The riders left at dawn, heading east. The bulk of the war camp was empty, the remaining scouts relaying to the group that the legion had mobilized and begun their forced march on Hillhold. The vanguard had deployed the day before as soon as they received confirmation from the warlord, and another legion en route from the east on the coastline. Blahgrut’s forces would meet them on the field of battle, evidently awaiting the presence of the mercenaries of Guild #237.
Rising without much talk, the somber blanket of impending battle settled over the group as they wolfed down a bland breakfast, mounted their horses, and set out towards the slowly brightening horizon. They rode in silence, following the map left by the warlord, crossing the great seas of grass as rocky ridgelines carved through the landscape to the north. They paused at midday at a stream crossing, refilling water skins and allowing their horses a moment of respite.
Heath looked across the faces of his new companions. They were not so inexperienced as to look forward to their task with excitement, or even optimism. Giants were creatures of nearly mythological scale, even in worlds where dragons and gods walked the earth. For more than a few, this would likely be their first exposure to pitched battle. War had left its mark on several members of these mercenaries, Heath could recognize it. But some had yet to see its ugliness themselves. Silent nods of affirmation were exchanged along with softened words of encouragement as they mounted up and continued riding.
By late afternoon, what had been only a thin line on the horizon grew thick and dark. A column of white, grey smoke became more clear against the clear blue sky, rising from a dark structure on top of a lonely hill. The words of warning echoing in their minds, the group found a jagged ridgeline of a broken hilltop and picketed their horses on the westward side, below view of the structure.
The jangle of tools and shifting equipment were broken only by the harsh cawing of ravens overhead. Heath looked up, watching as clusters of the dark feathered creatures wheeled through the sky, slowly heading to the east.
They know that blood is coming, Heath thought with grim determination. The Queen shall have her due before the sun sets, it seems. He tightened a cord, drawing his rope into a looped coil and slinging it across his shoulders.
“We’ll wait until we see the giants leaving to meet the legion in the field before we get too close,” Mars said, hefting his maul from where it had hung from his saddle. “Once they’ve moved to engage, we’ll reach the fort, go over the walls and inside.”
“We should get closer, get eyes on the fort now,” Heath said, shifting his quiver to accommodate the rope. The others looked at him warily. “Run reconnaissance while we wait, and so we are ready to move the moment there is an opening. We don’t have time to wait until they leave to scout the fort.”
Mars nodded. “Fine. Adrie, you scout to the south side of the fort. That’s where the gates are. Heath, you track to the west. Look for another point of entry, or point on the wall to climb.”
Heath gave a curt nod and pulled his hood over his head despite the heat as Adrie did the same. Her cloak was elegant and beautifully made, nearly midnight black, but as it moved it shifted with veins and threads of silver, moving like a shadow. While Heath relied on the drab coloration of his hunter’s hood for camouflage, Adrie could move as though a shadow clung to her back. The two diverted their paths, and slipped into the gently waving blades of grass. Heath crouched low as he took smooth, gliding strides. Moving silently and stealthily, he watched as the hills around him slowly flattened into the plain that surrounded the base of the rise upon which Hillhold was built.
He traced a wide arc, realizing that the perspective of the fortress was deceptive in scale. Remaining behind the last of the gentle rises before the ground extended towards the large hill, Heath had a clear vantage point, despite being over a quarter mile away. The only way he could gauge the distance was the width of the trees that had been used to create such a massive structure. Their height must have been at least twenty feet at the lowest points, with the trees being of similar width. Those trees, miniscule from the distance, and so tightly packed, were thick old-growth trees. The closest forests with that many trees… These giants came from the coastal ranges to the north. The forests of Northshore were over a hundred miles from Hillhold, and with the massive size of the great timber fortress, this was no trifling holdfast. This was truly a fortress built with an intent and purpose.
Studying the structure, Heath saw that the walls, while thick and tall, were entirely constructed of rough hewn timber and would be relatively easy to climb. The roof was made of heavy thatch, disorderly but thorough in its covering of the slightly peaked top of the fort. At the peak, towards the northern wall, a stone chimney sent a stream of smoke twisting into the air. On the opposite side, the arch of the gates faced the south, that was Adrie’s concern. Heath turned his focus to the single, tall rising watchtower on the western wall. A single figure lumbered at its apex, its shape massive but as the sun slowly arced overhead, Heath saw the reflection of something metal.
A low, echoing cry of a war horn cut through the air coming from the east. Heath remained perfectly still as he saw the figure in the tower turn in the direction of the sound. Another horn, echoing across the plains, again from the east.
