “Why?” Khlened scowled. “Humans didn’t put ’er here, nordwarves.”
    “Her father is a drunkard, and because of that his householdguards are lax. The Jarl knew it and took advantage of that when he took her prisoner,” Malowan explained. “He had asked for her first, but she had alreadytaken vows as a virgin priestess. The Jarl is grotesque, she says, but even if he had been handsome and kindly and not already wed, she wanted no mate, nothing but the right to serve her goddess.”
    Agya nodded. “Weird t’me too, barbarian, but a thief I knewwent t’serve… Zodal. Had somethin’ t’do with peace and hope or somesuch-like. She tol’ me she ’ad to swear not t’let any man touch ’er or look at’er face, an’ she was ’appy t’do it too.”
    The girl seemed baffled by this, Lhors thought. On reflection, he wasn’t sure if he could make sense of such a thing.
    “These things happen to some people,” Malowan said dryly.“Nghora says she has been a guest here, now and again since childhood. I think Ican persuade her to guide us.”
    Vlandar nodded. “Could be. But what of all this show ofwealth here?”
    “To be hers, if she submits. She wants none of it and says itis ours if we will free her.”
    “I say aye, then.” The barbarian turned away and began tosort through the goods on the table, setting aside loose gems and coin and ignoring the heavier plate. Agya came over to help him. Lhors moved nearer the doorway as Malowan bent over the bound giantess and loosed her fetters with some spell.
    The giantess said something, her voice husky. As she stood, Lhors noticed for the first time that her skin had a greenish tint to it. Tall as the paladin was, his head barely came past her knee. Lhors swallowed past a dry throat and looked away.
    “She does not know any of the things we’re seeking,” Malowantold them. “She does know where the Jarl’s most valued possessions are stored,however. And we need to go now. There are guards, two giants who patrol with a chained yeti, who come here once a day to check on her, and they are due before much longer. She also says the Jarl keeps wolves in the room where he and his lady sleep. It is some distance from here, and there are several guard-posts between. She will point them out in exchange for her freedom.”
    “Done,” Vlandar said tersely. “All of you stay alert.”
    He led the way back into the main passage, collected Nemis, the rangers, and dazed-looking Florimund, then eased along the west wall that bowed into a deep bay. Lhors could no longer see down the vast south chamber, but that also meant no guards down there could see him.
    Agya had moved stealthily ahead, and she suddenly held up a hand for the others to wait, then turned to beckon Nemis to her side. The mage murmured a spell and held up four fingers. Khlened started to draw his newly won sword, but Vlandar shook his head and drew Nemis aside so the two could talk. The mage brought Maera and Rowan over and ran an odd-shaped piece of metal up and down the shafts of several arrows and three of Maera’s javelins. The rangerstook them back and slipped around the point.
    Lhors held his breath, listening intently, but almost at once the two were back. Maera went straight back to Florimund, but Rowan hesitated with Vlandar long enough to hold up four fingers before slashing them across her throat. The warrior nodded grimly.
    The youth’s eyebrows went up. Four dead, and he hadn’t hearda thing.
    Malowan had left the giantess with Agya-oddly, to Lhors’thinking, the two seemed fairly comfortable with each other, though the huge female drew back even from him. The paladin, who had moved across the chamber, now came back, his face pale.
    “Vlandar, the kitchens are there, and there are prisoners-human ones.”
    “Hah,” Khlened snarled under his breath. “Lunch, more like.Poor brutes.”
    “No,” the paladin said flatly. “I will not leave them thereto die like a peasant’s lamb. I dare not. Vlandar, leave me Agya. We will dowhat we must and catch up with you.”
    “We stay together,” the warrior said tersely. He held up ahand for silence as Nghora came up.
    She didn’t seem as tottery as she had earlier, Lhors thought,but neither Vlandar nor Mal looked worried. Vlandar asked the paladin to talk to her.
    “The chamber beyond this is open, with the Jarl’s throne atthe south end. She says there are guards under cover of the dais, always on alert, and halfway down we will be able to see guards on the ledges above the main floor. However, not far from the entrance, there are stairs along either side leading up these ledges.”
    “Then we need a diversion,” Vlandar said. “Khlened. You andBleryn, how’d you like to strut down there like you owned the place? I’ll sendNemis or Mal to shield you. You distract the guards, and while they’re watchingyou, we’ll be able to dispatch them without alerting the guards behind thedais.”
    “The kitchen is making a racket,” Malowan said, “that willhelp us.”
    “Good. Rowan, Maera, you’ll be the best at getting up thestairways unnoticed. Agya and Lhors, you’re backup, one to each of the rangers.Nemis, do you have enough of your beneath notice spells to use one here, if I send you ahead with Khlened?”
    The mage merely nodded.
    “Gerikh, you’ll stick with me and lead Florimund for Maera.And, Mal, if Nghora…?”
    The paladin had been talking to the giantess quietly for some moments, Lhors realized.
    “She wants to go instead, Khlened,” Malowan said, and hesounded surprised. “She says, tell the red man if she walks out there, theguards will see nothing else.”
    “Yer mad and so’s she,” the barbarian said, a wary eye on thefemale who towered above him. She seemed to shrink back as he met her eyes. He sighed. “Ah, could be she’s right. Let’s be at it.”
    “Right.” Vlandar nodded. “Khlened, you and Bleryn stand watchhere and be ready to come to our aid if the guards under the dais come up behind us.”
    The two companions looked none too happy about being left out of the immediate action, but they both readied their weapons and obeyed.
    As they entered the room, Rowan pointed out the stone stairs-a native-looking flow of rock down each wall and high on each side. Atthe end of each stair was a rocky ledge tall enough to hide a guard.
    Some distance ahead, Nghora strutted down the length of the fall. She might never have been a terrified, weak prisoner, Lhors thought. He glanced at Agya, who seemed to have the same uncomfortable thought.
    The massive female squared her shoulders and tossed a thick mass of hair over her shoulder as she strode forward. Nemis’ hands were movingrapidly as he worked some spell or other. The giantess walked on, unchallenged.
    Near the entrance, the rangers separated so they could work up both ledges. Malowan pressed hard against the west wall, his lips moving soundlessly, though with the clatter and shouting that echoed from the opening to the kitchen just behind them, he could have spoken his spell aloud and not been heard.
    Agya had gone to join Malowan, and they were behind Maera. Lhors was grateful when Vlandar beckoned him to the east wall, even though the stairs were uncomfortably near the kitchen. He felt more comfortable around Rowan.
    He froze as he heard the twang of a massive bowstring above the kitchen noise. That couldn’t have been Rowan’s bow.
    He felt more than heard something fall to the floor. Looking to the middle of the chamber, he saw Nghora stagger to her knees. As Lhors and the others watched helplessly, she collapsed facedown, a gigantic spear protruding from her back. Lhors clapped both hands across his mouth and stared. Vlandar tugged at his shirt and drew him quickly up the stairs.
    The rangers were nearly out of sight on both sides, Malowan right behind Rowan and Vlandar on Maera’s heels. Lhors tried not to be ill as hefollowed. His knees ached from the steep climb, but as he emerged onto the level, things were mostly under control.
    The guard did not seem very bright, and the space was too small for him to maneuver well. He was struggling to reload his ballista when Vlandar leaped on his back and pulled him off-balance. The giant threw him aside, but Rowan was set. She launched an arrow that plunged deep into the guard’s eye and into his brain.
    Lhors stared across the cavern. The ledge was bigger over there, he thought, but Malowan had drawn the flaming sword he’d taken from theSteading’s treasury. Blinded, the guard stumbled away from him. Maera finishedhim with one of her new spears, and the guard sagged out of sight.
    Vlandar led them back down the stairs and into the hall, sending Khlened and Bleryn ahead to make certain the dais guards hadn’t beenalerted of their companions’ demise. He then sent the rangers back to be certainno one came out of the kitchens and caught them. The rest of the party, except for Mal and Nemis, retreated against the east wall where an alcove under the stairs put them out of the immediate line of sight.
    Agya sniffled. Lhors glanced at her and was surprised to see her eyes were wet as she gazed after the dead giantess.
    “Don’t seem fair,” she whispered and met the youth’s gazedefiantly. “Poor creature didn’t ask for this.”
    “I know,” Lhors replied quietly. “None of us did, nor wouldwe have wished such a fate on her.”
    The young thief merely shook her head in disbelief and went to join Malowan.
    “You’ve a head on your shoulders, m’lad.”
    Lhors jumped. To his embarrassment, Vlandar had come up behind him and probably heard most of that.
    “You’ll do,” the warrior added mildly. He glanced up asMalowan came back, Agya at his side.
    “Nemis is keeping an eye on the dais. There are guardsbehind it. Both of us sensed them. They are alert and tense, but they don’t seemto be about to leave their post. The kitchens next?”
    Vlandar nodded. “We’ll take them now. How many in there?”
    “Three giantesses and four ogres,” Malowan replied. “Noguards.”
    “Hmm.” Vlandar suddenly smiled. “Khlened, it’s time for agenuine berserker attack, I think. The noise won’t matter, and it may scare thecooks into surrendering their prisoners. If not, Mal can be there to free them.”
    The barbarian grinned fiercely. “Good idea. Give me Bleryn,though. He and I fight good t’gether, and more’d be in th’ way.”
    “Agreed,” Vlandar said. “We’ll wait out here to grab any thatescape you.”
    “Won’t be any,” the barbarian assured him, and with an unholygleam in his eyes, he drew the two-handed sword and strode into the kitchen. Bleryn was right on his heels, battle-axe in one hand and sword in the other.
    Vlandar and Malowan drew their own swords and eased around a rock that partially blocked the entry. Lhors and Agya followed on their heels.
    Khlened stopped partway into the room to bellow what sounded like vicious curses in his own language. The dwarf simply roared and charged straight at the cook, who shrieked, tripped and fell, then turned to scramble away on her hands and knees, but only as far as a rack of knives. Bleryn beat her to it, and brought his axe down on her arm. She howled in agony, collapsing on the floor in a huddle. The other two giantesses turned to flee into the hall, saw swordsmen there, and hesitated.
    Malowan’s sword burst into flame. The giantesses shrieked interror and turned to flee into the dark to the north. Bleryn charged after the two, but Khlened swung the sword like a madman, sending steaming pots flying and sweeping piles of things onto the floor. At some point, he’d downed two of theogres, and one was most definitely dead while the other crawled toward the door, bleeding freely and apparently unaware of Vlandar or Malowan. The paladin brought his sword up and drove it into the ogre’s neck.
    It was suddenly, blessedly quiet in the kitchen. In the distance, they could hear whimpering and Bleryn’s roar, muted by a some turn inthe passage. Khlened looked around then strode off that way. Malowan began murmuring-praying, Lhors thought-under his breath. The whimpering ceasedabruptly, and moments later the dwarf came back, Khlened right behind him. His eyes were dull now, and he seemed barely to have the strength to get his sword back into the sheath, but no one would have dared to offer him help.
    Agya tugged at Malowan’s sleeve and the two sprinted acrossthe kitchen to open cages and free the four imprisoned men. They all moved stiffly, but they didn’t seem harmed otherwise, and they were warmly clad. One,a tall, black-haired fellow with a grizzled beard, spoke briefly to Malowan, then came over to grip Vlandar’s arm.
    “I’m Jebis, out of Furyondy,” he said. “Member of the LakeGuard. These three men”-his gesture took in older men who seemed dazed by thesudden turn of events-“are from the high country around the barrens north ofthat. Frost giants caught me as I was riding back to my barracks. Mobry here says he and his two mates were hunting when they were taken. All four of us got hauled in here two or three days ago. We owe you service, but why are you here? It’s no safe place unless you’ve got an army.”
    Vlandar explained, giving them a very brief version of their mission.
    Jebis considered this. “Sounds mad to me,” he said finally,“but service I said, and I’m King’s Guard. I’ll help if I can.”
    “Do you know this place?” Malowan asked. “We could use aguide, frankly.”
    Jebis shrugged. “Not so well. There’s a throne in the bigcave and a passage to the left of it, but a big rock blocks the end. There’s abig room past that with all manner of junk in it: weapons and trophies and such. Up from that, there’s another enormous cave with all kinds of giants. Lookedlike families to me, young ones and all. Guess whoever our guards wanted wasn’tthere, so they hauled us back out to that throne and the chief came out-”
    “Came out from where?” Vlandar asked.
    “The same tunnel I mentioned, I suppose, but I don’t think hecame from that big room. There was a heavy drape over the far end of that junk room, and this Jarl had a look about him that reminded me of my captain when he’s called out from his private quarters. I can’t be sure of that, of course.”
