Harald ran down the trail as the two giants ran up. He held his claymore at his side, level with his waist, and raised it above his shoulder as he ran. A staff big as a scaling pole swept out, Harald ducked aside but the iron ferrule on the end caught him soundly and knocked him off his feet. He did not lose his grip or drop his sword; he rolled with the blow and ended kneeling, bringing the blade around and cutting the giant on its arm.
The swinging staff knocked Harald down again with a backhand blow, a second staff wielded by the other giant stabbed at him. He squirmed aside, the staff's end impaling only the oerth, sinking in deep as a fence post. Using his sword like a spear, Harald stabbed the giant in the leg, thunking into the huge shin but doing little damage except to cause the giant pain. Telenstil did what he could. He cast a simple spell and sent five magic bolts of gleaming blue that were sure to fly where he commanded. They struck but the giant shrugged the pain away. The monster took a second jab at Harald striking him a glancing blow that slid across his mail and over his shoulder. Harald stabbed up as the giant struck and this time opened up a deep and bloody cut across the creature's thigh.
"Harald!" Telenstil yelled to him. "Get away! Get away!"
Two staves clacked hard against each other missing the ranger, the giants fouled each other's attacks while Harald dragged his sword across the giant's leg like a surgeon cutting flesh. The wounded giant howled and pulled back its staff holding it in both hands up against its chest. The ranger threw himself to one side while the other giant brought its staff down as if it were an axe ready to split a block of firewood. There was a dull thud, the blow numbed the giant's hands, the knuckles white with strain and clawed in a frightful grip. The giant flexed them for a moment and the blood flowed in like a hundred needles sticking in its fingers and its joints.
More bolts flew from Telenstil but against such a monster as the giant they did little good. Ivo's power was of more effect, he'd run down the hill as the ranger fought, still yards away he cast his spell. His words were gibberish to any but the wise, the magic speech of the gnomish kind. He motioned with his hands as he spoke, slow graceful gestures that seemed to leave a trail of wavering space behind. Like the shimmering waves of heat above a fire these waves of magic power flowed around the giant's form. The staff fell from its hands; pins and needles ran up its arms, across its chest, down through its stomach to its toes. The giant fell like a tree when the final axe blow has been struck; slow at first, then with crashing speed.
The wounded giant took another blow from Harald's sword; the blade cut open rough hide trousers and the skin beneath. Blood poured down the giant's front and back, its arm and chest were burnt where magic bolts had struck, and red puss-filled burns were spread across its face. The last blow sent the giant into a frothing rage, it spun so quickly that it shook like a dog with a soaking coat and blood sprayed like rain from its open wounds. The giant broke the staff in two with the strength of its shoulders and its arms, then threw the splintered pieces at the gnome. Ivo brought up his hands to protect his face, the spell he had begun wasted, the magic potential dissipating like a cloud of smoke.
* * *
"Aaarrraaahhh!" the giant screamed wordlessly. It clawed at its face, scraping grimy nails down its cheeks leaving a bloody trail. It grabbed Harald by the shoulders and lifted him from the ground. Hands with the grip of a metal vice crushed in his mail, the steel links digging through the thick cloth he wore beneath his armor. Harald drove the point of his claymore, Miming, into the giant's chest. The keen edge slid in between its ribs, not deep at first, but as the monster lifted him he put his shoulder to the hilt and sank it in till it came out the giant's back. A hand let go of one shoulder and grabbed Harald by the throat, the palm was so big that it lapped over his jaw as well, saving him from a choking hold. The pressure ground his teeth together with a grating sound, massive thumb and fingers closed like pincers ready to crush the ranger's skull like an apple rotted on the vine and cast beneath a farmer's foot.
Two daggers stabbed at the giant's legs, the halfling and Little Rat attacked. The thief knew where to cut but the young orc just hacked away with fierce abandon; he did little more than gash the giant's skin.
And then it fell.
The pressure disappeared, the hands unclenched and Harald dropped, pulling out his blade half way. Magic bolts from Telenstil's hand struck it again, but only as an afterthought. It buckled at its knees, the thief and orc jumped back. The giant knelt for a moment, its arms straight at its side then tumbled backwards, legs bent double underneath. Harald lay atop the giant's chest. He would not release his sword, but the huge torso pulled it away and dragged the ranger along as if he weighed no more than a man of straw. He breathed hard, and closed his eyes letting his head rest on the bleeding silent chest.
Ghibeline lead the four surviving orcs charging down the trail. They heard the calls, the terrible scream, the elven warrior shouted for them to follow him and to his and their surprise, they did. They stared in quiet awe at the bloody scene. The ranger, hands still gripping his murderous sword, the bodies of two giants deadly still; one a mass of wounds, a vast rent torn down its side. All about them the smoking bodies of the cattle, the smell of roasting flesh and burning leaves. Small fires shrank sending out plumes of smoke as the wet loam refused to catch and spread the flames. Telenstil watched silently, as did Ivo. The halfling stumbled back away from the ranger and the bleeding corpse; his hand touched the other giant's face, slid across its eye and felt the lid flutter and the eyeball move.
"This one's alive!" he shouted in surprise.
"Look!" called out Ghibeline. "There's another!"
Standing off the trail near to the trees was the gangling giant youth. It stared at the carnage with an open mouth then shut it with a snap as the elf broke the silent moment that everyone had shared. The youth did not hesitate, it turned and ran, long thin legs eating up the distance between where it had stood and the north edge of the trail.
