Skule howled. He gripped his wounded leg. Blood spurted between his fingers and mingled with the red stream which rolled down his arm from the rent across his shoulder.
Harald struck again, a short blow like the chop of an axe against a tree. The sword took the ends from Skule's fingertips and hewed the flesh above the wounded leg. There was a moment then when both man and giant paused. Harald drew back his sword and Skule bunched his bleeding fingers tight into a fist. They caught each other's eyes and both began to laugh. Skule was beyond pain, beyond rage, and Harald was the same, both saw the hand of fate and life, the glimmer of death, all reflected in a single glance showing in each other's eyes. The fist came down and the sword stabbed up. The point went home below the giant's chest. It skimmed off the spine, beneath the ribs, piercing a lung and lancing up into the giant's heart. Skule sagged, his fist landed like a slap, but the falling body sank to the ground burying the ranger beneath the now lifeless flesh. Still laughing Harald used his feet to push himself from the entrapping bulk of the slain giant. He had to worry his blade free, sawing back and forth, he drew it slowly out in a flow of blood and gore. The ranger was soaked, dunked into the stream and bathed in red from the giant's wounds. With a final yank he freed his sword and held the blood-smeared blade above his head, then sang out a defiant, wordless roar of victory.
Standing at the boulder's edge Telenstil stretched out his hand and pointed at the giant, Skule's companion, who held tight to a thick tree halfway up the slope. With a gesture and a word, five darting pulses of glowing blue went streaking forth. They burnt the air and left a trail that could still be seen behind closed eyes. All flew unerringly, a magicked course, they struck like burning ice, a sharp gouging pain then gone. Two struck the giant's shoulder, one cut him from chin to scalp, the last two hit the wrist and back of the huge hand. No sooner had the spell been cast then Telenstil intoned the words and made the arcane gesture to release a second spell. More magic darts of energy shot from the mages hand.
The giant, already weak from the lightning bolts, wounded again from the first five magic darts, released his failing grip from around the tree as the next five burned into his flesh. The giant fell and bounced down the slope like a barrel or a limbless trunk of tree. He rolled a small fir down, recoiled from a larger bole, the crack of bone on wood was loud and clear, and took a final speeding flight off the bank and out into the stream. He landed with a wet thud against a boulder half his size, arms twisted, his torso dangling at a boneless angle, half on the rock, half off.
Harald walked over, his feet splashing in the water like a child through a puddle when it rains. He reached out and grabbed a handful of the giant's hair and lifted up the dangling head. The head turned round on a broken neck till the glassy eyes stared down its twisted back.
* * *
They'd gone far ahead and out of the way. Harold was atop a spire of rock that jutted out to the east rising from the boulder strewn hilltop. His view to the west was blocked by the expanse of the hill itself, but he could look far out across the valley below him and over to the southern hill where the remains of the steading still smouldered. From his pack, which he had set at his feet, he took out a small metal case and removed a feathered mask. It was a strange affair, thin bone, the orbits and beak of some monstrous bird hollowed out, the sockets set with two green translucent gems. He placed it on his nose, the curved beak covering his round one, the gems set before his eyes. The steading leapt into sharp focus,
Harold could see the bark upon the wooden wall and the color of a giant's hair as the monster dragged a half burnt log away. There was movement all around the hill, giants, ogres and orcs had worked through the night and those that had not collapsed, exhausted, worked on. A vast pile of splintered logs, ruined furniture and wooden scrap had been raised to the east of the Steading. It grew even as Harold watched. A giant tossed the log he carried, it landed amid the heap sending up a cloud of ash and a spattering of debris. An orc followed, it emptied out a bucket of ember fragments whose red hearts had been smothered with oerth the night before. In ones and twos others came, carrying loads as heavy as they could bear, they cleared the hall of debris and ash an armload at a time.
"You cast spell? You magic fella?" asked Little Rat. The small orc sat beside the thief and looked at the bone mask with awe showing in his eyes.
"Yes," said Harold. He took off the mask and waved it in the young orc's face. "If you touch my pack the mask will eat your eyes."
Little Rat backed away, scared of having the magic bird mask touch his skin.
"Watch out there you little fool!" yelled Harold. The orc had backed off the narrow peak of rock and with flailing arms was teetering off balance on the edge. Harold dropped the mask and jumped, quick-handed, he caught a thin and grimy arm and was jerked forward, almost pulled off the peak as well. The halfling's feet scraped across the stones then held firm against a jagged rock. The orc was thin and small, a runt, but had a wiry strength, the halfling though fat by the standards of man, just right by the more generous standards of his own kind, was agile and strong, well fed and fit, he led an active life. Harold tried to pull the orc up from where he dangled over the edge, a long fall down into the valley below his kicking feet. Little Rat was frantic, he used the halfling's arm like a climbing rope, pulled at Harold's hair, his small fist meshed into the short strands, then caught the vest and with a heave put his knee into Harold's shoulder.
"Oww!" bellowed Harold. "Watch what your grabbing you little beast. Hey that's my head you're stepping on!"
Little Rat rolled down the halfling's back and lay panting, pressed face down against the stones.
"Hells!" cursed Harold, rubbing at his scalp and brushing dirt from his clothes. "I should have let you fall." He looked down at the terrified orc then put out his hand. "Come on, here is a hand up, we'd better get back to the others."