    “Anything else you saw then?” Malowan asked. “Guards comingfrom any of the other tunnels, perhaps guests? Anything, however trivial, anything odd?”
    “Odd…” Jebis echoed, then shook himself. “Was one thing,not so odd perhaps, though it struck me at the time. When the Jarl came out, there was someone behind him-human-sized and all wrapped in a cloak. A servant Ithought then, or maybe a slave. But the way it stood… it looked arrogant.Even though I couldn’t see any weapon on the creature, the Jarl kept glancingback as if it scared him. And the creature just looked at him. I mean,” he addedwith a forced smile, “I’ve been here all of a few days, and I learned right offwho’s in charge here.”
    “What else could you make out?” Vlandar asked.
    “Not sure it wasn’t just the light,” the man said. He frownedat his hands, apparently trying to recall something. “But even when thecreature’s head was tipped back, what was under the hood was uncommonlydark-black, even.”
    Malowan and Vlandar eyed each other briefly, before the paladin spoke. “It’s possible that may prove useful. We’ll bear it in mind.”
    “Whether it is or no,” Vlandar assured him, “we’ll try to getyou safe from here.”
    “Give me a sword or a pike, and I’ll help you best I can,”Jebis replied.
    Bleryn handed over two of his pikes. Jebis hefted them, tested the balance, and nodded his thanks.
    “All right,” Vlandar said. “Our way is south, then left pastthe throne. Everyone alert, and Nemis, stay up front with me. Mal, keep an eye and a spell on our back trail.”
    Maera stepped in front of him, Florimund’s hand in hers.“Paladin, your sort preach kindness. You cannot leave my cousin in this state!You saw his condition when we found him, and I know well that he fears to sleep because his dreams put him back in that cell or the torturer’s-” She closed hereyes and swallowed hard. “He has done nothing wrong! Weak as he is, he has donehis best to help you, and for that, our fine mage has forced him to sleep.”
    “A dreamless sleep,” Nemis began.
    But Maera waved him off. “So he says, Paladin, but I havebeen with my cousin this hour, and your mage has not. I can keep him quiet and I swear to you I will, if you but lift the spell.”
    Malowan glanced at Nemis, then fixed his eyes on Maera, who met his gaze steadily. Her voice was hoarse, as if she fought tears. “How canyou allow an innocent to be so cruelly used, Malowan?” she whispered.
    Lhors glanced at Rowan. The ranger’s eyes were fixed on thedistant throne, her lips set.
    Malowan looked at Vlandar, who gazed back at him without any sign Lhors could make out. “The innocent must not suffer,” Malowan said, verysoftly. “And so, what dare I, except to grant your plea?” He laid his hands uponthe half-elf’s face, and at his touch, Florimund awoke.
    If he cries out, Lhors thought, we’re all doomed. But thepaladin had done something to soothe the fellow, or perhaps Nemis’ earliersleep spell had. The half-elf merely gazed around, then allowed Maera to draw him aside so they could speak.
    “You know why I cast that spell,” Nemis said. He lookedangry.
    Malowan shook his head. “Yes, and I agreed with what you did.But would it not be better not to distance Maera from us-or her sister? We knowto watch him, after all. And you and I have ways of watching that use more than eyes.”


    As the party gathered for a brief rest, Nemis went off withRowan to guard his back. He was sure that he could get close enough to cast a spell on the two guards beneath the dais. They were gone no more than a few moments.
    “Sleeping like little lambs,” the mage announced with asmile.
    “Well done,” Vlandar said. “Take a few moments to rest, thenwe’re off again.”
    Maera drew the injured half-elf back into the kitchens with her, talking to him the whole time. She looked tense, Lhors thought. Florimund gave Nemis and Malowan a baffled look but finally shrugged listlessly, as though nothing mattered much. He still seemed unsteady on his feet and winced as the ranger laid a hand on his arm.
    “Odd,” Nemis remarked softly to Vlandar after the half-elfwas out of earshot. “When I heal someone no worse hurt than he was, the healingtakes. He was in pain, yes, but mostly cut and bruised-nowhere nearly as bad assome I’ve helped.”
    “I agree it seems odd,” Vlandar said. “You didn’t take hismemories away, did you?”
    The mage shrugged. “I did what I could to ease his mind, youknow. But whatever aid I’ve offered him since, Maera refuses for him. And hedoes not seem eager for that healing.”
    “I’ll tell you that ’e’s fakin,” Agya murmured. She had comesilently up behind them. “Not my business, listenin’ to wizard-talk, but yonFlorimund? I don’t trust ’im so far’s I could spit ’im.”
    Malowan came up behind her. He sighed. “Agya, I know, but notall are used to violence. Merely being taken prisoner would be enough to terrify a gentle fellow. But I had to waken him. Maera will not listen to any word against Florimund and besides, I have no proof against him. He is not evil, that I can tell.”
    Agya merely cast up her eyes.
    “Let us be done with this,” Vlandar urged. “Mal, Florimund isyour watch-and Maera as well.”
    The paladin nodded.
    “We’re ready to go, then?” Vlandar added. “I know most of usneeded a short rest here, but we have little time to spare. We don’t know whenthe guard change occurs, but we do know what the incoming guards will find-atrail of bodies.”
    “I agree,” Malowan said. “And we have yet to find the Jarl’sprivate chambers.”
    “Or his treasuries, though I would like it better if we foundanother scroll like the last one you and Agya found.” Vlandar beckoned the restof his company close. “All right, people,” he began, “we’ve crossed much of theRift, but there is still danger. Nemis has neutralized the two guards behind the dais, but there may be others, or servants wandering the halls. None of us know what we will find once we get to the Jarl’s chambers, but we must be utterlyquiet. You four”-he looked at the rescued prisoners-“stay in our midst. We’vegiven you what weapons we can, and if things come to a fight, we’ll welcome yourhelp. But we have a goal that lies beyond this place, and our best way to get there-and to get you free of the Rift-is to use stealth. We are spies, not anarmy.”
    “We’re no army, either,” Jebis said quietly. “And we’ll dowhat you ask, so long’s we’ve a chance to escape alive.” He glanced at hiscompanions. Two of the hunters nodded cautiously. The third stared at the dagger he now held, his lips moving soundlessly. He looked a bit touched to Lhors, who couldn’t blame the man.
    “Good,” Vlandar said. “Watch our two magic-users”-heindicated Malowan and Nemis-“They are testing our path and our backtrail forenemy, traps, pitfalls and other dangers. If either signs for you to stop or to be still, do so.”
    “We shall,” the hunter said. “Not many orders I won’t followto get out of here.”
    “Sensible,” Malowan murmured. “Now, if you must speak for anyreason, get my attention or Nemis’ or Vlandar’s and do this”-he held up a hand,first finger extended. “If it is safe to talk, the response is this”-he held upan open hand, all fingers pressed together-“and if not, this”-he drew a slashinghand across his throat.
    “Simple enough,” Jebis said. He rapidly ran through all threesigns, tersely naming each.
    Vlandar nodded. “Good. Now, you can make out the throne downthere? There are two guards behind it, but Nemis has bespelled them. All the same, be swift and quiet.”
    They crossed the great cave and passed the dais without challenge. Vlandar gestured urgently, and they covered the distance eastward quickly, entered a narrowing passage blocked at its inner end with one of the slabs of rock used as doors. Nemis spelled it to one side while Malowan tested the passages beyond for immediate danger. The paladin shook his head, then he and Nemis led the way in, leaving Khlened, Vlandar, and Bleryn to shift the stone back into place.
    The chamber beyond was cool but not unbearably so after the drafty great cave. This room might have been a private audience hall for the Jarl’s important guests. Tables and chairs dotted the area, and on one Lhorscould see scrolls. A few weapons hung from the wall. Pelts covered the floor and the icy stone walls. Another passage went north into darkness, and the east end of this long, skinny room was blocked by hides from ceiling to floor.
    Vlandar set Maera to watch north and west, Rowan to keep an eye on the east curtains, then let Malowan perform a reveal danger spell on the chamber itself while Nemis did something similar over near the east wall. Everyone else waited close to the doorway they’d just come through until the twomagicians nodded and gestured that the chamber was free of traps.
    Vlandar divided the party and set them to various tasks, leaving the rangers where they were and getting Khlened, Bleryn, and Gerikh to search the chamber for anything useful.
    Agya and Lhors were left with Florimund.
    The thief’s nose wrinkled, and she touched Lhors’ hand. Animal smell. She pointed toward the leather-draped east wall. The youth shrugged, but when Rowan glanced his way, he caught her attention and signed. Rowan nodded, slacked her bowstring long enough to sign, Yes. Beasts in there, then turned back to keep watch.
    Lhors glanced at his companions. Agya swallowed hard as she interpreted the rangers sign, then turned as Florimund began to sway, his eyes half closed. Thief and villager caught the half-elf before he could fall over. The pile of ivory tusks he would have landed on would have made a hellish clatter. Lhors and Agya eased the fellow down, exchanging exasperated looks over him. Nemis, who must have been watching the half-elf, padded quickly across the chamber and clamped a hand over Florimund’s mouth as he and hauled the half-elfup and off his feet. Florimund struggled feebly, but Nemis was already at Maera’s side, where he set the fellow down with some remark to the ranger thatLhors couldn’t hear. She scowled at the mage but patted her kinsman’s hand andlet him crouch next to her.
    Everyone froze as a deep giant voice asked a question from the next room. A resonant female voice replied, and something that sounded like a large dog whined eagerly. Vlandar gestured for Nemis to join Rowan, then drew the others just into the hallway leading up to the gentry’s quarters. “There isnothing for us in here. There is at least one chamber behind those hides where Rowan keeps watch, and beyond it, two giants and two wolves.”
    Jebis made the safe to talk sign, even though Vlandar had been speaking, if very quietly.
    Malowan held up a hand for yes and nodded. “Beg pardon, sir,but that voice we just heard? That was their leader, I’m sure of it.”
    “I believe you may be right,” Malowan said. “By the location,if nothing else, and I sense power in there. If so, the other may be his lady, and the wolves both pets and guards. Back north is a vast cavern, with many giants. Families, I think. If the Jarl is here, they may be his nobles.”
    “It seems likely,” Vlandar said. “We’ve a pocket of silencehere, thanks to Nemis’ spell. I’d like one of his sleep spells to deal withwhat’s in there. I don’t want to start a fight here. Those nobles or whateverthey are would not hear, thanks to Nemis, but others might be drawn from passages or guard points eastward.” Vlandar considered this briefly. He thenwaved to catch Nemis’ eye and broadly pantomimed sleep.
    The mage smiled grimly, nodded, and turned away. A few moments later, he turned back to nod once more.

    Vlandar led them back into the main room. Nemis, who had beenwalking with Rowan, approached the warrior. The ranger looked very unhappy about something, Lhors thought.
    As Rowan marched over to begin speaking in urgent tones with the paladin, Nemis stepped close to Vlandar and said, “Listen, please. We darenot leave the Jarl and his lady alive.”
    Vlandar gave him a puzzled look.
    “They sleep now. Execute them while they sleep-call itjustice for the deaths they’ve caused. They will feel no pain. Leave those twoalive, and they’ll spill more innocent blood.”
    Vlandar nodded sharply. “I agree. Still, to kill anyoneasleep like that…”
    “You need have no part,” Nemis urged. “Mal certainly must notbe part of it or even know what we do until it’s done. Rowan will distract himonce we’re in there, but-”
    “Too late,” Malowan said. He’d come up unnoticed. Behind him,Rowan cast Nemis a tired glance and shrugged. “Nemis, you cannot do this, notwhile I am here, and I will not leave.”
    “I’ll send you to sleep then!” The mage hissed inannoyance.
    The paladin shook his head. “No. If we were attacked, youwould need me.” Malowan looked at Vlandar. “Tell me you have not countenancedthis.”
    “Not here and now,” Vlandar broke in grimly. “Get inside thatchamber, and we’ll talk.”
    Malowan set his jaw, beckoned his ward close, and went.
    “Sorry,” Rowan muttered as she passed Nemis. “I did all Icould, but he became suspicious.”
    “A plague on the pure-hearted,” Nemis growled and followedher up the two steps and around the leather drape. Vlandar waited until everyone else was out of sight, then gestured for Lhors to go ahead of him.
    It was nearly warm inside the Jarl’s private chamber-and thatwas what it must be, Lhors decided. The furnishings were too fine for any but the ruler and his lady. He glanced around. The chamber was large but so cluttered that Lhors wondered if frost giant nobles even knew the concept of cleaning maids.
    Vlandar got everyone close together again to get everyone searching the chamber, but Malowan, his face pale and his mouth set, interrupted. “We are blocked from behind by Nemis’ spell of silence, and thereis nothing and no one to the east. I tested. Vlandar, you cannot let him do this.”
