Harald took them to the gibberlings' path, a wide ravaged section of woods as if a river of knives had flowed past stripping the bark from the trees and leaving the brush shredded to no more than bare sticks, like a fleshless skeleton, behind.
Ghibelline laid his hand upon the bole of tree left bare, "These are slain; there will be nothing but the corpses of trees all along these monsters' trail."
"Do they eat everything?" asked Harold shocked at the devastation.
"No, they only eat flesh, but they slash and gnaw at everything in their path," the ranger explained. "I have only seen them twice before, never in such numbers as this. Those times were not this bad. Yes, these trees are dead, but the brush will grow twice as thick without their roots sucking the nourishment from the ground, or the leaves hiding the sun."
"The death of one is the life of another," said Ghibelline.
"The Oerth Mother's plan," nodded the ranger in agreement.
"Just as long as those monsters are eating trees and not me, then I'm happy," Harold said.
"Well since you are so happy you and your shadow can come with me," Harald told the thief, "Ghibelline, can you make sure that there are no tracks left behind?"
"I'll do my best," said Ghibelline, "I never thought I'd find myself hiding the tracks of orcs."
"Are we ready?" Telenstil asked walking over to where the ranger stood.
Talberth followed close behind, his bruises were just a light brown and yellow pattern on his face, around his eyes and nose.
"Whenever you say," Harald told him, "but we'd best make it soon." He reached out and put his hand on Telenstil's arm. "We could go north as we planned, or let Ghibelline scout the trail and I will head east to see where these monsters are."
"North might be safer, but I have not changed my mind," said Telenstil. "There is a risk no matter where we go, the north may lead to more trouble, yet we know that the way that the gibberlings have come is clear."
"What about trailing them?" asked Harald.
"I feel we need you with us more than knowing where they have gone."
"Well then, if that is how it is then I'm off, I'll take these two with me, and I've asked Ghibelline to make sure we leave no trail," Harald said, first pointing to the thief and Little Rat then toward Ghibelline.
"Send Harold back to us every so often, that way we will know that all is well," Telenstil instructed.
"Right," the ranger nodded agreement then waved for the halfling and the orc to follow him as he set off down the trail of devastation left by the gibberlings. It was like traveling a field of grain with the harvest left atop the stubble to rot. Harald showed the pair how he wanted them to walk, following the trail where the gibberlings had made the deepest marks.
"Step where the ground is firmest, try not to leave your own steps showing," Harald told them.
"I know how to not leave a trail, even in the woods, and I've spent the last two months keeping out of the giants' way, we'll be fine," the thief assured him.
"Then I'm going to go on ahead. You two sit and wait for the others every so often, I'll do the same or double back and check on you," said Harald. "If I'm gone for more than a hand's worth of the sun," he put his broad palm up toward the sky, "three of your hands, then go back to Telenstil and say to him that there is trouble ahead and he'd better go north."
"What about you?"
"Anything that catches me and keeps me from coming back will get you as well," Harald told him plainly. "You make sure that Telenstil goes north."
The path that the gibberlings had taken led back to a ravine. Harald looked down into its depths but he could make nothing out. The sun was past its noon and the light did not reach more than a few feet between the narrow walls.
Destruction reigned along the eastern edge of the forest. A steep trail rose from the ravine at that side, the gibberlings had followed it up, Harald could see the tracks. They had set off straight as the flight of an arrow once leaving the ravine, only changing direction to follow the course of the terrain.
"Like a river," Harald mumbled to himself. He thought about turning back, finding Telenstil and the others but he'd left Harold and the orc only a short time ago, there was time enough for some exploring before they would become concerned.
The south-west wall was lower than its opposite side. Harald could see where the oerth had fallen away; the crevice was not old, perhaps formed during the past spring when the melting ice carved out gullies and streambeds down the mountainside. Maybe a pocket had opened up beneath the oerth, or a cavern collapsed and the ground sank in to fill it. Whatever had occurred, the ground had split and from it the gibberlings had spewed forth.
Harald closed his eyes and stepped from the sunlit path into the gloom between the ravine's walls. He kept them closed for a few moments till they became adjusted to the dark. There was a little light, but soon even that was swallowed by an impenetrable black. With only his hand to guide him Harald took a small tinder box from his pack and drew out a short-handled torch, just long enough to keep his fingers from being scorched by the flame. A piece of goatskin was wrapped around its head, beneath was an oiled cloth that ran with blue at the touch of a few sparks of flint and steel. The torch burst into flame, yellow-orange, illuminating the dark. The path was steep indeed; a few more steps and it became an almost vertical drop, like a well, deep and dark, no end in sight. Harald waved the torch above the shaft, putting his head over the edge and peering into the depth. The flames showed deeper shadows, grooves cut along the sides. The gibberlings had used their claws to scratch away the stone and form a crude ladder to climb the shaft. The beasts were small, about the size of dwarves, but they had long hands and big feet that ended in a pair of large toes. They'd cut their ladder deep enough for Harald to use and he began his climb.
First he smothered the flame with the wrap of hide then put it within his pack. Now he was blind, the dark was absolute; he used his sense of touch to feel his way down. There were more grooves set in the wall than he needed, the gibberlings were small; Harald's reach was long. The way was easy but the descent took time, a quarter hour passed before Harald's foot struck the bottom of the shaft. The air was thick with the smell of the monsters, but there was something else. Harald breathed slowly though his nose and let his mind sort through what his senses brought in. A brood smell, the monsters' waste, their sweat and dander. Mold: a slightly damp smell, rotting wood, the smell of oerth. A breeze: something moving the stale air. He put his finger to his mouth and wet its tip, then held it up. The cooling skin let him feel the draw of air up the shaft. Carefully he drew out torch and tinderbox again, took away the goatskin wrap and struck the flint. A low whistle escaped from him, a quick intake of breath over his teeth. The cave was much more than he expected it to be.
* * *
"Quiet," hissed Harold.
"Sorry," Little Rat apologized. The young orc put a hand to his brow. He'd been making a groaning sound, the sun overhead made him feel sick. The dungeon had been dark and cool, glad though he was to be free from the giants, he did not like the hot day or the burning light.
They weaved their way through the broken underbrush trying to leave no tracks that could be detected among the gouged and trampled oerth. Harold kept them moving over felled trees or rocks, over anything that that would show no sign of their passing. They found a hard strip of clay baked solid by the sun that lay along the edge of the trees just clear of the wreck and havoc left behind by the gibberlings. It was like running across the rooftops back in Greyhawk. Harold felt nostalgic at the feel beneath his toes. The destruction came to a sudden end, the pair found themselves at the edge of a ravine, a dark narrow crack in the oerth. The ranger must have come this way, Harold cursed.
"You ninny!" he said aloud.
"What I do?" asked Little Rat.
"What? ...Oh nothing, you didn't do anything," Harold peered into the dark; he could see a little beyond the small area lit by the waning sun, he thanked his mother's kin for the nighteyes he possessed. "That cursed ranger has gone down there no doubt."
"We go too?" Little Rat sounded pleased. The cool dark called to him.
Harold thought for a moment. He should go back and tell the others what he found, but the ranger should have come back first before going on.
"Two wrongs," he said to himself. "Come on let's get out of this sun," he said to Little Rat.
The young orc practically ran down the steep trail into the dark of the ravine.