"Do we still run, or are we turning back to the steading?" asked Harald.
The ranger stood at the end of the gully with Ivo and Telenstil beside him. The elf did not miss the displeasure in Harald's voice.
"We will turn back, but not yet," said Telenstil. "For now, yes we run, and still we need to find a place to rest, gather supplies and make plans."
"I thought that was why we went down that cursed hole," Harald nodded back toward the passage and the shaft down to the ruin.
"It was," said Ivo, "and since we didn't find any, we need to look again."
"Then we had best start looking now," said Harald gruffly.
"Lead us away from here," Telenstil told him. The elf put his hand on the ranger's arm. "I know you want to find a safe way for us to travel, but stay close."
Harald nodded, accepting Telenstil's command but grudgingly. "Have Ghibelline up at the front while I am scouting, he knows the woods as well as I."
"Ahead," said Telenstil, "not far."
"I know, I know," muttered Harald. "I know."
The ranger set off, disappearing into the woods that surrounded the crevice. He made his way to the north and west, away from the swath of devastation left by the gibberlings, toward the mountains and the lands untraveled by man.
* * *
The sky was purple, like a drop of ink swirled into a cup of water. Even the humans could make out dim shapes in the pre-dawn light. The ranger had no trouble with the dark, he moved quiet and sure as hunting cat, seeming to meld into the brush and brambles.
The small company trekked along all morning. Their pace was slow, the old gnome, the halfling, the small orc, even Talberth the young mage held the others back. The elves, Telenstil and Ghibelline, moved through the woods with the ranger's skill.
Gytha had been born and raised among the hills and wildlands of her home, and Derue, though silent, seemed tireless and moved with a strange grace. At mid-morning they rested. Hours of travel but they had gone only a handful of miles.
The way had been rough, the forest thick and filled with thorn bushes, the ground rising and uneven with no real path to follow. Harald found an old deer trail a little after dawn and the narrow track had led them to a spring. The water was cold, flowing down from the mountain ice high above. A small pool collected in a hollowed shelf of rock, the shallow basin formed by countless years of the water's ceaseless flow.
The ranger had disappeared after leading them to the spring, he returned suddenly, stepping from a hidden path and out into the bare space of rock around the pool. "Telenstil," Harald said. "You will want to see this."
"What have you found?" asked the mage.
"We've climbed higher than I thought," the ranger wiped the back of his hand across his brow. "There's a cliff nearby, it looks back on the way we've come."
"Any sign of pursuit?" Telenstil asked him. The elf crossed around the pool and followed the ranger into the woods,
"Nothing," answered Harald.
"I will come as well," said Ivo.
"Why not rest while you can?" Harald asked him.
The gnome looked at the others. His companions were lying about the small clearing, some asleep with their packs pillowed beneath their heads. "Talberth is resting enough for both of us," he nodded to the mage whose breath whistled out in sharp snores.
* * *
The land dropped away suddenly, the wood ran to the edge of the cliff, trees jutting at angles, roots sticking from the steep side. Far below, the ravine that held the entrance to the ruin could not be seen but a wide bare strip of land pointed to it as if it were a city gate. Gibberlings had flowed like a river from the ravine, annihilating everything in their path, leaving only a large tree here and there amid the desolation that had survived the stream of claws.
The monster's nails grew quickly and never stopped. They worked them down on stone or wood, scratching away even at metal. They ate most things, leaf and fruit, root and bark, but they preferred flesh and bone. They stripped the forest bare even churning the ground in their passing. Harald stood behind Telenstil and Ivo, looking over their heads at the scene spread out below them.
"It goes on for miles," said Telenstil peering at the dark path of destruction left by the gibberlings.
"I wish it went through Nosnra's steading," Ivo said.
"No chance of that," Harald told him. "Goes too far to the east and the north. Probably go downhill first chance they get."
"Yes," Telenstil agreed, "unless something distracts them. Any giants out searching would draw them."
"No chance of that, they set out before we did," said Harald thinking about the tracks he'd seen. "They were streaming from that pit before we'd left the steading."
"What woke them?" wondered Telenstil.
"Not us," said Ivo. "That shaft up through the stone. That took time, even for those beasts, but fate had a hand in it I do not doubt. Some purpose... that was a close thing, if we'd been in their path..."
"We'd be dead," concluded Harald. "Wait...back, back, I see something."