He heard heard cries, impossibly low and rough and guttural, rising in a cacophony of fury from the fortress before him. The giants were on the move. Sinking low into the long grass, Heath ducked his head and headed back towards the others. As he turned south, he paused from just beyond the rise of a hill where he could see the south facing gates of Hillhold.
Thrown open, two lines of immense, corpulent, and vicious giants lumbered down the trampled grass. Heath saw heavy clubs, spiked cudgels, even the occasional remnant of a war machine that had been repurposed clutched in their thick, meaty hands as they stomped out to meet their foes. Heath watched as their lines turned to the east, grunts and cries echoing impossibly loud even at a distance.
Taking a deep breath, he pulled his gaze away and ran through the grass to where he had left the others. He arrived as Adrie was finishing her description of what she saw.
“… heavy and reinforced,” she was saying to the others, looking over as Heath jogged over, “and I’m not sure we have the force to batter down those gates from the outside.”
Iden grunted. “Maybe as a distraction?”
Heath shook his head, steading his breath. “There’s a scout in the watchtower, he’ll probably see anyone coming from the south and raise the alarm. He’ll be looking in the direction of the battle, if they’re in sight.”
“They are,” Adrie said casually. The others all looked at her in surprise. “In sight, I mean. I saw the battlelines of the legion on the hilltops. They’re prepared no more than five miles to our east. They will reach them in less than twenty minutes.”
Five miles, and you saw their battle formations? Heath thought skeptically, but kept his thoughts to himself.
“We never thought the front gate was going to be viable anyway,” Mars said, turning to Heath. “Did you see another way in? What of the walls?”
“No doors or gates to the west, but the walls are easily scalable,” Heath said. “The roof is thatch, I think that’s our best way in. Keep to the roof, get a vantage from above, and drop inside. We just need to take care of that watchtower.”
“I have an idea for that,” Grynlock chuckled dryly, looking over to Svrcina. “Have you ever flown before?”
Cocking her head to the side, she fixed the short figure with a curious stare.
Still chuckling, Grynlock shrugged his pack off and unfastened a thick, gnarled walking stick with what looked like a tinder bundle on the end. He held it towards Svrcina.
“I’ll tell you the phrase,” he said, wagging a finger at her, “and it’ll get you up there, but then you’ll be on your own. I need a way up there as well.”
The tielfing shook her head as a smile crept across her face. “I’ve never flown on a broom before, but I am eager to see what I can accomplish with it.”
Of course the little blighter has a magic broom, Heath thought with a groan. Next he’ll say he has a pointed hat to replace that ridiculous hood.
“So Svrcina will prioritize the tower,” Mars said, leaning down and drawing in the dirt. He sketched out a rough circle, marking the hill and the shape of the fort at its top. He drew a smaller mark, denoting the watchtower. “I think we should try for stealth before sending an explosion of magic into the tower. What is the best path to the stronghold?”
“Directly from the west,” Heath pointed to the ground. “The sun is past its apex and getting low. Anyone watching that way will have a hard time making us out if we’re careful. We could move north, parallel with the walls, and then directly east to the fort.”
Mars nodded, rubbing his chin. “Alright. Svrcina and Grynlock will focus the tower, but hold until at least we have the rest of us on the roof. In a perfect plan, we make it up and inside before the sentry notices. I will go with Heath, ascending the west wall beneath the watchtower. Adrie and Iden will go farther, and climb to the roof from the northwest corner. That way you’ll have vantage on the tower in case this goes sideways. If you see the sentry spot us, or once we’re inside, take care of him before he can raise any alarm. Any questions?”
They shook their heads. Mars smiled and looked to Grynlock.
“You want to put that flying stick to use? Do that trick where you vanish, then fly up there and see if those big slops are far enough away for us to move in?”
With a snap of his fingers, Grynlock’s form shimmered and vanished. Heath shook his head and began setting aside his extra equipment. The walls would be claimable without a rope, so he dropped that next to his pack. A minute later, a low cough from the space in the center of the group made everyone jump.
“Ahem” Grynlock’s voice said, coming form thin air. “They’re several miles away, and I couldn’t see details, but it looks like they’re engaging the legion.”
“Aha!” Mars laughed, rubbing dirt between his hands before hefting his maul over his shoulder. “Then we move! See you all at the top, come on ranger.”
