"Wait!" Ivo called to the orc, but it did not stop. At the sound of Ivo's voice Harold looked back and saw the little monster come running toward him up the path. The halfling drew the long dagger from his belt and waited for the orc to catch up, the naked blade held in his hand.
"I help, I help," Little Rat squeaked out as he approached the thief.
"Stop right there!" Harold commanded. Little Rat stood a half dozen feet away, he bobbed back and forth from one foot to the other, scared and excited both.
"I help, good at finding things, I help!" he said in a high voice.
"Come here," ordered Harold, "slowly now."
Little Rat came bounding over, skidded to a stop when Harold waved the dagger at him, then took small careful steps over to halfling's side. "I help."
"So you say," Harold muttered, then he spoke to the youth in an orcish tongue. "You know these lands?" he asked.
"You talk funny," said Little Rat.
Harold spoke the language of the orcish half-breeds that lived within the great city. They'd kept their fathers tongue but it had changed and grown. Little Rat could understand only bits and pieces of what the halfling said.
"You... Know... Land," Harold said, loud and slowly.
"I help!" said Little Rat brightly.
"To the Nine Hells with it," cursed Harold. "Come on, we better get going before they overtake us." Harold kept his sword drawn, the young orc ran ahead.
* * *
"Look!" called out the ranger.
His voice was a whisper in Telenstil's ears, but the elf heard and looked to see the giants running far below. The magic globe raced by, quickly outdistancing even the lengthy strides of the giants. Telenstil directed it with ancient words, commanding it to take them beyond the giants and down between the branches of a stand of tall fir trees.
"Praise the mother," Harald bowed down and kissed the Oerth.
"You are safe, there was no need to fear," laughed Telenstil.
"I would have been born with wings if I was meant to fly," Harald replied.
"Well we have our feet on oerth now," said Telenstil. "We had better make our plans quickly. Those giants will be coming this way soon."
"Give me a moment to look over the trail," said Harald. "But we had best stick together. Your magic may stop them without my help, but if it does not and they reach you..."
"Yes, they would make quick work of me," Telenstil mused. "I will go with you. My spells will take only a moment to prepare."
"Come on then, let's find a good place," Harald led the way through the thick stand of trees.
The valley was wooded throughout its northern length. The trees were dense along each slope, the ground a slanting rise up to the surrounding hills. A stream had cut a bare gash down the valleys center, it was wide but low, the water only a few inches deep. Huge boulders lay exposed amid the running stream, like the seeds of great mountains left to grow.
"The giants will come this way," said Harald. "Look at the bank over there," he pointed across the stream. "They've torn out the big trees by the roots."
"Long ago," said Telenstil looking at the stumps, old and filled with rot, "They have beaten down the newer growth as well."
"Up there Telenstil," Harald pointed to a boulder sticking like a gallery from the far slope. "That will be the place for us to stand."
Telenstil lay flat atop the rock. The stone was cold even through his clothes. Below him, standing in the stream, was Harald. He stood behind a boulder, a smooth-sided lump of granite worn by the water, carved from the surrounding oerth, twice the ranger's height. The blade the ranger held began to sing, but only Harald could hear the tune. Two-handed, the sword was long, almost as tall as the ranger himself. The metal rippled like the running water.
There was the cry of birds, a mournful cawing, crows or ravens on the wing calling out to each other. A sound came from the wooded slope, something crashed through the thick brush. Harald leaned back against the stone. He placed his shoulder to the rock and looked up to where the elf lay hidden. The ledge, a single boulder, was empty, Harald waited for the mage to cast his spells before rushing out and testing his strength and steel against the giant's flesh.
Up the slope Telenstil looked down. He'd crept to the rock's edge and peered over, his eyes intent on the woods downstream and the crashing of the underbrush. Suddenly the brush split apart and a huge brown shape came leaping into view. A stag, a living twin of the monstrous spirit beast they'd fought in Nosnra's hall. It stopped and raised its head, coughed out a challenge to the world, then leapt onward, down the slope, splashing surefooted through the stream, racing to the north. Telenstil waved a hand at Harald trying to signal for the ranger to stay back. Harald understood, he froze in place, even as the stag drew near. It ran past the boulder, a flash of brown, Harald smiled, he waved back to Telenstil, the toothy grin he wore visible even up the slope. Then the brush began to shake once more, a small tree came smashing to the ground. Two shaggy heads appeared; a hand ripped a limb wide as a fat man's leg from the bole of an ancient tree. It flung the branch aside as if it were a twig and the giant stepped from the bush. In a loud voice it spoke, Telenstil could hear the words clear as if they stood beside him.
