The mountainside was a wild, rocky place. As the summit grew nearer the trail steepened till they were all half-climbing, leaning into their staves or against each other for support. Harald had run up the path, quick and sure as a mountain goat despite his size and years. He ran back and now lead them to the camp.
"How did they get here?" asked Ghibelline. "Not the way we just came."
"Over the top and down from the other side," said Harald. "It's the peak up there, beyond it's a range, not just a single mountain."
"How can you tell?" Harold asked.
"You can see more from the camp," said the ranger, "it's on a ledge that curves round the side."
"This trail, the stones have been carved away by water, haven't they?" Ghibelline ran his hand down the smooth side of the rock.
"Water," said Ivo, "water and time. The two will split a mountain."
"No sign of it now I suppose," said Harold loudly. "All this talk, it's getting me thirsty."
"Quiet there..." warned Harald. "There's a pond by the camp, though the giants and their wolves have been at it. Keep him away from the waterskins, he'll drain them dry."
"Hey..." Harold started to complain, but Ivo put his finger to his lips and hushed him.
They came up from the steep trail between a boulder to the east and dense brush to their left, the west side of the ledge.
"We've turned," whispered Ghibelline.
"Yea," that trail seemed straight enough didn't it," Harald agreed. "Loose an arrow down that path and you'd see the curve."
The wood elf and the ranger circled the clearing, one to either side as the others made their way up onto the wide ledge. There was a clearing before them, much like the little spring they had left below, but here the trees had been felled and the stumps either pulled up or turned into the legs of a bench and table of massive size. The center of the clearing was bare except for a large pit, the remains of a campfire still smouldering within the circle of stone. A roasting spit was left above the embers and on it the bones of a massive elk, bits of bloody flesh and gristle still clinging to the ribs and haunch.
The ranger came back to the group as they gathered by the firepit. He watched them for a moment, a tinge of resentment and anger at the limits set upon him by Telenstil, but a stronger sense of care for his companions overwhelmed such petty thoughts. He was angry because he could not protect them, the same way that he had failed to protect his homeland from the depredations of the giants. The memories of the dead came back to haunt him. They fled and each step that took them further from Nosnra and his steading ate into Harald's spirit, gnawing him down to his heart.
"Could we cook some food?" asked the halfling staring at the smouldering ashes in the pit.
"We should not stay that long," said Telenstil.
"This place is no better than the spring," said Harald. "Up there the trail is above us, and there is even less cover here."
"They've cut down all the trees," said Gytha. "Those stumps are old."
Harald nodded in agreement. "They've been using this as a camp for some time."
"Where did they go?" asked Talberth. "And why did they come here?"
"They went downhill," answered Harald. "The path they took is to the east, it goes down and up along that side of the mountain."
"More settlements lie to the east," said Telenstil. "Those messengers, they were headed in that direction, and those herdsmen they were coming from the east."
"These mountains and hills are thick with giants," Harald said grimly. "They infest this land."
"Well, other than giants we should not have any beasts or monsters to worry about," said Telenstil brightly.
"What of those wolves?" asked Harold. The halfing felt more and more lost out in the woods beyond the walls of cities and the comfort of paved streets and warm beds.
"They serve the giants," said Harald.
"That doesn't make me feel any better," Harold replied.
* * *
"What now?" asked Harold.
"I should have brought a sage along," said Telenstil. "Perhaps it would have been a good idea at that. We keep moving," he said to Harold and the others.
"Then we move," said Ghibelline firmly. He looked from one to the other of his companions till he had met each of their eyes, even that of the small orc who kept himself behind the halfling. "I tell you I cannot feel anything but hope about our actions. I was in a place equal to that of the very Hells. Death would have released me but not before much pain. Torture was my fate at the hands of those monsters, you freed me as you freed Jalal."
"I regret that he did not enjoy his freedom long," Telenstil said sadly.
"I wish that he had lived..." said Ghibelline.
"We all do," Gytha touched his arm. Ghibelline smiled.
"I can speak for him, escaping was enough, just one breath of freedom was enough. I never thought I'd see the sky or be among the trees again. Whatever happens I have had my freedom. All you have yours, before I was captured I didn't know, not till we stepped from Nosnra's hall, not till then..."
"We had better go," Telenstil told them. "But Ghibelline. Everyone. Ghibelline speaks true. We are here by our choice, free to go if that is how our fate takes us."
Harald shook his head but did not speak. The old ranger lead them from the giants' camp, taking them along the eastern edge of the slope where a path had been cut through the boulders and the trees. Stones had simply been tossed aside or split and the fragments rolled down the hill. The giants had carved their trail long ago and kept it in use, no plants had taken root. During the spring the path ran like a city sewer, dark silt and mud pouring down, cutting deeper into the oerth till there was only bedrock paving the way.
This was a stark land, the hills turned quickly into mountains and the mountains seemed to go on forever, rising higher and higher as they climbed toward the west. The lower slopes were thick with green, and valleys were plentiful between serrated peaks. As the mountains grew taller, snow sat upon their shoulders like great white shawls, the tops rising above, too high for the frozen carpet, some so tall that they disappeared in the clouds. The view offered to the party as they stepped upon the giants trail was breathtaking. It forced a smile to the ranger's lips. The grandeur of Oerth, its vastness and beauty struck a chord at the center of his being. He felt comforted by the sight.
"This is the Oerth Mother's true temple," he said.
"The trees are pleasant, though it is a little sad to see them penned by those mountains," said Ghibelline.
"They are a might high," mused Ivo.
"The stones up among the peaks, they're old, its said they make the howls that you hear on the wind," Harald told them. "They cry out as time wears them down and the cold splits them. That's why mountain dwarves are grim, living up among the ancient stones."
"We are truly in the middle of nowhere," complained Harold, but quietly.
They all stood for a moment, looking out from the ledge toward the north and west. The sound of the stones calling out seemed to be on the wind. It made the halfling shiver and brought the ranger back from his revery.
"Wolves!" he cursed. "Look down there." he pointed to the valley floor to their east. Half a dozen grey shapes moved along the bare path far below. They howled and their voices were not that of ancient rock or wind.
"They're above us too," warned Ghibelline.
The first call had come down to them from the mountaintop and the wolves below them cried out an answer to that call.