"After it!" yelled Ghibleine.
He ran down the path, gracefully weaving between the corpses of the cattle. The orcs followed him again roaring out a battlecry they had not used in years.
"Wait!" Telenstil yelled.
He called after Ghibelline and the orcs but they did not listen or heed his call. The young giant easily outdistanced his pursuers, though Ghibelline was fast the giant's legs were longer than he was tall. Up the path and over the ridge and gone, the elf stopped at the far slope, the giant was already nowhere to be seen.
Nearby the little thief snarled as he peered into the fallen giant's eyes and showed him the knife, an old blade as big as a sword in the halfling's fist. "I curse you and all your kind," Harold told the giant then with a careful skill he cut the monster's throat with less regret than a farmer had when he killed a chicken for the evening meal. Though slowed by Ivo's spell the giant's heart still beat strong and steady. The blood sprayed from the massive wound, it soaked the thief in a crimson flow, it pooled around his feet and from a severed vein it fountained out with every dimming beat as the giant's heart began to weaken and ceased to pulse. Its muscles were frozen stiff by magic but its eyelids fluttered and a whoosh of air escaped in a single gasp as it left the giant's lungs through a gaping throat.
"That could have gone better," said Ivo to Telenstil.
The mage looked down and shook his head. "That is an understatement. We had best find Gytha and have her see to Harald."
They watched the ranger work the blade from the giant's chest; he gave a few hard pulls then staggered back and began to work at the blade again.
"Where is Talberth?" asked Telenstil.
"Where is Gytha for that matter," said Ivo. "What is that thief doing? Harold!" he called to the halfling. "We want to talk with that... too late."
"What?" said Telenstil. He had turned back the way they'd come but swung around when Ivo shouted to the thief. "Ah, that giant lived."
"It did," said Ivo, "I have not the craft to kill one out of hand, but stop them, freeze them in their tracks; that I can do."
"More killing, I knew what to expect, I have killed many in my years, but after this..." Telenstil mused aloud. "Ivo there must be a better way."
"Not that I know of against such as them," the gnome nodded toward the bodies of the giants. "Look up there, our new companion returns without his prey, but with his pack in tow."
Ghibelline was coming back down the trail, much more slowly than he had run up. The orcs had followed him as he chased the young giant, now they followed him again, but stopped beside the burnt body of a cow. They attacked the carcass, cutting long strips of flesh away, digging into the cow's side to pull out raw and bloody gobbets then devouring them where they stood. The orcs began to laugh among themselves spraying out half chewed meat. One began to choke he laughed so hard, then spit out a huge lump of beef. He bent to pick it from the ground but Meatstealer handed him a fresh piece he'd just cut. The orc was right, there was plenty more, any of the giant steers or cows could have fed them all for a week or more. There were at least a score of the cattle scattered about the hill. The smell from the roasted flesh, half-cooked by Telenstil's spell, wafted across the hill and sent seductive tendrils out to the entire company.
"I must be hungry," said Ivo his stomach rumbling loud enough for Telenstil to hear. "Watching a pack of orcs eat and I'm not sick, I want to dig in as well."
* * *
"How are you?" asked Telenstil.
Talberth rubbed his head, his face was bruised, one eye black and swollen, his nose still grimed with blood. "I'll live," he said.
"He was badly hurt, trampled by that cow," Gytha told them.
"What a way to die... I came to fight giants," muttered Talberth. "How did we fair?"
"Ghibelline says that two of the orcs are dead," said Telenstil. "Harald was hurt. Gytha can you see to him? Does Talberth need your help?"
"I have called on the Saint, he will grow tired of my requests," she smiled. "I will go see to Harald." The cleric left them and quickly ran down the trail.
"I owe their church a tithe," said Talberth. "I'll end up owing them as much as our thief."
"You should give her twice what she asks," Ivo put a friendly hand on the mage's shoulder. "I am thankful to have her with us."
"We will need to be careful, now that Henri is gone," Telenstil mused.
"Good riddance, but we are putting quite a burden on Gytha," Ivo said.
"Those Pholtines usually have no problem with using their power to gain some coin," Talberth said, "but I didn't get that feeling from Henri. I think he'd only heal us if we swore some oath to that god of his."
"Perhaps," said Telenstil, "maybe we judge him wrongly."
"That's all broken and past mending," Ivo shook his head. "We will have to make do with what strength we have."
"What a waste of that strength," groaned Talberth. He pushed himself to his feet and waved away the helping hands offered by his friends.
"The day grows late," said Telenstil looking to the west. "We need to collect ourselves and be gone before more giants come."
"What happened? Did they get away?" asked Talberth.
"One did," Ivo told him.
"One is enough," Talberth agreed.
"Yes, things did not go well," said Telenstil.
As they talked the halfling wandered up to them, behind him stalked the young orc, Little Rat, chewing contentedly on strip of meat.
"Gytha said you got knocked down by one of those things," said Harold, "big as dragons, is everything that size up here? I'd hate to see the poultry."
"The giants would make short work of the cattle we keep," laughed Ivo. "Normal cows are big enough for me, my clan keeps sheep."
"I'm happy to let the Butcher's guild deal with all such business," Harold said.
"I see your apprentice has no such qualms," Telenstil gestured to the orc.
"That giant lad, he will bring back others from his hall," Ivo broke into their mild conversation. "Come, we must leave this place, we may have to keep traveling through the night."