    “I can,” the warrior replied steadily, “and if it seems thebest course to me, I will. Mal, be sensible. Take Agya and go out of sight. What bloodshed these two have caused-”
    “That is between them and the gods,” Malowan said flatly.“They are living beings, and unlikely as it seems to any of us, they may one daybecome good.”
    Khlened snorted in disbelief.
    Malowan fixed him with a flat look, and the barbarian subsided. “Even if they do not, their fellow mortals are not given the right tojudge. I will not risk the path I have taken for so many years, simply because this mage-”
    “This mage, is it?” Nemis said stiffly. “Your Heironeouswon’t take your powers from you because of my choices, my friend, and youand I both know it.”
    “I will not let you do this,” Malowan gritted.
    “You cannot stop me,” Nemis replied.
    “Mal, listen at ’im,” Agya urged in the uncomfortable silencethat followed. “C’mon, you an me, we’ll just go that way, y’won’t see a thing.”
    She shrank back as Malowan transferred the glare to her. He must be upset or very angry, Lhors thought. As far as he could tell, the mage didn’t even notice his ward’s reaction, though normally he was careful notto upset her.
    “I have not decided yet,” Vlandar began.
    Malowan shook his head, silencing the warrior. “Yes, youhave. Don’t think me a fool because of my calling, Vlandar.”
    “I don’t-”
    “Then don’t pretend you haven’t seen them dead in your mindand felt good because of it!” the paladin snapped.
    “I have seen them dead, and I’d be glad for it,” Vlandar saidevenly. “My friend, we’re wasting time we do not have. Search the chamber forthe things you know we need, and I’ll study the problem while you do.”
    “Oh?” Malowan swung around to face him. “And what of theirtime?”
    “Give it up, Mal,” Vlandar demanded harshly. “Take Agya andgo past that drape to the east. I’ll see to it they don’t suffer.”
    “And if I won’t go?”
    Vlandar’s jaw clenched. Even Lhors could tell that thewarrior was swiftly becoming angry himself. “You will go, even if I have to getKhlened and Bleryn to drag you. I’d rather not, but Mal, I will if you leave meno other choice. I ask this out of our friendship, but remember that you swore to follow my orders along with everyone else.”
    Silence. Lhors noticed the four kitchen prisoners had moved back away from the verbal sparring. He couldn’t blame them. It made himuncomfortable to hear Malowan, Nemis, and Vlandar arguing.
    Lhors jumped as someone touched his arm. It was Nemis, who was very red in the face, particularly for one normally so pale.
    “What say you, lad?” the mage asked quietly. He used his eyesto gesture behind him at the sleeping giants.
    The two had been at table drinking wine. On the far side of the great slab of wood, a massive, silver-haired giantess slept awkwardly in a chair, her face pressed into the table, arms dangling. Lhors could just make out the two wolves sprawled by her feet. Nearer to him, the Jarl lay in a heap on thick fur rugs. The giant was snoring faintly.
    “What do you mean?” the youth whispered.
    Nemis smiled grimly. “I know these two by repute. They havepersonally killed hundreds of humans and elves. By their orders, many hundreds more have died-just as your family and all those in your village died, or asJebis and the hunters would have.”
    Lhors stared at the sleeping giants, vaguely aware of Vlandar and Malowan still arguing behind him.
    “Imagine being held in a cage,” the mage whispered, “withgiants all about to tease you that very soon you would be cut into pieces and eaten, or bound alive over a spit….” He hesitated as Lhors cringed awayfrom him, eyes tightly closed and a hand over his mouth.
    Do not think about the babes and that soup pot! At the moment, it was all he could see. Then in a flash the image of his father eclipsed everything-his father pinned to the ground, writhing with a spear thesize of a young tree trunk through his gut.
    Nemis touched his shoulder and gasped, then laid both hands on the youths face, pulling him around. “I am sorry, lad. I didn’t know, thoughI should have suspected. I did not mean to cause you such pain.”
    Lhors nodded, eyes still tightly closed. He couldn’t speak.
    Nemis let go of him. “But if these two, the Jarl and hislady, were part of the command that set Nosnra’s giants against your village, ifyou could avenge your father and your village now would you?”
    Lhors drew a deep breath and opened his eyes. To his astonishment, the mage held out a long dagger.
    “There is no burden on you to do this. Any of the four menheld prisoner in that kitchen yonder might be willing, but they faced only loss of life, however dreadful it might have been. You lost your family, your village, and your father-everything you knew. It is your choice. If you strike,you grant them a cleaner death than your father had. While another may become Jarl here, at least this one will order no more deaths.”
    Lhors gazed longingly at the hilt. Father, I swore I would avenge you, and here within my reach…
    But he wouldn’t even reach for the blade. “I know you areright, Nemis-about them and all giants. But no, not like this. My father-itcannot change that he is dead, and it would not avenge anything. Not for me.”
    Nemis eyed him gravely then shoved the dagger back into its sheath. “As you choose,” was all he said as he turned away.
    Lhors drew a deep, shuddering breath, blotted his eyes on his sleeve, and realized Vlandar and Malowan were still arguing fiercely. The whole exchange with Nemis had taken next to no time at all.
    Khlened had come up unnoticed. “Done right, boy,” he mutteredand patted the youths shoulder awkwardly. “I’m no headsman either. There’s noglory in butcherin’ a sleepin’ foe.”
    Bleryn snorted. “Listen at ’em, arguing whether such killersdeserve to live. Small wonder dwarves don’t go for being paladins. We got moresense’n that. This is execution flat out, not murder. Such brutes don’t deservean honorable death.”
    Behind them, Malowan’s voice rose. Nemis swore angrily andbegan muttering a spell. Khlened ran over to help Vlandar wrestle the paladin down. It took Gerikh’s help to get it done, and as Nemis stepped back, thepaladin’s angry, weeping voice was abruptly silenced, though the man clearly wasstill bellowing at Vlandar and the others to let him go.
    Vlandar, who had Mal’s feet, leaned away from the man and metBleryn’s eyes. “We can’t hold him long! One of you, get it done and that’s anorder!”
    Bleryn nodded and turned away, shielding his blade before beckoning Jebis over. “I was prisoner in the Steading’s smithy, and I owegiants, but no one offered t’ make me into food. So you’ve a right, too.”
    Jebis declined, but one of the hunters came to his side with a dagger clenched in his hand.
    “We owe ’em,” the man said. He glanced at his dazed companion. “Poor Gorbisthere, he may never be the same. Kill one, dwarf. I’ll see to the other.”
    “Good,” the dwarf replied. “Y’know how to give a stag aclean, quick death. Do as much here.”
    Nemis came over to stand next to Lhors.
    “Stay there, lad,” he said. “Close your eyes if you choose,but help me keep Mal from seeing anything.”
    He hadn’t meant to watch, but Lhors found himself unable tolook away. The dwarf’s eyes were locked on the hunter’s. “We’ll kill the wolvesfirst.”
    The hunter nodded. “Make it as bloodless as you can. Feller’dfreeze around here in blood-soaked clothes.”
    The two dispatched the wolves by bringing a heavy blade down across the neck of each, severing the spine. The hunter then picked up a short spear leaning against the table, brought it over his head in a two-handed grip, and plunged it down through the giantess’ eye. She jerked once, then the breathwent out of her in a faint sigh. Bleryn gave the Jarl the same, looked down at him for a long moment, and then backed away, taking the hunter with him.
    Lhors swallowed and turned away. So easy to kill… He wassuddenly sick of death, the threat of death, and all the horrid forms death could take.
    Behind him, Vlandar had let Malowan up and seemed to be trying to say something to the paladin. Malowan ignored him and brushed past Lhors to gaze down at the dead giants and their pets, then bowed his head in prayer. Tears etched paths down the man’s face, and he looked sickened.
    How can he be so… so…? Lhors couldn’t think of a wordto describe a man who could forgive even giants. Lhors could not have done the deed himself, and he wasn’t sure he entirely agreed with Vlandar’s order, but hecertainly felt no remorse for the two giants. He backed away and went over to join Vlandar, who looked very unhappy indeed as he gazed after Malowan. As the youth came up to him, Vlandar shook himself and turned to get his people working.
    Nemis was checking the contents of the cavern for traps, using a charm of some sort. As he finished each pile or chest, he nodded, and Vlandar put one of them to work, searching.
    Khlened found gems in one box and set them aside so he could finish searching to the bottom. Agya brought out two bags of coin and set them with Khlened’s jewels. Vlandar scooped them up and shoved them to the bottom ofhis pack, then went to work on another coffer.
    “That one’s safe,” Nemis said, pointing to a round-toppedchest, “but leave the other. It’s a trap and deadly at that.” He got to his feetand went around the curtain where Rowan and Maera had taken Florimund.
    The mage was back at once. “Bedchamber there. There’s a spellburied in a trunk in there.”
    “I’ll come,” Vlandar said. “Send Rowan back for Mal, willyou?”
    “I’m here,” the paladin said as he came over to help out.
    Lhors wondered what he would say to Nemis, but the man simply passed the mage, a worried Agya on his heels.
    “Khlened,” Vlandar said as he watched the paladin worriedly,“you, Bleryn, and Gerikh stay here to finish up. If you don’t recall if Nemissaid a thing was safe, leave it. Jebis, you and your companions come with us.”
    Lhors followed on Vlandar’s heels.
    Nemis was already kneeling before a massive trunk, his hands on the lock. With a faint puff of bluish smoke, the lock snapped, and he forced the lid back.
    Lhors peered over the mage’s shoulder, but he could see onlyfurs and other clothing. Nemis didn’t seem interested in the contents. The magefiddled with the lid and suddenly a piece of wood slid aside, revealing a hidden cache. The mage chuckled softly and drew out several scroll cases. He shoved two of them back inside at once, then ran his charm over the others. “Check thatone, Vlandar. These are spell scrolls.”
    “It’s a map,” Vlandar said as he unfurled the scroll. Lhorshelped him hold it open. “But not much use unless we travel overland to theplace. And it may have no bearing on our journey. Nemis, you read Giantish. Tell me what it says here.”
    Nemis gazed at the map for some moments, then licked his lips. “This,” he said, “is Muspelheim, home to the fire giants. You are right.It would be a dreadful journey on foot.”
    “Yes,” Vlandar said, “but is it our goal? Can you tell that?”
    “There is nothing here to tell me that,” the mage saidtersely, “and if I were you, Vlandar, I would pray to my gods that it isn’t.This is no place for us.”
    “How’d y’know that?” Agya asked.
    The mage eyed her gravely as he rerolled the map and shoved it into its tube. “Because I have been there.”
    Agya’s eyes narrowed. Maybe she suspected the mage would leadthem into a trap.
    Vlandar nodded and took the map. “Then if it is ourway, you can guide us.” He turned. “Mal, is there anything else useful here?”
    The paladin shook his head, still refusing to speak.
    “A moment, Vlandar,” the mage broke in. “I thought our goalwas to be gone from here and report back to your king. Seeking out this dread place would only take us farther from that.”
    “Our goal,” the warrior reminded him, “is to find proof ofwhat is going on with the giants and Keoland. We have connected the Steading to the Jarl and dispatched with him, but there is obviously someone yet higher up the chain. I cannot return to my king with mere speculation.”
    “You’ll send us all to our deaths.”
    “We’ve done well so far, better than any of us could haveexpected on the outset. Either the gods are smiling upon us or we did well in hitting the giants quickly and quietly. I care not which, but I will not give up now.”
    “So be it,” the mage said in resignation. “I do not agree,but I swore to follow you, and I am not one for forsaking comrades in their hour of need.”
    “Good,” said Vlandar, “then let’s be about it. Lhors, gofetch everyone from the other room.”
    By the time the youth was back with Khlened, Bleryn, and Gerikh, Vlandar was talking to Jebis and the hunters. “I am glad we found you.If you’re certain you can find your way to your own lands once you’re outside…?”
    Jebis nodded firmly. “Their village is a matter of a few dayseast of here, in the Yeomanry. I’ll go with ’em.”
    “We haven’t much to spare,” Vlandar said apologetically, “buthere is a map. Our rangers say there’s a passage beyond this chamber that leadsdown and outside. Once you’re out, you’ll want a place to rest up before you goon.” He squatted down, Jebis with him, and the two went over the map, whichVlandar handed over. “The cave is too small for giants to use, and we left drywood behind.” He held out a cloth bag. “There’s enough stuff here to make a hotsoup for the four of you.”
    “Giants took nothing from us but our weapons,” Jebis replied.“I still have my pot and the makings for a couple days’ worth of stew. I guessthe giants figured they’d rather we eat our food than theirs. If you’ve anymessages to pass on…?”