A wolf the size of a pony appeared on the dark trail below them. It came from the south as they had, its head toward the ground. Harald could picture its nose snuffling as it found their scent and its actions seemed to match his thoughts. It stood and raised its head. The cry came to them, drifting up like a cloud of smoke, a long drawn out wail. Then it stuttered into a handful of barks. The answer came both from the south and the east, though the cries from the east were very near, while the call from the south was distant and faint.
"That's done it," said Harald.
"They have not found us yet," said Telenstil.
"They are on our trail," Harald nodded toward the wolf. "And they are close."
"We are better off higher up then," said Ivo. "I don't mean some cave, they'll starve us out or block us in. We'll have to fight them off."
"We will talk as we move," Telenstil held his arm out inviting them to rejoin the others at the spring.
"This place is no good," said Ivo. "There are cliffs above us, they'll roll boulders down and squash us like melons."
Harald looked toward the steep rise above them. A series of ridges like huge steps cut into the side of the mountain.
"More than a hill isn't it," said Ivo.
"A tall hill," Harald admitted.
"Or a small mountain," countered Ivo.
Ghibelline met them as they returned. "What is wrong?" he asked reading their expressions.
"Wolves on our trail, not wild ones either, the giant's pets and hounds," Harald said to him.
"Come, everyone up," Telenstil called to the others, "We must be going."
Derue was sitting with his legs folded ankles atop knees. He rose in a single fluid motion. While they were gone he had found himself a length of wood and with a borrowed knife had cut away the branches. Now he had a staff, a help to walk with and in his hands a weapon to be feared.
"Someone wake up Talberth," laughed Ivo.
* * *
"Sleep...let me sleep," Talberth groaned as Ivo prodded him in the shoulder.
"Company's coming lad," said the old gnome. "Guests for supper, maybe lunch if we don't get moving."
"I'm awake," Talberth pushed himself up. The mage's eyes were red and thick with sleep. He crawled to the edge of the pool and dunked his head in the chill water. "Yi!" Talberth gave a cry.
"Quiet there," Ivo chided him. He left the young mage shaking out his wet hair and shivering.
Talberth was the last, the others stood about the spring, prepared to go, some calm as was Derue, others impatient, all more angry than afraid.
"Ivo what of magic?" asked Gytha. "Can we hide from them, Talberth and Telenstil, can they not strike down those that follow us?"
"Illusion is good for fooling the eye, there are magics that can fool the other senses," the old gnome told her, "I can weave such around us that these beasts will think us stones or trees. Spells that will sow disorder among them or send their worst fears hounding after them."
"And I can strike some down," spoke up Telenstil. "But more will come. These giants are tenacious, their strength is vast, as will be the numbers that gather here by Nosnra's command. We will hide or fight as we must but we came to do more than just strike a blow against a score of giants."
"I came to kill Nosnra," said Harald firmly.
"Yes," said Telenstil, "and to find out who aids Nosnra or leads him. We have bought some time for those in lands below, for Geoff and Sterich and the Yeomanry, and beyond. I tell you what we have done so far is not enough."
"Telenstil take us back to the steading," Harald faced the wizard and though all heard what he had to say, his plea was directed at Telenstil alone. "Use the magic that has taken us to and from that place already, stop this running, we will never find a place of safety in these mountains. While we have strength let's use it, use it, kill Nosnra and as many of his kind as we can."
"Friends," Ghibelline came from the edge of trees. "We waste time here."
"Yes. Harald you speak from despair," said Telenstil. "The time is not yet, I hope it never comes, when we must trade our lives for Nosnra. We will bring him low and we will survive. Now lead us to a better place to fight if that is what we are forced to do. Up the mountain."
"I go, but I will speak of this again," the ranger set off and Ghibelline urged the others on.
"There is more of the track we took before," said Ghibelline as they started out. "Harald says it must be goats beyond the trees, up there," he pointed above them toward the rocky slopes, "this must be a mountain, nothing except stones. I've never seen a mountain before."
"Surely you have," said Gytha.
"Not up close, no," Ghibelline smiled. "Hill lands are different and I've lived most of my life among the trees."
"I've never seen the woods except looking down on them from the hills," said Gytha.
"I'd rather not see either," complained Harold. "The only stones I want are set in walls or paving the streets, the only trees should be floorboards and tables."
"Quiet down," Harald said in a sharp whisper. The ranger had circled back on them and stood on a short ledge that overlooked their path. "There is a camp up ahead. Empty now but giants were there this morning."