The Hill Giant Chief - Nosnra's Saga - Part 50
"What in the Nine Hells is that?" Harold asked.
The little thief stared at a broken form not much taller than himself but broad and muscular as an ape. It had a coat of greyish fur and a thick mane of black hair surrounding a face like a cross between a human's and a wolf's.
"That," said the ranger turning the dead body over with his foot, "that is a gibberling."
He bent and felt the muscles in its hand then touched its neck, the spine snapped like a stick. "Still stiff, killed last night, thrown, look at that stone, that's what broke its neck."
Underneath the dead beast's head was a rounded block, a large square of stone worn down by time.
"That is an odd stone," the ranger touched the grey rock, it was speckled with bits of black, cold and smooth under his hand. He pulled up a clump of weeds that grew beside it and revealed the corner, cut stone; a building had stood upon this spot, but long ago. "...as I thought."
"What?" Harold asked. "What do you think?"
"Here," he said pushing back a thick bush so that the stump of the plant was visible, "more stones. We're standing near the foundation of some building, or in it."
"Where?" asked Little Rat twisting around to see.
"Tumbled down," Harold told the orc. "Just stones now."
"Oh," Little Rat said in a disappointed tone.
"You two wait here for the others," said the ranger, "if there is one gibberling, there are a hundred."
"Are they dangerous?" squeaked Harold.
"Very," the ranger smiled. "But not in daylight. We have half the day to get beyond their reach."
North of where he'd found the body of the gibberling the ranger broke through the thick underbrush and stood within a wide swath of torn and uprooted plants. There was a circle where the trees were knocked down and the ground torn up, the oerth churned as if from a plowman's blade. Mixed with the dirt were the shards of bones, splintered, the marrow gone. A minute's search turned up a skull, stripped of flesh and cracked open then hollowed out. A giant fought and died here, then was eaten raw. The destruction ran west-east, the tracks, hundreds of them, pointed toward the east; they'd gone toward the rising sun. The dead and drying leaves were still alive the day before, sometime last night the gibberlings had passed, or so the ranger judged from the signs he found.
* * *
"Gibberlings," said Telenstil standing over the body.
"Strange to find them here," said Talberth.
"What are they?" asked Ghibelline, "Nothing of nature surely?"
"Drones perhaps, like ants, they may have a queen and spring from eggs, "said Talberth, "We studied them at university, I have seen one splayed open, preserved, they are not male or female, these do not reproduce."
"A wizard's creation, yes." said Telenstil."That is my thought. They are extremely dangerous, though not during the day."
"That is what Harald said," spoke up the thief.
"They are rare to find like this," mused Talberth, "they eat their dead. You only find their bones, or when the last of a herd has been killed."
"He said it was thrown, and that rock is part of a building."
Ivo bent and ran his hand along the stone as the ranger had done. "He was right, at least about this rock. And these, Telenstil, these are old, very old. This is not the work of gnomes or dwarves."
"Giants?" asked Talberth.
Ivo laughed. "Giants no, well not Nosnra's kind," he looked closer at the block, "not the giants of stone and rock either, I know their work; Human hands perhaps. Another mystery, back at that hill, a trail leading up to nothing, and here, something was built here."
"The world is old, many people and places have come and gone," Telenstil mused quietly but then spoke up in a louder voice, "The stones beneath the steading, Ivo, did they seem the same?"
"Yes!" Ivo agreed vigorously. "Yes, this is the same stone."
"We dig old stone, find bad place," said Little Rat. "This bad place?" he asked alarmed.
"What did you find? Where?" asked Talberth excitedly.
"Bad place! This bad place. Place make crazy, bad place make crazy," Little Rat screamed out terrified.
"We're going," Harold grabbed the orc by the shoulder and pulled him away from the stone block and the body of the gibberling.
"Wait..." Talberth began.
"Let them go," Telenstil told him. "Gytha do you sense anything?"
The cleric stood very still for a moment, then quietly began to pray. "My senses are weak, dear Saint, aid me, let me see beyond this veil, let me know where the touch of evil is present on the land," she held out the iron rod she'd taken from the giants kitchen and faced the foundation stones they'd found.
Gytha was still for a few moments, she did not breath, then with a whoosh she exhaled and then breathed deeply. Telenstil looked at her; he did not say a word but raised his brows.