    “No,” Vlandar said at once. “If you’re caught again…”
    “We understand,” the older hunter said quickly.
    Vlandar led the way past the leather drape. Lhors found himself in a small bulge of a cave with chill air flowing over him from a narrow passage to the east.
    “That’s our way, then?” the Jebis asked. When Vlandar nodded, he led hisfellow hunters out of sight. Jebis hesitated, then held out a hand, which Vlandar clasped.
    “I wish you good luck in your quest, Captain,” he said, “andI hope to hear the end of this story one day.”
    “I hope to be able to tell it,” Vlandar said with a faintsmile.
    With that, Jebis and his hunters left and were soon out of sight.
    Nemis came from a small area up by the passage. “Nothingthere but a box that smells of trouble to me. Except for an iron bar protruding from the wall, I cannot reach it. There is power on it, though.”
    “Make light for me,” Malowan said. “I need to see the thingand touch it myself.”
    Nemis eyed the paladin sidelong, expecting the man to still be angry with him, Lhors assumed. But Malowan seemed to have dealt with the deaths back there-or at least put his anger and distress aside to do the job athand.
    “Is that wise?” Maera asked rather anxiously as the two movedoff. The ranger gripped a spear in one hand and seemed to be holding Florimund to his feet by the other around his waist. The half-elf’s eyes were closed, andhis face was utterly bloodless. “My cousin says-”
    “Later, please,” Vlandar said tersely. “We need to get freeof this place before someone finds the Jarl and his lady.”
    Maera drew Florimund over to the wall, and Rowan slowly followed. Vlandar and Lhors watched as Nemis made light. Malowan stretched up an arm but apparently fell short also. Nemis then made a sling with his hands for the paladin to step into. Mal was still for some moments, then he nodded and jumped down, beckoning Vlandar over.
    The warrior cleared his throat to get everyone’s attentionand led them across the little alcove. “What have you found?” he asked.
    “A transport, much like the Steading chain,” Malowan said.“With a specific goal. We pull down on the bar, and whoever is in this partlyenclosed area will go there-wherever ‘there’ is. We need something I can standon.”
    Khlened and Bleryn ran back into the Jarl’s bedchamber, cameout with a sturdy-looking flat chest, and set it against the cavern wall.
    “All right,” Vlandar said. “We’ll go half at a time. I wantNemis, Rowan, Bleryn, Khlened, and Gerikh in the first party, weapons drawn. And Nemis, be ready to bespell any guards. The rest of us will be right behind you.”
    The mage nodded and climbed onto the trunk while Malowan drew the rest of them back against the curtain into the bedchamber.
    The mage reached up to the lever and pulled down smoothly. Lhors blinked in surprise. The mage and the others simply vanished!
    And then it was his turn.
    Vlandar’s arm was reassuringly solid against his shoulder.The youth gripped his spear.
    “Deep breath, my young friend,” the warrior told him. “You’vedone well so far.”
    Once everyone was in place, the paladin drew down on the bar. The chamber faded. Icy cold whirled away, and as the ground solidified under their feet, a hellish blast of heat wrapped around them.
    Lhors blinked furiously, but for a moment, he could see nothing but blackness. Then, as his vision began to clear, he could make out a steep, black wall blocking their view ahead. To their right and left was nothing but smoke and distant fires.
    Nemis was dragging off his cloak and hood as Vlandar came up. “Fire giants,” the mage said unhappily. “I knew it would be fire giants.”


    What they could see was dire.
    The night sky was thick with clouds painted blood red by fires and volcanic eruptions. Smoke was everywhere, and the addled-egg smell of reeking steam issued from nearby vents. Thick, ashy clouds billowed from a nearby volcano that shot flame and boulders high into the roiling sky. Not far away, the unmistakable form of a great hall topped a mass of shining, solidified lava, stone, and slag.
    Where they stood was separated from the hall and the road leading to it by a low rock wall-to keep anyone from walking over it when themagic was being used, Lhors thought.
    “Let us go,” the mage said. “There should be a guard here,and there are guards just inside the palace.”
    “Howd y’know that?” Khlened asked. He eyed the mage warily.
    Vlandar held up a hand for silence. “Ask later. We need toget out of sight now.”
    Nemis nodded. “Unless the landscapes changed much in the pastyears, I know of one such place.” He glanced around. “Watch where I step andfollow me closely. There are sinkholes and hot pools that will kill you in an instant.”
    Florimund gasped.
    The mage gave Maera a chill look. “Keep him quiet, please.”
    The ranger turned away from him to soothe the half-elf.
    Nemis turned his back to the palace and walked rapidly, angling away from the nearest volcano. The others followed, Malowan bringing up the rear.
    It took longer than Vlandar would have liked, but in the end Nemis found his sanctuary: a black-walled, roughly circular tunnel, blocked at the inner end. The chamber was long and possessed two sharp bends that would keep in any light they made. It was surprisingly cool in here-compared to theoutside at least. The company hastily removed their winter garb once they were well in, and Malowan made a light for them.
    “What kind of cave is this?” Lhors asked.
    The walls were almost glassy, oddly rough-shaped but smooth to the touch.
    “Never mind that. What’s this place?” Agya demanded.
    “It is a place south of the Yeomanry,” Nemis told her. “Thefiery mountains are volcanoes, and the smoke and steam they make can be deadly to breathe. This cave was once a passage for such fire, but it has been blocked off for long years, and it is now too small for giants to bother about.”
    “And how,” Khlened demanded pointedly, “do you know that,I wonder? You’re a secretive man, mage!”
    “Food first,” Vlandar said. “I know it’s hot here, but we’lldo better for a warm soup. I’ll take on the cooking. Lhors, Khlened, there weresome broken bushes near where we came in. See if you can find them. We’ll want afire for light and soup both. But be careful and stay out of sight. There may be guards about.”

    An hour or so later, they’d eaten and the fire was dying downto embers. Malowan had constructed two tightly wrapped torches from brushwood and found places to mount them high in the walls so they would have some light. He and Agya were wrapping more torches for the rest of the night and the morrow.
    After their meager meal, Nemis told the tale of his apprenticeship among the drow, his journey to this place, and how he had killed his former master and escaped that life.
    Khlened, to Lhors’ surprise, heard Nemis out.
    “Could happen t’any of us,” the barbarian said finally.“Guess I can see why y’told Vlandar and Mal before th’ rest of us.”
    “There was no point in telling everyone,” Malowan said. “Forall we knew, we might never have come this far.”
    “Aye, well,” the barbarian said. “What’s to do here, then?Y’think this Eclavdra-drow witch or whatever she is-is here?”
    “She came here now and again as the guest of the fire giantking, old Snurre,” Nemis replied. He seemed to have difficulty speaking, as ifunwilling to say what he had so long kept quiet. “She has her own dwelling deepunderground-a deadly place far from here. She has-or had-a scroll she kept inher chambers here that takes her back to that dwelling. I traveled here with her sometimes.”
    “Could you locate those chambers?” Vlandar asked.
    Nemis shrugged. “The only time I was allowed to carry amessage to King Snurre-it was years ago, and I am not certain I remember theways of the first floor. It was dark, and there were guards everywhere….”His voice faded, and he stared at the far wall. After a long silence, he roused himself with visible effort. “I know the level below that well. Often I wentwith her to council meetings with other drow. Below that, it is all caves and horrible creatures and darkness.”
    “I know how good your memory is,” Malowan told the mage. “Ifyou went there once, however long ago, you will remember it. A man who can memorize as many spells as you-”
    Nemis smiled crookedly. “Yes, but I want to remembermy spells. I have tried to forget many of my experiences here, you know.”
    “Well, we can doubtless get inside,” Vlandar said, “and Nemismay well be able to guide us through. The question is, do we want to do that?”
    Everyone’s eyes were on him except for Florimund, who wascurled up on the floor, his eyes only partway open. The half-elf seemed to have given up, Lhors thought-the way Gran’s husband had when the fever took him.
    “Why not?” Khlened asked. “We’ve done well so far. Lost noone yet, have we? I’ve wealth to keep me in comfort for at least a year or twoand tales to tell….”
    “And we’ve done some damage to both the Steading and theRift,” Vlandar put in. “We’ve learned who’s made an alliance with the giants toattack our lands. Now we’re in a place that may kill us before we can get wordto my king. If that happens, we’ve accomplished little indeed.”
    “Speak plain, sir,” Bleryn put in.
    Vlandar nodded. “Nemis can tell you better than I about thedark elves. I know only from tales and legend that they are deadly fighters and dire magicians with no love for any who live under the sun. Fire giants themselves-remember the two in the Steading’s smithy? They are powerful andsmarter than most giants. Beyond that, this land is deadly. The fumes from the fires will make you giddy, the smoke will make you cough, and the heat will sap the water from your body and leave you weak and brain-mazed. If we decide to continue on, we must be swift and keep good watch on each other for signs of water-lack or Rime-sickness. For my own part, I would like to return to my king with word that we found this drow witch and destroyed her. If not, I would at least like evidence of her hiding place below ground so that the king can assemble magicians powerful enough to deal with her and her underlings.”
    “There is something else,” Nemis said quietly. “Eclavdra’sscroll. If we can find it, I can use it to get us out of here in an instant. A brief incantation, and we can all be sitting at an inn in Cryllor.”
    “You mean we could go then-poof, gone like with that bar?”
    Nemis nodded.
    “Then,” the barbarian said slowly as if reasoning it out forhimself, “I say we go in, find this nasty she-wizard, and finish all this. I’llkill a few more ogres or even take on a giant or two t’be out o’ this place.”
    “Aye,” Bleryn said, “he speaks for me as well.”
    The rangers nodded in unison. Gerikh shrugged and managed a smile.
    “Quit now?” Malowan shook his head firmly. “I think not.”
    “I go where ’e goes,” Agya added defiantly, and Malowanpatted her shoulder.
    “Lhors?” Vlandar turned to him. “What do you say?”
    Lhors was none too happy about trying to sneak through a fortress of larger and smarter giants, but the thought of being out of here once and for all…
    “I’m with you, sir. To the end.”
    “Good,” Vlandar said. His eyes were warm as he looked aroundthe company. “Sleep then, people. You’ll need all you can get tonight.”

    During the last watch, Nemis had worked up what maps he couldfor the party, using blank sheets from his spellbook.
    “This I can tell you,” the mage had said as he passed aroundmaps, “no one who is not mad would enter that hall. Snurre is held by the drowto be a dolt, but a cunning one. We should kill him if we can. Some of his guards will still fight, but most of the others will flee. Not all serve him willingly.”
    “If we can do that without wasting time by seeking him out,”Vlandar said, “then so be it, but our first priority is to find proof of drowinvolvement and where they might be found.”
    They all stood in the cavern. Everyone was ready, but everyone also seemed hesitant to begin. The next few hours would either see the accomplishment of their mission or the end of their lives.
    Suddenly Nemis drew the fire sword Malowan had garnered in the Steadings treasury and held it high. “May Pelor, god of healing and light,see us through the reek and the walls and know our hearts and guide us through this hellish place.”
    “And may Heironeous,” Malowan added, “he of honor andjustice, strengthen our hearts, knowing our cause is just and right.”
    “Kord, you who give strength and courage, smile on us,” saidKhlened.
    Bleryn grinned at him fiercely. “May Ulaa, god of mountainsand gemstones, grant us all courage in dark places… and great trove.”
    Agya brought her chin up. “Rudd who guards thieves, make luckours in there.”
    “Trithereon,” Lhors murmured, “for my father, who trulyserved him.”
    “I ask the blessing of Kelanen, god of swords,” Vlandar said,“that my blade protect us all and bring us all safely away.”
    “Dalt, father of locks and keys, remember your servant,”Gerikh prayed, “and let me aid these who rescued me.”
    The rangers eyed each other. Rowan gripped her sister’s armand said, “Let Lydia, goddess of music and daylight, hear me. When we walk inthe dark, let us remember why we do this: so that ordinary folk may be allowed to live happily and freely under the sun. Let us remember such good, simple things lest the darkness swallow us, body and soul.”
    Maera merely bowed her head and said nothing.

    It was the hour just after dawn when the party emerged, butthey could barely tell by the sky. There was perhaps a bit more light in the east, though that might have been another volcano. The fire giants seemed to keep the same pattern as the hill and frost giants. There were no outside guards posted and no one was in sight as they neared the pile of hardened lava and slag. Still, everyone kept under cover as best as they could, flitting from boulder to boulder and sprinting when in the open.