Adrie and Iden fell into a jog as they outpaced the others heading north, and Heath heard Grynlock’s voice once again come from the void to Svrcina as they moved in the direction of the gates.
“…I think I’ll keep this up, I’m not the lightest on my feet. Even for my size. Besides, never let a good spell go to waste, I always say…”
Heath and Mars wove their way through the hills, and reached the spot Heath had paused at earlier. A quick check made sure the watcher in the tower wasn’t looking in their direction, and with a nod the two men fell into a full run to cover the distance to the base of the fort.
Pulling to a stop and forcing his breathing to slow, Heath strained his ears but heard no sound from the tower above them. He let out a breath, and nodded to Mars, motioning upward.
Hand over hand, the two men began to climb. The timber that made the bulk of the wall was in fact the thick, old growth trunks Heath had thought, but were even more massive than he had first realized. The smallest were three feet in diameter and rose to the roof nearly thirty feet overhead. The wood was rough with plenty of handholds, and surprisingly showed little sign of being smoothed through weather. The structure was not old.
Shortly, Heath and Mars crouched low on the roof, their backs pressed to the base of the tower. Still no sound or sign of alarm came. Heath slung his bow from his shoulder, glancing to Mars and motioning to the thatch underfoot.
“Under here?” He mouthed silently. “Or farther along?”
Mars scanned the rooftop, then pointed towards the stone chimney on the northern side. “That way,” he whispered. “Let’s reach Adrie and Iden if we can.”
They began moving across the roof, staying low as Heath craned his ears for any sound from above them. The sound of cracking straw and twigs cut through as Mars froze in place, his back foot punching through the roof. In the instant Heath’s mind contemplated reaching for him or moving, he felt his own weight shift.
With a sound like the crashing of a large beast through thick underbrush, the section of thatched roof beneath their feet collapsed, and both Heath and Mars tumbled down into the fortress.
Heath instinctively grasped for a handhold, but his hand found no purchase. Slamming into the ground in the room below, the men coughed violently as they struggled back to their feet. A large swath of the roof above was gone, a hole more than ten feet wide open to the sky above. It was the shifting of movement from the chamber they landed in that held Heath’s attention.
The massive room was filled with a motley array of furniture, though they were so poorly crafted they could be hardly called furniture. It was the three large, eight foot tall figures that were lumbering in their direction that made Heath’s blood run cold.
Smaller than the full grown warriors Heath had seen leaving the fortress, these giants were young and had not reached full adulthood. Vaguely human-like in appearance, they were ugly, fleshy creatures, with thick matted hair, pudgy features, and hungry expressions on their faces as they lumbered in the direction of the two men. They grunted and groaned as their arms reached out, like children reaching for a new toy.
Mars stepped in front of Heath, swinging his maul in anticipation. “I’ve got you,” he growled in a mix of frustration and anticipation. “Just watch my back. Come on!”
As the adolescent giants fell into a run, Heath drew back an arrow and sent it buzzing through the air into the lead giant’s face. It howled in pain as it reached for the wound, slowing it’s pace.
A second lurched in front, and Heath sent his second shot slamming into its knee. It stumbled from the impact, it’s momentum carrying it forward as it’s knee buckled, causing it to stumble.
Mars charged forward, swinging his maul into the lowered head of the stumbling giant with a sickening crunch. He spun, changing his momentum, and bringing it down in a wide overhead slam. The other two giants were getting closer, and Heath sent two more shots at each of them. One howled in pain again as the arrows caught it in the face, the other raising a meaty arm to protect it as it ran.
Coming from above, Heath heard the crack of arcane magic streaking through the air and he saw a flash of movement as a figure flying passed by overhead, but kept his focus on the room. A heavy snap, like a rope splitting under pressure, cut through the air, followed by another heavy cry.
That would be the watchtower, Heath thought with a sinking feeling. There goes the element of surprise. He watched as Mars raised his maul from the bloodied mess of where the head of the first giant lay unmoving. He sent another two arrows at the giant bearing down on him, aiming for the muscle of the calf. With satisfaction, he saw it collapse in pain just as Mars leapt to grant it a similar introduction to his maul.
The high pitched whine of magic streaking through the air came from above, followed by another crashing from the roof. Heath watched helplessly as another section of the roof splintered, and a tall, slender figure tumbled down in a mess of straw.
Adrie landed on her feet, her face flushed from the sudden fall. Seeing her mostly unharmed, Heath drew another arrow and sent it into the eye of the young giant charging him. It grunted in pain, took one more step, and fell to the dust. A yell from Mars and a heavy impact heralded the fall of the final giant in the room.