"There is evil, very faint, it runs along those stones," she said. "I will try again." she paced away from them out to where the last of the stones could be seen then turned so that the worn block was at her back.
* * *
Harald rushed along the path he'd taken through the heavy brush. He abandoned all attempts to conceal his tracks, but his well-practiced woodsman's skills kept him from leaving a careless trail, the branches fell back in place, unbroken as he passed. There was a shout, he heard a piping voice; the ranger broke into a run. He had to stop to draw the huge blade he wore over his shoulder, he swore he'd carry it like a staff or spear in future cursing as the edge caught on an overhanging limb.
"What is it?" the thief called to him. The halfling drew his own blade as he ran, the young orc trailing behind him a rusty dagger gripped in either hand. "Harald is it those monsters?"
"What was that yell?" Harald demanded.
"That? That was just the Rat here," the halfling explained. "Ivo says the stones are the same as in the steading, this one, " Harold pointed back toward Little Rat casually with his thumb, "got upset, he's scared. So am I."
The others had gathered around the body of the dead beast, the orcs had just put down their burden, Derue, and caught sight of the gibberling. Harald could hear their voices rise, then their leader gave a shout and knocked one to the ground. Talberth yelled then and made the lot cower and scowl.
"They sound scared as well," said Harold.
"They should be. We are safe for now," the ranger told him. "The herd went to the east, at least as far as I could see. We should be able to avoid them."
"That's good news," Harold said with relief. "We'd better get them moving then. What are they up to?"
The pair walked side by side back to the others with the small orc just behind, his daggers still drawn in his hands.
* * *
Gytha paced out a wide half circle through the bushes, she traced the outline of a structure; now only worn or buried blocks of stone. She walked back to the others, but before she reached them she stopped, then with her iron staff she dug into the ground at the base of a young tree. When the staff had sunk in several handbreadths deep she bent her head and directed the power that the Saint had given her toward the oerth underfoot. The others could not hear the prayer she spoke, but they saw her pause then shudder before she rose. The ranger, the halfling and the orc rejoined the group just as Gytha approached, all walking quickly as they could.
"There is an old evil here," she said. "It is very faint, but strongest down below the ground." Gytha pointed to the spot where she had knelt by the young tree. "Something is there. Something evil, below that spot; It is faint but because it is far below. The evil is still present; these stones are only evil from a presence that passed away long ago."
"Then we should be leaving," Harold said. "We have enough problems with the giants, now we have these monsters," he gave the body of the gibberling a kick. "We don't need more."
"I agree," said Harald. The ranger pointed to the east. "Gibberlings, a good-sized herd went that way, they are harmless in the light, but we must make haste."
"Harald, you know these creatures, but I have studied them as well," said Telenstil. "A herd moves forward like a wave, they follow the easiest path, they will only veer aside if they are tracking prey. A large herd like this that moves on and does not return from a night's forage, they are not likely to return at all, is this correct?"
"What I've seen agrees," said Harald, "a big herd on a rampage, they aren't likely to go back to their lair, just keep on moving till all of them are dead."
"What kind of beasts are these?" asked Ghibelline. "What sense does that make, they go forth and kill till they are killed themselves?"
"No one knows for certain," said Talberth.
"Harald, what say you to following their trail?" Telenstil asked.
"If we find them they are helpless in the light of day," answered Harald, "but there looks to be hundreds, unless they are nearby we could not hope to kill them all before the sun has set."
"No, no," Telenstil gestured with his hands, "Let us follow the tracks where they came from, not where they have gone."
"That's crazy," burst out the thief.
"Hah!" laughed out Ivo. "The giants might think so too."
"Aren't we in enough danger!" Harold objected.
"Think, even the giants would be unlikely to follow such a trail, and our own tracks would be lost among the destruction of the herd."
"If we are careful maybe," the ranger said. "They have left a path wider than the road to Gorna, but we will be going the other way, a good tracker might find us."
"The wolves should be unable to follow our scent," said Telenstil.
"That monster stinks enough to hide even the smell of the orcs," Ghibelline added.
"It's crazy," Harold shook his head.
"It might work, there should be some type of cavern where they came from," the ranger thought aloud. "Telenstil, it is still a dangerous idea."
"We need to find a place to camp, a temporary base of some sort. If the giants are tracking us, then this gives us an opportunity to escape them," Telenstil said to them all.
"I don't like it, I don't like it," muttered the thief.