    Nemis led the way right up to the main entrance, with Khlened and Bleryn bringing up the rear. Once they reached the heavy-looking metal door, the mage gave Malowan a small nod as if to say, “Do what we discussed.”
    The mage used a spell to charm the door open. It swung in soundlessly, revealing a corridor lit by well-spaced torches. The hall was made of the same black rock as the outer walls, though here tapestries broke the surface instead of vents. No one was in sight.
    Malowan fixed his eyes on the dark opening, whispering urgently. When the paladin was done, Nemis touched Khlened’s arm to get thebarbarian’s attention and sent his eyes toward the nearest tapestry. They couldsee it moving in and out slightly, as if someone sat behind it, breathing heavily.
    Guard, the mage signed grimly.
    Khlened’s eyes flicked from the mage to Bleryn. The dwarfnodded, and the two moved as one, running forward silently to throw themselves at the drape. They vanished behind it, and someone with a very deep voice made a startled grunt. The only other sound was the unpleasant crunch of the barbarian’s morning star crashing down on something-perhaps an unhelmed skull.
    Bleryn leaned out to draw a hand across his throat. Khlened hung back long enough to rub his spiked ball on the tapestry, then stepped aside so Nemis could again lead the way.
    The passage widened abruptly, turning into a vast hall that went at an angle east to west. Lhors, not far behind the dwarf, thought he could make out a broad hallway going north partway down and another going south. At the far end of the long, dimly lit chamber, Lhors thought he could see steps going up to a dais and an empty throne. The youth caught his breath as Malowan pressed past him and Agya and gestured for them to stay back.
    Perhaps twenty long paces away, two odd-looking creatures stood, swinging black morning stars casually.
    They have two heads each! Lhors realized.
    Agya tapped his arm sharply to sign the same information a breath later.
    The creatures were huge, built rather like men. Atop their massive, black-skinned shoulders, were two heads, and each head faced a different direction. There would be no sneaking past two such guards.
    Malowan edged forward to join Nemis, who stood in shadow watching the guards. The two men conversed in cautious sign. As Vlandar came over to join them, Nemis signed, Wait here.
    Before the warrior could find out what the mage wanted to do, Nemis strode into the dim torchlight. Vlandar gave the paladin an astonished look, and Malowan gestured, Wait.
    The creatures might have been fearsome in appearance, but they didn’t seem too bright. Perhaps one brain was divided among two heads.
    The creatures both saw the mage at the same moment and simply stared at him. Nemis moved out into the hall and turned partway around. Lhors could see him give the creatures a toothy smile as he said, “Well, if it isn’tmy old friends, Meghos and Zogry.”
    One head each stared at him still, but the other two shifted back to keep watch over the vast chamber and its passages. Vlandar froze as one head seemed to linger on the shadow where they hid. When it moved on without raising a cry, he drew back into deeper darkness, bringing his company with him. Malowan whispered something against his ear. Vlandar nodded and gestured with his free hand for Lhors to stay where he was. A moment later, Vlandar eased along the shadows of the wall and began to move slowly but purposefully toward Nemis and the guards.
    Malowan touched Lhors’ arm. “There are spears,” hewhispered. “See them?”
    Lhors looked where the paladin pointed. The ettins had long weapons leaning against the wall. Lhors nodded carefully.
    “Rowan and Vlandar will create a diversion while Nemis keepsthe noise contained. You get one of the spears and kill one of those creatures. Can you?”
    Lhors swallowed dread and nodded again.
    “How tha’ little man know us?” one creature said, divertingthe youth’s attention. It spoke Common, but with a thick accent made worsebecause it seemed to be missing most of its front teeth. Its other head came around to stare at Nemis.
    “What, Meghos? You don remember the boy you used to stalkthrough the lowest caverns? The mage’s ’prentice you ’ad so much fun terrifying,down there?”
    “Cannot be,” the second replied promptly. “’E’s got a beardan’ ’e’s lots bigger.”
    “Much bigger,” Nemis corrected him gravely, “and you’vecome up in Snurre’s graces.”
    “Uh?” both asked blankly.
    “You guard Snurre,” Nemis said with another flash of teeth.“How sad,” he added incisively, the smile vanishing on the moment, “that youwill not be able to enjoy the task any longer.”
    “’Ere!” The first snorted indignantly. “You insulting us?”
    Nemis shrugged and smiled.
    Vlandar had come up right behind the creatures in utter silence, unnoticed by either. He ran forward with two swords drawn, and before the awkwardly shaped ettin was properly aware of its danger, Vlandar was inside his reach, both blades stabbing up into the creature’s back. The creature howledin pain, but the sound was somehow flat and muffled.
    Nemis is shielding sound, Lhors reminded himself as he slid along the wall. He watched as Vlandar let go his blades and leaped back just as Rowan drew her bow. The ranger ran into the open and began loosing arrows at the heads of the second creature.
    Now or never! Lhors ran along the wall to snatch up one of the long spears. The first ettin fell to the floor, but the second must have seen Lhors moving, for it turned and charged with a vicious roar. So terrified that he couldn’t even scream, Lhors planted the spear’s base against the walland lowered the point. The ettin tried to stop at the last moment, but one of Rowan’s arrows plunged into its groin, causing the brute to fall. The point ofLhors’ spear went in beneath one of the ettin’s jaws, angling up into itsskull. The spearhead must have slammed into the back of the giant’s skull,because the shaft suddenly bent and broke with a massive snap!
    The youth dropped the broken shaft as the creature fell. Breathing heavily, he leaned against the wall with the dead ettin only inches from his feet. Above the nasty stench that was everywhere in this land, he could smell the rough cast-iron reek of the blood pooling on the floor.
    Rowan came over and wrapped an arm around his shoulder, drawing him away.
    Lhors glanced back over his shoulder: Vlandar gazed expressionlessly at the dead ettins. He’d already retrieved his blades. Vlandarand Nemis joined them moments later.
    “My silence spell still holds. The king’s throne is there.”Nemis pointed out the dais at the opposite end of the long hall. “Obviously, heis elsewhere. There is a hiding place he has behind the throne somewhere in that wall. The rest I do not know, except that there are guards on all the passages.”He turned north and was quiet a moment. “The stairway down is that way.”
    “Where’s the king, d’you think?” Khlened asked. He’d drawnhis berserker sword.
    “Uncertain,” Nemis said. “He could be anywhere. UnlikeNosnra, he does not keep regular hours, and he often prowls his halls alone or with a guard or two.”
    “Fine,” Agya said angrily. “I feel mighty safe now.”
    “You’ve no business feeling safe here,” Malowan reminded her.“What next, Vlandar? Do we-?”
    He never finished the sentence. Nemis murmured a hasty spell that extinguished the ettins’ torches as loud footsteps echoed and the creak ofarmor suddenly filled the hall. Somewhere to the east, a door slammed.
    “Remember what I said,” Nemis rasped to Vlandar. “Safestthing is to kill Snurre.”
    “I agree,” Vlandar whispered. “But let’s see who and whatguards him before we attack.”
    He led the company back to where the ettins lay and settled behind the nearest, sword drawn. The rest of the company found what hiding they could as four torch-carrying guards came into sight at the hall’s far end.
    Lhors swallowed dryly. The shortest of them was over twice his height. All were ebony-black and looked very professional.
    In their midst, walked a very odd figure indeed. He was shorter than his guards, but powerfully muscled and clad in black armor. Tusk-like teeth gleamed in the torchlight, and his moustache and beard were nearly the same unpleasant orange-moss shade as his teeth.
    Agya stiffened as two enormous dogs paced along with him, sniffing the air suspiciously. Both hounds had very deep red hides, and their eyes glowed with a hellish light. Malowan laid a reassuring hand on her arm and carefully indicated Nemis-the mage was using his beneath notice spell on theparty.
    The tusked giant flipped a white, leathery cloak aside so he could sit, then adjusted his black iron crown and drew a massive, thick-bladed sword. He settled the sword upright on the dais before him and rested his forearms on the crosspiece. The hounds dropped to the floor by his feet and closed their eyes, but they seemed no less alert.
    “Snurre?” Vlandar whispered despite Nemis’ silence spell.
    The mage nodded grimly.
    One of the guards moved off to light torches placed in the back wall, throwing the throne room in a ruddy orange light. An ornately carved flaming skull decorated the wall immediately behind the throne, and the other walls were carved in various battle scenes.
    Khlened tightened his grip on his morning star and began to move forward, but Nemis tugged at the barbarian’s hair. “Wait until he takes offthat cloak. It’s dragon-hide, and he’s less of a threat if it isn’t on him!”
    The barbarian nodded agreement.
    The mage waited for some moments, then glanced at Vlandar and nodded. Vlandar drew a hand across his throat, and Khlened grinned cheerfully. The dwarf loosed his axe, and Rowan knelt quietly to arrange arrows onto the floor by her knee. Maera pressed a listless Florimund behind her as she freed her javelins.
    When everyone was ready, Nemis stepped toward the dais, and the rest of the party charged. One of the hounds growled a warning-the onlyadvance notice Snurre and his guards had of the attack. The second dog went down before it could properly get to its feet as Maera’s spear plunged into itschest.
    Snurre stared down at his pet in shock, then shouted an order. Like other sounds, it sounded flat to Lhors, as if it didn’t carry veryfar. The guards could certainly see the invaders, though. They came around the throne, weapons at the ready, and the other dog surged to its feet. It whined faintly when its master snarled out an order and abruptly retreated behind the throne, dragging at a lever on the wall. Part of the wall swung into an utter blackness into which Snurre leaped. The hound spun around and loped after Snurre. The two vanished into darkness, and the wall clicked shut behind them.
    There were three guards still left, but one was foolish enough to turn away-making sure his king was safe, Lhors thought. Bracinghimself for impact, Lhors shoved his spear deep into the monster’s leg, justbelow the knee and angling up. The giant went down hard as Lhors leaped away.
    Vlandar ran forward and brought his sword down two-handed across the brute’s neck. The guard did not move again, but another was fast uponthem. The giant came at them, hammer held high. But it never came down. Maera’sspear and Rowan’s arrows brought the creature down, and Bleryn finished thefellow off with his own hammer.
    Beyond them, Khlened was engaged in a mismatched battle of morning stars-hisown, though bugbear in size and heft, was still smaller than the fire giant’s.The Fist was using strategy, planning his own swings so the giant’s weaponwouldn’t rip his from his fingers. Before he could settle the match though, thegiant snatched up a fallen sword and lunged. Khlened howled with pain and collapsed as the blade stabbed through his shoulder.
    Vlandar threw himself forward and dragged the barbarian aside as Agya stabbed both her long knives into the back of the guards knee. The guard yelped in surprise when the leg simply collapsed under him. Agya barely managed to get out of the way in time.
    The fallen guard lunged after the little thief, but Lhors charged forward with his spear, stabbing the fallen brute through the eye. Lhors turned, seeking the last guard, but he lay still, his armor red-hot and his hair smoking unpleasantly. Malowan’s fire-sword pinned him to the wall.
    “Easy, people,” Vlandar ordered. “Agya, you and Lhors keepwatch. Bleryn, watch back the way Snurre came and make sure no one sneaks up on us. Malowan, see to Khlened’s wound.”
    The barbarian leaned against the wall. He was still standing, but blood coursed freely from his shoulder and he was obviously in agony. The paladin ran to him and began to lay hands upon the wound. Malowan’s hands glowedfor the briefest instant, and the barbarian gasped in surprise. As the paladin stepped back, Khlened smiled and waved the healed arm freely. “Thank you,paladin,” he said. “I’m in your debt.”
    “Gerikh,” Vlandar continued, “if you can, find a way todisable the door Snurre went through so he can’t come after us with an army.”
    “He’s won’t,” Nemis replied evenly. “He’s gone to ground.That’s both a treasure cave and hiding place with no other way out.”
    Khlened looked up, his eyes bright at the mention of his favorite word.
    The mage sighed. “Forget it. The whole place is guarded bysomething snakelike, huge and nearly impossible to kill.”
    “No time,” Vlandar said tersely.
    “We need to go, now,” the mage whispered as he came back. “My beneath noticespell won’t hold much longer.”
    “No time like the present,” Vlandar said. “Which way though?”
    “Back where we came and up the north hall,” the mage repliedpromptly. “Remember, we’ve little time to waste here, even with Snurre inhiding.” He looked at Gerikh.
    Gerikh nodded. “I found the doorway and braced one of thoselong spears across it. It wont hold against a brute like that for long though.”
    “Let’s go, then,” Vlandar urged. He let Nemis take the lead.
    They headed back through the darkened hall, avoiding the dead ettins, and took the passage heading roughly north. This finally went straight north-a fairly long corridor lit at odd intervals by lanterns. The unmistakable,if distant, clatter of a kitchen came from the left, and the wall down a west-branching passage was lit brilliant red from some enormous fire.