Breathing heavily, Mars looked over to Adrie with a smirk. “Glad you could find time to join us.”
She shrugged, casually brushing aside straw from her shoulders. “Couldn’t let you boys have all the fun.”
Another crack of arcane magic came from above.
Heath looked up to the sky through the hole. “Should we help them?”
Mars started walking to a large door on the far side of the room. “No,” he said, “we need to keep moving. We can trust them to take care of it. Where’s Iden?”
Adrie strode past Mars towards the open door. “He’s finding another way in.”
Heath retrieved his arrows from the bodies of the slain giants as Mars strained and pushed the heavy door open. Moving to follow, the three found a long, wide hallway that stretched more than a hundred feet. A crash came from farther down, behind another large door.
Heath and Adrie instinctively raised their bows, but lowered them as they saw Iden rush from the room, pulled the door shut behind him. His armor was covered in soot and a dark ichor dripped from one of his axes, serving to give the menacing figure an even more intimidating appearance.
“Don’t go in there,” he grunted as he joined them. “That’s their kitchen, or as close as they get. Lots of filth, and too many carrion crawlers than I’d like to deal with right now.”
Mars chuckled. “Then let’s find where this chieftain is so we can be done here.”
Heath glanced back at the hole in the roof where they had fallen to see Grynlock gently fly through the opening, Svrcina holding onto the broom from beneath. Grynlock’s robes covered his features, but Heath spotted a darkening bruise on Svrcina’s chest and a streak of blood on his arm. The blade of her scythe was coated in a thick, dark red blood.
“You both alright?” Mars said as he clasped them both on the shoulder. They nodded. “Sounded loud, but he didn’t raise the alarm.”
Svrcina wrapped a piece of cloth around her shoulder where blood was dripping. “Told you we’d take care of it. It was too close for his ballistae to be much of a threat, but I didn’t expect you to just leave me there.” She threw a dirty look at Grynlock as Heath stepped forward and tightened her bandage.
Grynlock shrugged helplessly. “The broom had to come get me. Besides, you were fine and I had to make sure I didn’t get skewered by one of those bolts! Things are taller than I am…”
Heath shook his head in amazement. “You’re lucky you weren’t crushed, or worse. Those war machines would just leave you a bloodied mess in the grass.
“Oh, don’t I know it,” she said dryly. “Shall we finish this?”
With a collective nod, the group began to walk down the long hallway. Passing the barred door Iden came through, Heath heard the scrape of something across wood, like an animal scratching at the door. They walked past an archway, and spotted dozens of stinking piles of pelts and animal skins, clustered as though for beds. Another hallway ended in a set of massive stairs, rising to the watchtower above. They reached a massive doorway nearly twenty feet tall at the end of the hallways with what was comparatively ornate detailing. Sounds came from within, low and grunting. Heath motioned the others back as he crept forward, pressing his eye to the space where the doors met.
He saw a massive great hall with posts rising to the smoke blackened rafter above, one large fire pit smoldering in the center. Behind it, a raised platform held a massive chair where an immensely fat giant sat. Similar to the other giants they had seen, though even more corpulent and rotund, his bulk was beyond anything Heath had seen, and it sickened him. The chieftain was in conversation with another figure standing next to him on the platform, his deep voice garbled and distorted.
Similarly massive, the other giant had granite gray skin with gaunt features, and long, sinueying limbs with visible muscle. A dark club was clutched in its hand and its dark eyes looked towards the door before turning back to the chieftain. Its arms were crossed as it spoke, its voice deeper and rougher in comparison, resonant and angry.
Focusing back on the door, Heath spotted the dark shadow of a heavy crossbeam barring the door from the inside, positioned nearly six feet up. He stepped back, motioning the others forward.
“Two,” he whispered as he drew an arrow from his quiver. “Far side of the hall, maybe 150 feet from the door. One matches the description of the chieftain, but the other doesn’t look like the others. Thin, grey skinned. Maybe another breed. And the door is barred.”
Mars exchanged a look with Iden. The two men chuckled. “Won’t be a problem,” Iden said.
“We get it open,” Mars said, “and the rest of you give them everything you’ve got. Anything left we can deal with.”
Iden and Mars took bundles of javelins from their backs, planting them in the soft dirt ground. The massive men touched forearms and took positions on either side of the doors, the others arrayed behind them. Heath and Adrie drew back their bows, standing nearly back to back looking towards the door. Grynlock crouched low, pale magic sparking from his fingertips while Svrcina stood with her scythe lowered and her other arm outstretched, dark energy gathering in the palm of her hand.
