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."
The valley stream was cold, the runoff of mountain ice mixed with the almost daily fall of rain. The orcs had lain upon their stomachs and drank their fill, but the others used their canteens. They refilled them with the cool, clear water and added a few gallons worth to a huge waterskin that the ranger had taken from the giants' hall. There had been some talk at the water's edge, but the sound of something crashing through the trees nearby had silenced it.
They'd made good time, stirred on by a tang of fear, the orcs hadn't even complained. It took an hour to reach the valley's end, the trail diverged, one path heading north straight up another hill, a second heading west along a path cut through the trees and rocks across the slope. They'd passed the bodies of the giants slain by Harald and Telenstil. Ravens, black as night, sat upon the rocks and stared down at the wolves which worried at the corpses of the pair. Harald shouted, the wolves growled but slunk away when the others came along the trail. Their eyes could be seen catching the light while they hid behind the cover of rock and tree. As the last of the party moved beyond the bodies of the giant dead, the wolves came swiftly back to stuff themselves on the cooling flesh.
"Which way now?" asked Harald.
Telenstil pointed to the north, "To the mountains."
"Both ways seem traveled well enough," said Harald. "You know that those giants were headed for these trails."
"Yes, remember what we overheard them say," Telenstil reminded him, "a day's travel at least, at a giant's pace, we should be safe enough."
"You hope!" the ranger exclaimed.
"I do hope, yes I do." said Telenstil. "Every choice is a risk. If we are not attacked tonight then we will be doing well indeed."
"Are we to walk up to the nearest giant's hall and ask to spend the night," joked Harald.
"Perhaps Ivo could make them think we were giants as well," Telenstil smiled. "But I do not doubt that you will find us a place to camp."
"Maybe I should bespell some giants and let them sleep outside," said Ivo coming up to the mage and scout.
"Another night out under the stars."
"Maybe I can find you a cave," laughed Harald.
"You are fonder of the rain than I," said Ivo.
"The Oerth Mother's tears," Harald nodded. "They can make sleep difficult, but I think we can find some cover, or make it."
"Then let's be on our way," said Ivo. "I'd like to find a place to camp before full dark."
"The moons will give us some light," said Harald.
"If the clouds don't cover them," Ivo objected.
"Come then," Telenstil told them both, "to the north. Harald please see if you can find a side trail. We are between Nosnra and his allies, no use running from one to the other."
"I'll find us a place to sleep," said Harald. He jogged up the northern trail.
Telenstil turned and waved for the others to follow after. The orcs had settled themselves underneath the trees and it took another command from Talberth to get them on their feet and moving once again.
* * *
"Off the trail, off the trail!" Harald came running back down the path calling to the others in a hoarse, whispered shout.
"What is it, what is the matter?" Telenstil called back.
"Something is coming, off the trail," Harald told him in a gasp.
They had come up the northern slope, a long slow rising path, and just stepped upon the hilltop. It dropped down suddenly then just as suddenly rose up again. Below them there was a deep bowl cut from the hill, an old pond perhaps, long since dried out with trees grown thick and tall within. The trail ran down the center of the bowl and to either side the trees pressed against the bare oerth seeking to close the gap which cut the woods in two.
Harald waved them to the west. He wanted to have the setting sun at their backs. Long shadows were already being cast, but dark would come quickly. The mountains would steal the last minutes of the day and bring on an early night. They hid themselves easily among the bushes and the trees. Telenstil waited beside the trail for Harald, the pair stood looking across the bowl to its northern edge.
"Did you see what it is?" asked Telenstil.
"No, I heard the sound and felt the shaking of the ground," said Harald. "Many feet and the noise of cattle on the move."
"Maybe, this is their land, who else would be on this trail?" Harald wondered aloud.
"Giants most likely then," said Telenstil.
"Look!" hissed the ranger. He pointed to the northern end of the trail.
A monstrous wolf was silhouetted alone at the far end of the bowl. Its head was turned away. Telenstil could see it give a yip, though he could not hear the sound. Two more wolves joined it, they circled each other head to tail for a few moments then one froze and laid its nose against the ground.
"Uh-oh," said Harald. "They probably have my scent."
"They will find us then," Telenstil glanced over to where the others hid.
"We're not likely to ambush them either," Harald agreed.
"Then we will fight them," Telenstil said firmly. "Get the others. We will fight them as they come up the slope. Height will be at least some advantage. Perhaps we can surprise them as well."
"I'll get the others," Harald ran into the woods beside the road.
The elven mage checked his belt and the pockets sewn cunningly within his robe. He drew out a crystal rod and prepared to cast a powerful spell that would let him wield the lightning of a storm. In a pouch at his side he had more crystal rods and in another, small brown-yellow stinking globs. He thought for a moment then put the rod away and drew out the other pouch.
"Cattle," he said to himself. "They will not like lightning but fire should be much worse."
"Telenstil, what is going on?" asked Talberth.
"Wolves are coming quick, and perhaps giants behind them," said Telenstil.
"Can Ivo hide us?" Talberth asked.
"I can make us appear as a grove of trees, but not perhaps the orcs, and not our scout if he resists my spell," Ivo declared. "I can fool their eyes even so, but their noses, I don't know."
"We can strike them down when they come upon us," said Gytha.
"Yes, but they will warn those behind them," Talberth said to her.
"Gytha, can you silence them?" asked Telenstil knowing the answer.
"I can with the Saint's help," she replied.
"Hurry then, they will soon be upon us."
Telenstil backed away from the trail and motioned for the others to join him. Gytha was behind a tree. She stepped out and cast her spell.