    By now, Nemis was well up the hallway, his back against the east wall and two fingers across his lips. Guards there, he signed and sent his eyes sideways to where they could just make out a break in the black stone. The mage held up two fingers and drew a meaningful hand across his throat.
    Vlandar nodded grimly and brought up his sword, but Nemis pressed past him and stepped into the open, turning to face the opening as he brought his hands up, fists clenched.
    “Kill,” he rasped softly. Utter silence followed, then themuted clang of swords hitting the floor and two massive bodies falling onto them. The mage nodded in satisfaction and pointed up the hall.
    Lhors glanced anxiously at Malowan. The paladins lips were moving, probably in prayer for the dead guards, but he was quiet about it.
    The hall was still quiet. They stepped over dead guards and went on north, following Nemis.
    “The stairs down are just there,” the mage murmured. “There wereno guards between here and the stairs the last time I was here, but that was years ago.”
    They made it down the long flight without incident. At the base of the stairs, they paused to rest. Lhors took a long drink from his bottle, and let the warm water sit on his tongue for some time before swallowing. He felt dry all the way through, and his lips were cracked.
    “This level I know,” Nemis said finally. “The passageeast”-he pointed-“is a dead end. There’s a temple, guest quarters, and trollsthat way-or were. I doubt anything’s changed. It had not in all the yearsEclavdra had come here, and they were many more than all of my years. Still, unexpected guards do patrol at intervals in case someone is mad enough to break into this place. Walk warily.”
    “Trolls or somethin’ comin’ this way right now!” Khlenedwhispered tensely. “And we’re in the open. Back up the stairs?”
    “No,” Vlandar said as he scrambled to his feet. “Straightacross into the passage.”
    They ran for it. Moments later a party of a dozen or more armed creatures clomped by and vanished around the bend, heading east.
    “The prison cells are nearby,” Nemis said after the din ofheavy footsteps had faded. “Mal, I hope you will not-”
    “I have Agya to protect here, before anyone else,” thepaladin broke in.
    “Good,” the mage said gravely. “Remember that.” His lipsmoved silently. “I’ve just set a silence and reveal enemy spell both. We shouldrest here a little. The drow guest chamber is not far away, and we need all our strength against them.”


    It was very dark in the lower level of the palace-dark, dryand hot. The place they hid was so dark that Lhors couldn’t tell whether it wasa chamber, a passage, or a niche cut in the wall. There seemed to be dead air behind them, and a faint but unpleasant odor like things long dead. Lhors shuddered and forced his attentions elsewhere.
    Test your spears. You can do that by feel. Make certain thewood is not cracked or the points loose. He’d learned the trick from hisfather years earlier, how to do that in full dark and not lose a finger. The spears-he had only two left-were still in good shape. So were the expensivedaggers that he’d nearly forgotten about. It took him a moment to rememberPlowys’ name. After all that had happened since the fellow had died on theirfirst foray into the Steading, Lhors was surprised he could remember that much at all. He was astonished when he counted up the long daytime rests that counted as their nights. Plowys had died only six days earlier, but it seemed like a distant memory. Lhors’ life had become little more than running, hiding,killing, and more hiding. In between were times of restless sleep that brought only bad dreams.
    He thought Rowan and Maera were also checking their weaponry. Malowan and Nemis sat close together, talking very quietly. The two men were probably going over some magic they would use together. Whatever grievance the paladin might still have toward Nemis, he had set it aside for now.
    Lhors sighed and took another sip of tepid water. Drink small amounts, but often when you’ve little to see you through, his fatherhad always told him. The bottle might get him through one full day, but not two. Water in this place…
    I’d never trust it, Lhors told himself. Malowan or Nemiscould find water and possibly even cleanse it if there was time. If we dared to go looking for water. Nemis was right, the voice in the back of his mind whispered. This is no place for any of us. We’re all going to die here in thedark.
    Lhors pushed the gloomy voice away and wondered how much longer before they would move on and how much longer before they would battle these drow. They sound very dangerous. Perhaps, he thought, we really will all die in here-or all of us except Nemis. Suddenly, Lhors could understand whyKhlened and some of the others didn’t fully trust the mage, especially sinceNemis didn’t often explain himself unless Vlandar insisted.
    He gazed into the dimly lit hallway that ran south to north and across it to the stairway they’d come down. It was blessedly quiet up there.He couldn’t imagine that would last for long. Even if that horrid fat giant kingcan’t free himself from the place he hid, he mused. Some guard will come lookingfor him. They’ll see Gerikh’s bar across the way in and then…
    Lhors drew back as two brutish trolls suddenly stomped down the hall, hesitating at the staircase. His heart sank, and he feared discovery when the two turned to look his way. But Nemis’ protective spells were as goodas the mage claimed. The two monsters tromped on south, hesitated a moment at the bend in the passage, then trod back north, their footsteps echoing and growing fainter until they ceased entirely.
    Vlandar sat next to him, back propped against the stone wall and legs stretched in front of him. He seemed fairly relaxed, content to let Malowan and Nemis work out their plans while he rested. Lhors reminded himself that so far, Vlandar and the others had kept them safe.
    And you’ve helped. You’ve killed giants. Father’d be proud,had he lived to see that. Lhors Giant Killer Agya had called him. He smiled to himself. True, others had helped in the killing, but twice now, Lhors had dealt the killing blow-once in pure rage and once in sheer panic, but bothcreatures were equally dead.
    Seems ya might not be so useless after all. The wordsechoed in his head.
    Lhors settled his shoulders next to Vlandar’s. He was stillafraid, but that was sensible in a place like this. Fear would help to keep him alive. He’d manage.
    Some moments later, Vlandar stirred. “Everyone caught theirbreath? Legs rested? Weapons checked?” There were a few quiet murmurs of assent.“Good. Nemis, how much farther and what can we expect when we get there besidesa brutal fight?”
    Nemis slid over next to Vlandar. “Not much farther-as long aswe can go straight up this hall and then east. Once we’re there, things will getinteresting. Complicated. There is one main entry blocked by a dreadful trap-atentacle wall. It looks like an ordinary part of the wall until you get close, then the tentacles grab you. I have some spells to use against it, but I doubt they will entirely neutralize it. And if only the tentacles are destroyed, there are other things on the wall-beaks to bite you.”
    “What about my arrows from the Steading trove?” Rowan asked.
    “They might harm it, but if you touch the wall, it warnsthose inside. An arrow-or any weapon for that matter-might have the sameeffect. The only other way in is through a secret door inside the cells. I suggest we not go that way.”
    “Why fight ’em at all?” Agya demanded softly. “Why don’t youand Mal go close by, make a spell t’learn who’s in there, then get away, or putsleep on ’em and search in there?”
    “I think it unlikely a sleep spell would work on every drowin there. I am certain it will not work on Eclavdra. But we must get in. If only servants or clerics are there, we can kill or disable them and then search for further proof against Eclavdra-other allies she has, perhaps even more maps. Ifshe returns here to find her sanctuary violated, it won’t stop her, but it maymake her wary for a while. If she is here…” He drew a deep breathand expelled it in a rush. “Then we must kill her.”
    “If we can.” Vlandar nodded. “We must go before someone findsour handiwork above.”
    “Remember,” Nemis told them as he got to his feet, “the drowdo not expect open attack here. The rooms are guest chambers and placed in the very midst of this palace. King Snurre’s guards patrol frequently, but the drowtake normal precautions only. Also,” he added with an almost cheerful grin, “itis daylight out there. Drow live deep in the ground, but even so, many of them choose to sleep when the sun lights the lands above them and wake when the sky is black. If there is a chance for us to surprise them, this is the hour.”
    “Besides,” Malowan put in, “the scroll is in there, and weneed it. I don’t relish the idea of walking all the way back to Keoland.”
    Vlandar nodded with a smile, then eased over to peer into the hall. He drew back suddenly.
    “Guards,” he rasped, “three of ’em at the far end of thehall. They’re standing there talking. Sure your spell’s holding, Nemis? Mal?”
    Both men nodded.
    “We won’t go yet, then. Nemis, tell us what to expectinside.”
    Lhors doubted the warrior had forgotten anything. He was keeping them all from worrying about things or getting restless-and making sureeveryone else remembered.
    Nemis shrugged.
    “If nothing has changed since I was here years ago, it’sabout twice the size of the cave we were in last night. It is divided into two rooms by a curtain. The far chamber is her bedchamber. It is all dimly lit. One or two clerics have the outer chamber, and that’s where we will come in. They’llbe competent magicians, but Mal or I will do what we can to neutralize them so that you fighters can take them on. If any of the drow has a thing like a lash with several snaky ends, don’t let it touch you. It will sap your strength.Eclavdra-if she’s here-Mal and I will take her. Agya, Lhors, Gerikh, andFlorimund, you can serve us best by staying out of the way and guarding our backs. Rowan, Maera, whatever arrows and spears you have left from the Steading trove, save them for her.” He thought a moment. “Ah, I nearly forgot. She andany of her drow who come here use a spell scroll. There is another such scroll here to take them back. If any drow tries to get to it, do all you can to stop him.”
    “Why?” Agya asked warily.
    “So we don’t all get transported underground,” Nemis saidevenly. “And the king’s wizards may be able to use it. Vlandar, are your guardsstill up there?”
    “Still there,” the warrior reported, “but wait. One’s gone onnorth. The other two are heading this way.”
    He eased back against the wall, and the party fell silent. Some moments later, two trolls strode past and went down the hall and around the bend. Rowan edged around Vlandar and pressed against the south wall of their hiding place, listening intently.
    She finally nodded. “Truly gone.”
    “Good. Let us go then,” the mage said and stepped into theopen.
    Lhors sighed faintly as he moved back into the hall. Look upon me, Father. Help me be brave.

    Nemis drew them to a halt just short of a smithy. The dinhere was strong and echoed into the hallway. Dark ruddy light from several fires lay across the stones. The mage nodded and led them up the hall.
    Another few paces brought them to another broad hallway, this one heading east. It was gloomy that way despite a few torches stuck into the wall. Most of those burned fitfully, and all but one was at the far end of the passage. To the north, Lhors thought he could hear voices, echoing eerily as if the speakers stood in a huge chamber.
    Nemis gestured for them to follow him and moved swiftly into the east passage. Some paces on, he stopped and drew everyone close against the north wall. Lhors was aware of a wide passage that dropped down just past where they stood and a vast, drafty space that way. Nemis pointed the other direction at a rough section of the wall across the passage from them.
    The mage gestured for complete silence, then stepped back to let Malowan take his place. The paladin gazed at the wall for some moments. Then, with a glance at his companions, he pressed his palms together. His lips moved for some moments. He eyed Nemis, nodded, and walked steadily across the hall.
    To Lhors’ astonishment, the paladins hands seemed to go into the wall as ifit were water. Malowan withdrew one hand and beckoned for the others to join him. Khlened and Bleryn exchanged wary looks but moved out, the rangers right behind them. All four had weapons at the ready as they went into the wall and out of sight. Florimund stayed quietly where he was until Agya took hold of his arm and drew him across the passage. The half-elf willingly went with her.
    He’s given up, Lhors thought. He went next, followed byGerikh and Vlandar. Nemis brought up the rear. The wall felt flaccid against his skin and seemed to cling to him, but he was through it and next to Agya in an instant.
    The chamber was hung with purple and black drapes and was thickly carpeted. A black candle burned in a deep holder on a table partway across the room, another deep in a wall-niche.
    Khlened and Bleryn were already partway across the room, advancing on a couch near the west wall and the black-skinned fellow who blinked at them sleepily.
    He’s so small! Lhors thought.
    Lhors’ eyes shifted briefly as Vlandar stepped away from himand threw one of his daggers. A second drow had come from behind one of the drapes, his lips moving in a spell. The dark elf ducked the dagger, and Vlandar reached for another. Rowan’s arrow sang past Lhors’ ear and caught the drowbetween shoulder and throat. The fellow’s eyes went wide with pain but his lipswere still moving. Maera ran him through with her spear.
    “Well done! Get back now!” That was Nemis.
    Maera freed her spear, but Rowan only had time to grab one of her arrows before the mage pulled her back.
    On the other side of the chamber, Lhors could see Khlened towering over his adversary. The barbarian grinned fiercely and brought up his sword, but the drow rolled from the couch and under it, emerging on the other side as the barbarian brought the weapon down in a slashing blow that cut deeply into finely carved wood. Before he could free it, the drow snatched up a long rod from the floor and lashed out. Writhing tentacles smacked into Khlened’sarm. The barbarian sagged against the wall, gasping for air. Even with two hands, he couldn’t seem to lift his sword.
