The halfling reached the valley first, followed closely by the small orc. Harold had started down the last sixty feet at a slow walk, but as he moved he picked up speed. Soon he was dodging trees and charging at a galloping run, his short legs taking hopping leaps through the underbrush of shrubs and piled leaves. Little Rat gave a whoop and followed but he fell and began to roll. He whooped some more as he came rolling down, delighted as a child. Luck was with him as he passed between the trees, missed sharp edged stones hidden by the leaves and smashed through bushes that were scattered about the slope. Harold heard the thrashing of the bushes as Little Rat mowed them down, the crackle and crunch of leaves, and the barking laughs, loud then muffled as the orc rolled face up and then face down. The thief turned to see the wild flailing orc sweeping down the slope directly for him as if the two were connected by some unseen line. He jumped behind a tree as the orc rolled past, Harold landed in a patch of nettles, Little Rat came to rest in a laughing heap.
"You having a good time?" asked the ranger. He'd followed behind the orc.
"Oh, I'm having a great time, oouuchh!" Harold pulled himself from the thorny patch leaving behind a few long strips of cloth and a smattering of blood.
"Round up your shadow, and keep him quiet," said Harald. "I'm going back up to help the others. You two don't go anywhere. Find someplace to hide and keep watch."
"You try keeping that one out of trouble," complained the thief.
"I don't have to," said Harald, "but you do. Remember I don't want him along."
"You've spent too much time in the woods," the thief retorted. "Now where has he gone?" Little Rat was nowhere to be seen. Harold ran out to where the orc had lain, but there was no sign that he could see. It was all rocks and hard oerth, no tracks that caught his eye. He paused and let his mind turn the trees and stones into a city street, then imagined it a parkland; a lord's preserve within the confines of some garden walls. What looked out of place? What belonged and what might have been disturbed by a passing foot or a careless hand. A patch of leaves overturned, the loam beneath dark and wet and all around it the ground dry, baked by the morning sun. The clump was toward the valley's center, lifted up by a clumsy foot, the orc no doubt. He'd gone ahead. Harold followed half bent to watch the ground. The little orc came whistling up, carefree, happy to be out in the woods even in the light of day.
The noise was painful to Harold's ears, a sharp screeching sound like an animal whining in pain. "Shh!" he hissed at Little Rat. "Where have you been!"
The orc was wet, his head and shoulders soaked still dripping with the water from the stream. "Was thirsty," smiled the orc. "Drink, sun hot, it hurt eyes, cool water."
Harold licked his lips, they were dry; his own canteen was almost empty. There'd been no water on the hill. "Show me where you found this stream," he said to Little Rat. The small orc smiled, pleased not to be punished and happy to show the halfling where the water ran.
* * *
"Where are the others?" asked Harald.
"I sent Ghibelline to find out," Telenstil replied.
Ivo shaded his eyes and looked back up the slope. They stood within the edge of the woods. Behind them, the way they'd come, the hillside was bare except for boulders projecting from the ground and thickets of hearty shrubs. The old gnome could not see past a hedge-like line of thorn-bushes, but Harald and Telenstil could see above these brambles and watched the orcs come down the hill. Further up they could make out their companions, Gytha, Ghibelline and Talberth, following close.
"I wish they were down already," said Harald, worried about unfriendly eyes which might be watching from woods or rocks or a nearby hill.
"So do I," Telenstil turned and looked down the hill. "What about our thief?"
"He made it down," Harald said. He nodded toward the valley floor. "His little shadow too. That is trouble waiting to appear."
"Perhaps," said Telenstil, "but I trust Harold's judgment. There are orcs who dwell peacefully within city walls; he has trained such for his guild."
"Half-breeds mostly," added Ivo. "Orc thieves, now I know I wouldn't care for these cities of yours."
Harald shook his head.
"I 'm glad that this is not an age when man fought elf and gnome," Telenstil said sadly.
"You need to spend some time in the wildlands," said Harald, "that would change your mind. You know your friends from your enemies and no mistake between the two."
"I have found friends in some unlikely places," Telenstil told him with a smile.
"Hah! You would have dinner with a troll," snorted Harald. "Ah well, you best wait for the others here. I will check on our thief and scout out the way ahead."
The two wizards watched the ranger leave. He quickly disappeared among the trees, agile as a hare despite his size and advancing years.
"He is right you know," said Ivo. "You have become lax in your ways."
"Less rigid in my thinking," Telenstil said, "that is how I would put it. Yes I have been out in the world and have seen that elves and gnomes and men live in different ways but are more the same than not."
"And orcs?" Ivo shook his head in disagreement. "I am no man or elf, and though we are friends we are different, greatly so, maybe that is why we are friends."
"We will have to disagree," laughed Telenstil, "there is no changing either of our minds."
"That I can agree with," Ivo laughed as well. "But merriment aside, Telenstil we are in a bad way here. Even I can see we are leaving a trail that no one can miss, certainly not the giants."
"Yes, and we are moving too slow," Telenstil agreed. "In a few days' time I will be able to transport us through the air again, but for now we are afoot."
"I thought I would be the slowest of us all," Ivo said wistfully. "Derue is slowing us. If we cannot cure him of his curse we may have to take a drastic step and end him of his life."
"No," said Telenstil firmly, "a fallen comrade, he stood with us and served us well, I cannot repay him in such a way."
"Telenstil this is a war we fight," Ivo looked grim. "Friends and comrades die, sometimes they are left behind. This would be a mercy. And Telenstil, what we do here is for more than just ourselves."
"The giants have not found us yet," said Telenstil. "Ivo, killing Derue is the easy way to solve the problem. He deserves more from us than that. We owe him the risk we take. If the giants track us down, then we will fight. We will save the mercy stroke for then, I will not let him fall into their hands, but I will not take his life to save us time. Nothing will make us safer in this land."