"Let's take the stream, Skule," the giant complained. "This path is overgrown."
"You can soak your feet," Skule told his companion. "Go ahead, I will keep mine dry."
"I am supposed to be at Thurkill's by nightfall."
"Then run, I will make Folcwalda's before the sun sets," laughed Skule, "and I will have dry feet."
"You are no better than a dwur," muttered the other giant.
"What was that!" bellowed Skule.
"Nothing, your ears are full of dirt,"
The two had wandered down the trail as they spoke. They reached a point almost to the boulder where Harald stood directly below the ledge only an arm's length apart, their words had turned to glares and the one called Skule looked daggers at his companion. Telenstil stood up, the giants could not hear his words but they heard the crack of thunder that came snapping down the hill. The blinding flash struck them both and a nimbus of blue danced on the water and the stones.
Harald felt the bolt; a burning chill went through him and made his greying hair stand on end. Skule screamed out in pain and roared a defiant challenge. The other giant beat out a smoking patch of scalp with a hand lined black with burnt flesh. They charged up the hill with alarming speed.
* * *
His heart began to pound; Harald felt the sword tingle in his grip as the second crash of thunder split the air. The water was splashing around him as he began to run. Both giants were still on their feet, Telenstil's bolts had struck them, but neither powerful blast had laid them low. They staggered forward, at first Harald gained on them, unseen, charging from the side and to their backs. The lead giant, Skule, he scrabbled up the steep hill, his feet dug gouges in the dirt, he tore a young tree from the slope, its roots pulled out and snapping. Skule flung it like a spear, but its limbs tangled with older trees halfway to the ledge and it rolled back down the hill. Behind him the other giant began to pull himself up using the trees to help him ascend. He was the more agile of the pair, smaller by a head than Skule, but it seemed as if the magic lightning had done him the greater harm. His one arm was blackened from fingertips to collar bone, he spat out bits of teeth, his jaw clenched so tight they shattered in his mouth.
Atop the ledge Telenstil cast another spell. Harald saw the wizard raise his hand and throw something from his fingertips above the giant's heads. A thin shimmering cloud appeared. It was first a pearly white and then in three eye-blinks became grey then a deep black. Icy sleet came down, cold as winter; it soaked the giants and the slope beneath the ledge. In moments the ground was wet with slush then congealed to ice, a hard layer with a slick half melted surface. Skule's hair and beard were frozen white, dragged down by icicles pulling at the ends. He took a step, but his booted foot slid out from under him. The giant crashed backwards, his legs shot into the air, and he rolled back down the slope. Up and over he tumbled like a circus clown and flew off the bank and into the shallow stream.
Harald had to jump back as Skule went by, almost crushed beneath the rolling bulk. Before the giant could push himself to his feet Harald brought his sword around and up behind his shoulder, then down across the giant's back. He meant to split the monsters spine, but Skule shifted and the blade slashed against his side. Skule howled, his shoulder had been laid open across the bone, the knob where arm began and back ended was notched by the rangers blade. On his knees Skule was taller than the man, but he had no length of sharpened steel to defend himself. The blade slashed again, Harald spun like a festival dancer and struck the rising giant across his chest. The thick hide shirt absorbed part of the blow, but the keen edge opened it and the flesh beneath. Once more the giant's bones saved it from what might have been a killing stroke. The sword bounced back from ribs like barrel staves, the edge scoured flesh, clove muscle, but the heart and lungs beneath were safe. Then Skule lashed out, he knocked the man aside and used the moment's grace to stand. Then Harald, who was not badly hurt, only bruised from the giant's awkward blow, struck once more. He caught the giant across his outer leg, above the knee. The blade struck bone, sent a wash of blood down the giant's leg and stained the water red, but for a moment his blade was trapped and Skule clubbed the ranger down. A fist like the head of a battering ram cracked hard against Harald's back, a wave of darkness blinded him, he almost fell, but the grip upon his sword kept him on his feet. With a dragging yank he pulled the claymore free, the sound of steel on bone was a grinding agony to hear, and a thousand times worse to feel.