    The drow chuckled and raised the weapon for another blow.
    Bleryn jumped back just in time, then brought his javelin down savagely across the clerics slender wrist.
    Lhors winced as he heard the unmistakable crack of bone. Bleryn shoved the fallen weapon aside with the tip of his spear and took a step forward. The drow reeled back a pace, his lips moving. Bleryn froze, weapon upraised. Khlened wasn’t moving either.
    “Spell,” Nemis hissed. “Mal, watch the drape!”
    The mage took a pace into the open, catching the drow’sattention. The fellow cradled his broken arm against his breast, but his lips continued to move. Nemis murmured something, then held up his hands as the cleric bared his teeth. The drow stayed that way, as if suddenly turned to stone.
    “Sent the magic back at him,” the mage explained. “Leavethem, Vlandar,” he added softly as the warrior started toward Khlened. “There isnothing you can do now except fight to protect them until we are done.”
    The mage moved across the room, stopping several paces from the brightly colored drape that covered most of the east wall.
    Lhors tightened his grip on the daggers he’d drawn andswallowed past a dry throat. Why hadn’t this Eclavdra attacked them yet? Werethey alone? He suddenly realized he’d been holding his breath since he’d firstseen movement on that couch. The entire attack against the two drow had taken no time at all.
    Nemis, Malowan, and Vlandar stood in the middle of the room facing the drape. Rowan had taken up a position near the corner and knelt to fit an arrow to the string. Maera was so near Lhors, the youth could have taken a step and touched her.
    She looked at him, thought for a moment, then finally spoke. “Keep Florimund safe for me.”
    He didn’t quite know what to say.
    “We’ll keep ’im,” said Agya from behind Lhors.
    Nemis moved to the very center of the room, gesturing for his two companions to move away from him, then he took a deep breath.
    “I know you are there, Eclavdra,” he said, making no attemptat silence. “Come forth or we will set fire to the chamber.”
    Silence answered them.
    “We control the palace of the fire giants, Priestess. This isno longer a haven for you.”
    “You do not.”
    Lhors started as a resonant, low female voice wafted through the room. He hadn’t seen any movement of the drape, but she was suddenlythere.
    The clerics had seemed small to the youth, but Eclavdra-ifthis was truly she-was smaller than Agya. Unlike the little thief, the drow wasalmost fragile-looking. She wore a flowing black robe barely touched with silver. Sheer fabric slid smoothly over high breasts and a flat belly. Long silver hair rippled from beneath a cap the color of her skin. Tendrils of her hair slipped across her wrists and shoulders as she shook her locks back from sharp ears.
    Lhors caught his breath.
    Faint as the sound was, the delicately boned face turned his way and large, dark eyes met his very briefly. Her lips turned in amusement.
    The youth could feel himself blushing, but Eclavdra’sattention was again fixed on Nemis.
    “You do not control the palace,” she said again. “I would know.” She laughedthroatily. “But it is good to see you again, Nemis. I expected you to return tome, but scarcely like this.” She gestured. “A handful of would-be heroes to…what? Take your vengeance against one who cared for you? I did, you know. Why else did I put up with your sulks and your angers, your loathing for your uncle, and your kind touch on my-”
    “Save that,” Nemis said flatly. “This is justice, notvengeance-”
    Whatever else he would have said went unheard. Eclavdra’speals of laughter stopped him.
    “I see. You will take vengeance against me for the sake ofgrubby peasants and ignorant herders, is that it?”
    Agya gripped Lhors’ arm when the enraged youth surgedforward.
    “Stay put!” the little thief hissed. “Can’t y’tell? She wantsus angered! She wants t’get Mal and Nemis so mad as they can’t think proper,then she c’n kill us all.” She kept hold of him until he took a deep breath andlet it out slowly. She was right, of course.
    Lhors had missed something in listening to Agya. The sorceress had apparently said something to upset Malowan. His mouth was grim as he took a step toward her. “What can you hope to get from this? All the fieldsand cities of Oerth? They are no use to you!”
    “No? We could live again on the surface, if we chose-if itwere ours. In the meantime, it will be a source of wealth, worked for us by slaves with giants to oversee the harvests, collect the cattle and sheep, even dwarves to mine for us. Of course,” she added with a tight-eyed smile inRowan’s direction, “we will do away with aberrations such as that atonce.”
    The ranger merely raised her chin and sighted down her arrow.
    “Do not bother with that toy,” Eclavdra added with a nastylaugh. “I can turn it against you-or better, turn it against your sister.”
    The drow’s hands moved sharply.
    “Mal!” Nemis shouted a warning as, with a faint cry ofprotest and pain, Rowan turned away from the drow and aimed it at her sister. She struggled against the magic, but it was of no use. She let go the arrow, and it shot through the air straight into Maera’s throat. The ranger fell, oneflawless end of the arrow protruding from under her chin, the bloodied point emerging from the back of her neck.
    Lhors dropped his daggers and ran to take the half-elf’sweight in his arms. She weighed less than he would have thought. He scooped her up as gently as he could and backed away. Agya was at his side, holding his daggers and ready to throw. Lhors eased Maera back close to the wall. He set her down gently on the floor, careful not to jar the arrow. The ranger was shuddering slightly but seemed to have passed out from the shock. Lhors could just hear a faint rasping. She was still breathing!
    “Don’t touch the arrow,” rasped Gerikh, who had come over tohelp. “She’ll bleed more, and it might kill her. As long as she’s breathing, thepaladin can still save her.”
    Lhors couldn’t see Rowan, but he could hear her franticweeping, then even that was lost under Eclavdra’s wild laughter. The rest of theparty had been stunned into inaction at the attack upon their comrade. Even Vlandar and Malowan stood stunned, eyes wide. In that instant, the sorceress darted forward to touch Vlandar’s arm then threw herself back against the drape,Vlandar screamed and staggered, his arm bleeding from shoulder to elbow.
    “Get back!” Nemis bellowed.
    Lhors half-expected some taunt from Eclavdra, but the drow seemed too intent on her spells to bother. As her lips moved this time, Malowan threw himself to one side and began a spell of his own.
    The colorful drape behind the sorceress suddenly sprouted thorns. Eclavdra jumped, and when she stepped away from the wicked points, there was blood in her hair.
    Not enough to slow her, Lhors realized unhappily. He glanced back at Maera. Dreadful as the rangers wound was, it was scarcely bleeding, and she was still breathing in ragged, shallow breaths. Maybe the paladin could heal her, if any of them managed to get out alive….
    Lhors swallowed and turned away. Agya handed him his daggers and drew her own, shoving the dazed-looking Florimund behind her.
    A swarm of lights darted around Nemis’ head-some spell ofhers, no doubt. But the lights didn’t seem to bother the mage. As Eclavdrabegan another spell, Nemis began one of his own.
    Rowan, still sobbing, ran out to grab Vlandar from the melee and drag him back behind one of the couches. Her eyes were puffy and red, and tears ran two pale tracks down her dusty cheeks.
    Movement along the wall caught Lhors’ eye. Bleryn hadKhlened upright and was trying to get him out of the open. Eclavdra shouted something and a searing flame tore across the room. The fire slammed into Bleryn, throwing him into the wall with a bone-shattering crunch, and the dwarf went up like a torch. He didn’t move as the flames consumed him.
    Khlened, who had fallen heavily when the dwarf let him go, dragged himself onto his hands and knees. He tried to escape the hellish heat, but he was too near to get away. The barbarian’s cloak began to smolder, hishair steamed, and then he too was enveloped in flames.
    Lhors clapped his hands over his ears to try to shut out the barbarians howls of agony, vaguely aware of Agya huddled tight against him. The agonized cries suddenly ceased, and the only sound from the far end of the chamber was the cruel crackle of flames.
    Malowan turned briefly to speak in that direction, his eyes dark with pain. Whatever he did, the fire stayed where it was, and even the smoke didn’t seem toget any thicker.
    “We end this now!” roared Nemis.
    The drow laughed wildly. “You end this? I think not.”
    She lashed out with a spell, and Malowan stumbled and clutched his eyes. Lhors tackled Agya before the girl could run to the paladin. A sidelong glance from Eclavdra told him the sorceress had wanted that.
    Ignoring Lhors and Agya for the moment, Eclavdra caught hold of a mace and took a cautious step toward the paladin.
    “Mal!” Nemis shouted. “Metal weapon!”
    “Can’t see!” Malowan said. He sounded furious.
    Eclavdra laughed again, and Malowan turned toward the sound, his hands moving. The handle of her mace suddenly turned a dull red and the drow’s laughter rose to a shriek of pain. She dropped the weapon, and it fellwith a dull thump, the carpet beneath it beginning to smolder.
    Malowan’s lips curved in a grim smile.
    “Paladin!” Rowan’s voice was low, but it cut throughEclavdra’s wailing and the crackling flames.
    Malowan began backing toward her, moving his feet cautiously across the carpet so that he wouldn’t trip over anything.
    Eclavdra held up her hands, and Lhors could see that her palms were red and badly blistered.
    “You have only one spell to neutralize whatever I use againstyou,” Nemis said grimly. “I know you, Eclavdra-and that was your greatestmistake. When I woke today, I made sure I would have several such spells. Go ahead and try to blind me. You’ll be the one who cannot see. You wasted yourfire on two who couldn’t have fought you anyway. Now you cannot touch me.”
    The sorceress’ lips began to move, her black eyes fixed onhis, but before she could complete the spell, an arrow sang past Nemis’ ear andplunged deep into the hollow between the draw’s throat and shoulder. She criedout, staggered, and almost managed to catch herself before she reeled back into the thorns. Blood soaked into her tattered robe as she tried to pull away from the clinging barbs.
    Nemis gazed into her eyes for a long moment.
    The sorceress drew a deep breath and began another spell. “Ignisthre navlanim,” he said quietly and pointed at her. A spear of fireerupted from his fingers and enveloped her. Eclavdra fell back full force into the thorns and hung there. A faint moan escaped her, and then she hung limp and lifeless.
    “Water!” Nemis shouted urgently.
    Lhors stared as the blackened horror curled in on itself, still burning. Agya caught up her water bottle and ran across the room. Nemis stopped her from throwing it on the burning drow.
    “No! For Mal. Go.”
    The mage did something that smothered the flames and stopped the smoke.
    “Rowan, leave Mal to Agya and help Vlandar. He is cut badly.Lhors and Gerikh, help me find Eclavdra’s chest. We need to get out of here, butI won’t leave without proof if it is here!”
    “What of Maera?” Rowan sobbed.
    “She’ll die with the rest of us if we don’t leave here soon,”Nemis said. “The silence spell did not hold. We will all be killed in a fewminutes if we don’t find that scroll!”
    “If there is anything to be done for her, we can heal her inCryllor! Now obey me!” The mage’s was grim as he looked across the room whereKhlened and Bleryn’s remains lay smoldering. His gaze hesitated on Maera, thenhe turned away. “We owe it to them.”
    Nemis did something that reversed the spell on Malowan’seyes. The paladin joined in the search for evidence then. His reveal spell found a chest deep in a cupboard where the clerics’ spare clothing was stored. Hefreed the box and handed it to Nemis. The mage made a quick check for traps, then began rummaging through the chest.
    “Here!” He shouted in triumph as he withdrew a scroll.
    Malowan handed the chest to Gerikh as the mage began perusing the scroll.
    “It’s your only responsibility,” said the paladin. “Keep itsafe.” He moved across the room, pausing to pray briefly over both dead clericsand the sorceress. He walked slowly over to look down at what was left of the barbarian and dwarf. Agya joined him.
    The paladin knelt to pray, but Agya stood very still, her head tipped to one side as she listened. “Mal, Nemis! There’s someone comingthis way!”
    “I know,” Nemis replied. “Almost ready.”
    A white-faced Vlandar stood behind them, his sleeve torn and stiff with blood. Lhors ran to help him. The warrior managed a faint smile for him, but his eyes were dark with pain.
    “All of you, over here!” The mage commanded sharply. “Now!”
    Agya helped Lhors get Florimund to his feet. Rowan stared down at her sister and refused to move when Vlandar tried to draw her away. Nemis came over then, scooped the ranger up in gentle arms, and handed her toMalowan.
    “Everyone, get as close together as you can,” the mage saidsharply.
    Lhors could hear deep voices out there now, and someone began slamming something heavy against the wall.
    “They can’t get in… can they?” Agya asked nervously.
    “It doesn’t matter,” Nemis said simply, then he voiced hisspell.