Mars coiled back, and with a mighty swing, slammed his maul into the door with a mighty yell. The wood flexed and shuddered from the impact. The moment his weapon pulled back, Iden slammed his heavy axes into the door. The wood splintered, but held. Mars reared back, another heavy swing brought the sound of cracking timber as the doors bowed inward, but held together. Iden lowered his axes and with an echoing battlecry, gave the doors a massive kick. With a shower of splintered wood, the doors swung open as the crossbeam fell in pieces.
In an instant, streaks of arcane magic flashed through the air as Heath’s long shafted hunting arrows raced Adrie’s dark arrows. The momentary looks of surprise on the faces of the giants were met with a barrage of magic and razor sharp arrows. Recoiling from a dozen impacts, the chieftain attempted to raise a hand while the muscular one reached for its club in futile desperation. Heath and Adrie began taking slow, careful steps as they released arrow after arrow across the long chamber. The twin cracks of energy shot through the air from the extended hands of Svrcina and Grynlock. Charging forward, Iden and Mars hurled javelins, arcing through the as they slammed into their target.
The chieftain heaved his bulk as the punishing blows rained down on him, collapsing forward from his throne with an earthshaking impact. The other giant made it to the center of the great hall before his strides slowed, fell to one knee, then collapsed in the dust, unmoving. Both corpses lay still in the dirt, numerous arrow wounds slowly streaming blood and small smoking craters where magic had burned away their flesh.
It was over in a furious, violent instant, and as the group stood in the open doorway watching the bodies convulse once before falling still, Heath slowly lowered his bow. He looked at the faces of the others as smiles of relief broke across their features and he allowed himself a small exhale of ease.
“We did it,” Adrie breathed out, a rare smile breaking through her regal composure.
“Aye, and well fought!” Mars cried with a whoop, striding across the chamber towards the still bodies.
“We should send the signal to the legion,” Svrcina said with urgency. “We need to finish here quickly, and retreat before the horde returns.”
“We have to disable the front gates,” Heath said. “Iden and Svrcina, think the two of you can handle that? Take Grynlock, he can keep an eye out.” They nodded and started down the hallway. Heath turned to Adrie. “Head up to the watchtower, we need to know as soon as the main force begins moving. You’ve got the keenest sight.”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” she said, sounding amused. She turned and made her way back towards the stairs that led to the tower.
Heath slowly made his way across the great hall where Mars was kneeling over the body of the chieftain. He pulled one of the giant’s arms out, extending it before him.
“I’ve heard folk say there’s magic in giants’ bones,” Mars said, setting the blade of one of his hatchets out beside him. “And even if there isn’t, I think taking a trophy would be worth something. String of knucklebones, maybe.” He looked up with a grin.
Heath knelt down on the other side of the arm. “Then you’ll want something more proper than that hunk of steel.” He reached behind him and drew his long hunting knife, extending it handle first to Mars.
The big man smiled and reached for it. As he clasped the knife, Heath held onto the blade and met his eyes. “What you did back there was no small thing,” Heath said emphasising the seriousness of his words as he released the blade. “Taking a stand and taking the brunt, trusting me to have your back.”
“Ah, it’s nothing,” Mars said. “The others would have all done the same. We all look out for each other.”
“It’s been a long time since I’ve had someone looking out for me,” Heath said quietly. “A long time since I’ve been able to rely on anyone else. I got used to being on my own, not needing anyone else. I guess what I’m trying to say is thank you. Whether or not the others would have done the same, you did. So I owe you that.”
“Ah,” Mars said waving his hand and positioning himself over the giant’s hand. “No need for any of that. Just happy we got through alright.”
“I owe you,” Heath said, his voice ending any debate. He pointed to a point above the giant’s wrist, or at least where he thought it would be underneath all the thick fat. “Start there, going between the bones.
Taking the next ten minutes, Heath assisted Mars in carving and removing the thick, pale knucklebones from the corpse of the hill giant chieftain. The others returned quickly, Iden and Svrcina rendering the gates inoperable while Grynlock sent an arcane flare high into the sky to signal Blahgrut and the Bound Legion. Adrie confirmed the battle had broken the lines of the giants, and the legion pulled back as the flare was raised. The group quickly made their way up the watchtower and lowered themselves over the wall before rushing off into the waving expanse of grass and out of sight.