    The smoke and heat and carnage were suddenly gone, and so was the chamber. The world twisted and turned, blurring in and out of existence. Before Lhors could draw breath, he found himself sitting on wiry, coarse grass and cold ground. A cool wind ruffled his air, bringing the smell of road dust and horses. He blinked at the familiar walled city he’d seen only days before.
    Cryllor, he thought dazedly. They weren’t more than twohundred paces from the main gates. He could see people on the walls-guards andsoldiers-staring at them. Two farmers riding a cart piled high with hay haddrawn their bony horse to a halt so they could stare.
    Vlandar crouched next to him. He was very pale and obviously still in a great deal of pain, but seemed in very high spirits. Gerikh set the chest down at Vlandar’s side and tugged a blanket from his pack to cover thewarrior.
    Most of the onlookers had fled in fright, but a few alarmed guards with shields up and spears raised were beginning to approach tentatively. Ignoring their surroundings, Malowan let Agya spread another blanket so he could lay Maera on that. Rowan knelt there, silently weeping.
    “It will be all right,” Malowan told her. “We’re safe. Shestill lives. When I draw the arrow out, there likely will be a great deal of blood, but she should be fine. Gerikh and Lhors, you should hold her down in case she wakes.”
    As gently as he could manage, Lhors sat across the wounded ranger’s knees and pinned her wrists to the ground while Gerikh leaned heavilyupon her shoulders. The paladin knelt, snapped off the bloody point of the arrow, and with one slow, smooth motion, he pulled it out. There was a horrific gush of dark blood. Maera shuddered violently and whimpered but did not wake.
    Whispering an almost silent prayer, Malowan laid his hands over the wound. Blood seeped between his callused fingers, and still the ranger did not wake. After a moment the paladin removed his grip and sat back with a sigh. Maera’s wound was completely gone.
    “A moment’s rest, Vlandar,” the paladin said tiredly, “and Iwill see to you.”
    Vlandar nodded. With a painful wince, he got to his feet and waved at the cautiously approaching guards. “It’s Vlandar of the outer guard!”he shouted. “Send someone to let the lord know we’ve returned and get men outhere to help us!”
    Lhors felt light-headed, all at once. He watched, bemused, as men came running to clap Vlandar on the back. Everyone was suddenly talking at once, but the youth couldn’t understand a word of it. There was a strangethrobbing pulse in his ears, and a sudden exhaustion threatened to overwhelm him. He moved obediently when a healed Vlandar wrapped an arm around his shoulders and drew him into the city. He followed dreamlike through the streets and through the arched gate leading into the ruling lord’s courtyard. All thewhile, their party was surrounded by astonished soldiers and gawking townspeople.
    Later, he could remember very little of those following hours. After a very quick washing and change of clothes, Vlandar addressed the lord and his council. The entire party accompanied him, but no one else except Nemis and Malowan spoke. Somewhere in all that, Lhors must have fallen asleep, because when he opened his eyes, he’d been rolled into a blanket. It took him amoment to recognize the rough wood wall as Vlandar’s barracks and the pricklymattress as the one he’d slept on before.
    The room was quiet and dark except for a low-burning candle that had been shuttered next to his bedside. Malowan and Vlandar sat at the small table talking in hushed tones, but as the youth rolled over and edged onto his elbow, Vlandar looked at him and smiled. “It’s all right, lad. We’re allhere, and you’re safe.”
    “I know,” Lhors said, and lay back down.


    Late the next afternoon, Vlandar held a brief meeting in thebarracks courtyard. Excepting the slain Khlened and Bleryn, everyone from their party was there. Lhors thought Maera looked pale, and her face seemed even thinner than usual, but otherwise she was none the worse after her near-fatal wound.
    “The Lord Mebree is readying a delegation to go to the king,”Vlandar told them. “There have been more raids in Keoland since our departure,and the king will need our information. The chief magician here has a spell that will transport as many as fifteen to the palace in Niole Dra. The lord asks that I go, and Nemis and Malowan. The rest of you need not if you would rather remain here or go your own way, but I think you all have the right.”
    “I agree,” Malowan said. “Each of you performed deeds worthyof a king’s praise.”
    “Or a king’s ransom,” Gerikh put in. He smiled, but his eyeswere dark. “Khlened would have said as much, or Bleryn, and I think I may speakfor them.”
    “No.” A faint voice broke in. Florimund got to his feet, andwhen Maera-a subdued, almost docile Maera-would have protested, he put hisfingers on her lips to silence her, then turned to look Nemis in the eye. “I didnothing to deserve praise or thanks.”
    “Nothing,” Nemis agreed, “but it was the right sort ofnothing.”
    Agya scowled questioningly at Malowan, who merely shrugged in response.
    Florimund sighed faintly. “Yes, Nemis. I knew all along thatyou mistrusted me.”
    “I was aware you were not merely a prisoner taken, tortured,and left to rot in a cell,” Nemis replied. “I suspected there was more to you,but who could have known that the drow and their giant allies tried to turn you into a spy against your own kind? I admit, it seemed likely they would attempt this, but if they had succeeded with you, you would not have still been in that cell where we found you.”
    “You did not do what they wanted,” Maera offered.
    Rowans mouth twisted with distaste.
    “He didn’t, Rowan!”
    “I know,” Rowan replied softly. “Just as I know he never meant to make a wall between us, sister.”
    Florimund shook his head. “Not that, ever. Still, when youmade your way into the Rift, I was so afraid that I began to think that… Ithought if I could somehow-”
    “Y’meant t’make noise all along th’ way t’get us caught,”Agya snarled.
    Malowan murmured something in her ear and she subsided, but the half-elf nodded.
    “I tried to warn the frost giants, hoping they would… Idon’t know what I hoped. No more pain, of course. You didn’t know how bad firegiants’ hold was, and when I heard your plans to go there, and the drow… I…” He swallowed and turned away. “I could not face that.”
    “No one who had been to either place could blame you,” Nemissaid quietly. “I know. I have been there.”
    Florimund eyed the mage warily.
    Nemis managed a faint, wry smile. “I say you have as muchright as I to come with us.”
    Florimund bowed his head in grateful acquiescence. “Then howdare I say no? I have long wished to see the king’s city.”
    “And I,” Gerikh said. “There may be jobs about for anengineer like me.”
    “I am reminded, speaking of jobs,” Vlandar said. He wassmiling broadly. “We have coin and gems to divide among us. Even a small shareof that will keep you in comfort for some time to come, Gerikh.”
    “Little as I did to help you,” the man said.
    “You helped,” the warrior replied. “You held your own anddidn’t shrink back when the time came to fight.”
    Vlandar went into the barracks and came back with a cloth-wrapped packet that seemed heavy for its size. “The chest you carried outof the drow’s quarters. Lord Mebree’s wizards kept the scroll and the box, butthe lord gave me back what else was in there. Look.” He whipped the cover asideto reveal three bars of black metal. “That’s adamantine, or so they tell me.Each of them is worth about three thousand gold pieces each, and they’re ours.”
    “Not so bad,” the engineer allowed with a grin, though hiseyes were wide. The smile faded. “Too bad Khlened and Bleryn aren’t here toshare. I took to them, you know. I’d like to see the look on that red-beardedmadman’s face when he saw those.” A momentary silence followed, which he broke.“I’ll come with you, Vlandar. There may be a few things I can tell your kingabout what the giants were up to when I was taken.”
    “I will go,” Maera said steadily. “I-”she glanced up at hersister-“I want to be certain they know what the drow are capable of.”
    “If Mal’s in, then so’m I,” Agya added.
    “You most certainly are,” the paladin told her. “This is noplace for a young woman alone, especially when her only acquaintances are thieves and the like.”
    “No more thievin’ for me, I told y’so!” the girl protested.“B’lieve I’ll take my share of th’ bounty and use it t’be a fine lady in apalace.”
    “You,” Malowan said evenly, “will give at least a few coinsto the thieves’ god Rudd for answering your prayer back in that lava tube! Butif you choose to stay with me, there will certainly be no palace in your future!”
    Agya grumbled under her breath, sighed heavily, but finally grinned up at him. “Knew it,” she said cheerfully. “Knew y’needed me! Well, Is’pose th’ world needs someone like you t’keep things safe. My luck.”
    “Your luck and my fate,” replied the paladin and tugged ather hair.
    It was an odd relationship, Lhors thought. In Upper Haven, that kind of teasing between boy and girl or woman and man meant there’d be amarriage soon. But Malowan wouldn’t make such a vow, and certainly not with agirl less than half his age. Agya would likely be horrified if someone suggested she wanted Mal that way.
    Things seemed to be much more complicated than he’d thoughtthem when he was growing up in a small hill village. There his life had been structured by the seasons, by the ways things had always been, patterns as familiar as the shadow cast by a grain rick across the village square every midsummer at midday, or the way squashes came ripe when the shadow of a certain oak lay across the hill where the first vines were planted, even Gran and her formidable memory for the past-and that had come down from wisewomen before her,so that even the unexpected could be traced back to a larger pattern.
    There hadn’t been a pattern that warned her against thegiants, Lhors thought. But even if there had been, there couldn’t have been onethat would have told her about the drow or saved them from Eclavdra’s years ofscheming.
    He blinked and came back to the moment as Rowan smiled and took one of Nemis’ hands between both of hers. “I will go-if only because youdo.”
    Nemis tugged his hand free. “You owe me nothing,” he saidstiffly.
    “Owe. That word has no meaning between you and me, mage,”Rowan replied, as stiffly. She smiled. “You think yourself hardened by yourpast, but I know better. We will talk of this later-in private.”
    “If you like,” Nemis said, but he brought her hands up andbrushed them with his lips.
    “Huh?” Lhors looked up to see Vlandar’s eyes on him.
    “The king’s city, Lhors. You’ll come with us, of course?”
    The question warmed him. Of course. Vlandar could never replace his father, but he was a good man and kind, as well as a skilled warrior. Lhors knew that Lharis would be pleased to see his son apprenticed to such a warrior. Still…
    Giants had destroyed Upper Haven. High Haven and New Market were possibly gone as well. The king might not care so much for a few distant villagers trying to recover from such loss, but Lhors did. More importantly, he had his father’s hunting skills and he could plant, weed, shear sheep, helpbirth calves…
    He could keep the people-his people fed. Of course, ifthe giants came again, he doubted he’d be able to lead them into battle. Butthanks to Vlandar and the others, he could find a way to fight with few against many. He knew his duty. Still, it was hard to get the words out.
    “Sir… Vlandar.” He swallowed hard. “I would like very much to see theking’s city, but I know Gran must be worried. I should go home, at least to seeif she’s all right.”
    Vlandar shook his head. “I knew you would say that. Yourfather would be proud. But no, the Lord Mebree has already made certain the Havens are safe. He has a small company of guards quartered in a new garrison based in New Market, and there are more guards on the way-with one of my oldlieutenants who knows how to keep proper watch on country like yours. Your Gran is there in New Market with the children you and she rescued. And she sends word to you, Lhors.” The warrior paused to recollect the exact words. “‘We manage aswe always do… and will. Carry word for us, boy. Tell the king what you sawand remember to remind him of the taxes-lose enough villages and you lose morethan a pair of coppers, you lose all.’”
    “Pair of coppers…” Lhors echoed. He turned away, a lumpin his throat and his eyes damp. Gran, would it surprise you to know I have more wealth than our village ever paid the king in taxes, just because Vlandar thought I’d be a good rear guard? Well, he’d offer a few coins to his father’sgods, but more to the New Market and Havens villages. Enough to be certain his father had a proper burial, and that Gran and the two girls they’d savedwouldn’t want for anything.
    Beyond that-he didn’t know. Too many possibilities.
    One word caught his ear, all at once. Safe. Gran was, then. The girls were. That was good, he was sure of that.
    But safe-it wasn’t what he wanted. Lhors GiantKiller… the words echoed in his mind. Hearing that had felt good. Iteased the pain of his slain village, if only just a little.
    Vlandar seemed to read his thoughts. “If we are to put a stopto these raids, the king will need experienced men, especially those who have fought giants.”
    The boy I was, Lhors thought, maybe giants would have killed him as easily as they had killed Father. He had survived that night more by luck or the favor of the gods. Nothings sure, but just perhaps, knowing what I know now, I could have saved him or Headman Yerik, who had his own store of knowledge, or laughing Bregya, who’d taught him so much…. Once again, therage began to smolder within him. He held out both hands. “Sir… Vlandar, I’mwith you. To the end.”
    The warrior smiled and gripped Lhors’ shoulders hard.
    “I hoped you would.” He raised his voice. “We all go, andthat’s as it should be. All right, people! Let’s get cleaned up. Meet back herejust after sundown! And I warn you, if you think giants are a dire foe, you haven’t met the king’s court yet!”