Skule howled. He gripped his wounded leg. Blood spurted between his fingers and mingled with the red stream which rolled down his arm from the rent across his shoulder.
Harald struck again, a short blow like the chop of an axe against a tree. The sword took the ends from Skule's fingertips and hewed the flesh above the wounded leg. There was a moment then when both man and giant paused. Harald drew back his sword and Skule bunched his bleeding fingers tight into a fist. They caught each other's eyes and both began to laugh. Skule was beyond pain, beyond rage, and Harald was the same, both saw the hand of fate and life, the glimmer of death, all reflected in a single glance showing in each other's eyes. The fist came down and the sword stabbed up. The point went home below the giant's chest. It skimmed off the spine, beneath the ribs, piercing a lung and lancing up into the giant's heart. Skule sagged, his fist landed like a slap, but the falling body sank to the ground burying the ranger beneath the now lifeless flesh. Still laughing Harald used his feet to push himself from the entrapping bulk of the slain giant. He had to worry his blade free, sawing back and forth, he drew it slowly out in a flow of blood and gore. The ranger was soaked, dunked into the stream and bathed in red from the giant's wounds. With a final yank he freed his sword and held the blood-smeared blade above his head, then sang out a defiant, wordless roar of victory.
Standing at the boulder's edge Telenstil stretched out his hand and pointed at the giant, Skule's companion, who held tight to a thick tree halfway up the slope. With a gesture and a word, five darting pulses of glowing blue went streaking forth. They burnt the air and left a trail that could still be seen behind closed eyes. All flew unerringly, a magicked course, they struck like burning ice, a sharp gouging pain then gone. Two struck the giant's shoulder, one cut him from chin to scalp, the last two hit the wrist and back of the huge hand. No sooner had the spell been cast then Telenstil intoned the words and made the arcane gesture to release a second spell. More magic darts of energy shot from the mages hand.
The giant, already weak from the lightning bolts, wounded again from the first five magic darts, released his failing grip from around the tree as the next five burned into his flesh. The giant fell and bounced down the slope like a barrel or a limbless trunk of tree. He rolled a small fir down, recoiled from a larger bole, the crack of bone on wood was loud and clear, and took a final speeding flight off the bank and out into the stream. He landed with a wet thud against a boulder half his size, arms twisted, his torso dangling at a boneless angle, half on the rock, half off.
Harald walked over, his feet splashing in the water like a child through a puddle when it rains. He reached out and grabbed a handful of the giant's hair and lifted up the dangling head. The head turned round on a broken neck till the glassy eyes stared down its twisted back.
* * *
They'd gone far ahead and out of the way. Harold was atop a spire of rock that jutted out to the east rising from the boulder strewn hilltop. His view to the west was blocked by the expanse of the hill itself, but he could look far out across the valley below him and over to the southern hill where the remains of the steading still smouldered. From his pack, which he had set at his feet, he took out a small metal case and removed a feathered mask. It was a strange affair, thin bone, the orbits and beak of some monstrous bird hollowed out, the sockets set with two green translucent gems. He placed it on his nose, the curved beak covering his round one, the gems set before his eyes. The steading leapt into sharp focus,
Harold could see the bark upon the wooden wall and the color of a giant's hair as the monster dragged a half burnt log away. There was movement all around the hill, giants, ogres and orcs had worked through the night and those that had not collapsed, exhausted, worked on. A vast pile of splintered logs, ruined furniture and wooden scrap had been raised to the east of the Steading. It grew even as Harold watched. A giant tossed the log he carried, it landed amid the heap sending up a cloud of ash and a spattering of debris. An orc followed, it emptied out a bucket of ember fragments whose red hearts had been smothered with oerth the night before. In ones and twos others came, carrying loads as heavy as they could bear, they cleared the hall of debris and ash an armload at a time.
"You cast spell? You magic fella?" asked Little Rat. The small orc sat beside the thief and looked at the bone mask with awe showing in his eyes.
"Yes," said Harold. He took off the mask and waved it in the young orc's face. "If you touch my pack the mask will eat your eyes."
Little Rat backed away, scared of having the magic bird mask touch his skin.
"Watch out there you little fool!" yelled Harold. The orc had backed off the narrow peak of rock and with flailing arms was teetering off balance on the edge. Harold dropped the mask and jumped, quick-handed, he caught a thin and grimy arm and was jerked forward, almost pulled off the peak as well. The halfling's feet scraped across the stones then held firm against a jagged rock. The orc was thin and small, a runt, but had a wiry strength, the halfling though fat by the standards of man, just right by the more generous standards of his own kind, was agile and strong, well fed and fit, he led an active life. Harold tried to pull the orc up from where he dangled over the edge, a long fall down into the valley below his kicking feet. Little Rat was frantic, he used the halfling's arm like a climbing rope, pulled at Harold's hair, his small fist meshed into the short strands, then caught the vest and with a heave put his knee into Harold's shoulder.
"Oww!" bellowed Harold. "Watch what your grabbing you little beast. Hey that's my head you're stepping on!"
Little Rat rolled down the halfling's back and lay panting, pressed face down against the stones.
"Hells!" cursed Harold, rubbing at his scalp and brushing dirt from his clothes. "I should have let you fall." He looked down at the terrified orc then put out his hand. "Come on, here is a hand up, we'd better get back to the others."
"Ughhh, this is disgusting," Harald complained. He used his dagger to cut away at the giant's hide shirt. "Telenstil... Telenstil!"
"Yes, Harald," Telenstil called back.
The ranger crouched by the giant he had killed. Skule's body lay between two boulders. It blocked the flowing stream like a dam. The water rushed against the mangled chest and bubbled from its open mouth. Harald tried to find a pocket in the rough hide shirt, or a pouch on its belt, but the clothes were soaked and tacky with the drying blood. Telenstil had better luck, he'd found a tied bundle of skins held beneath the giant's belt. The broken body was not the wet and bloody mess that confronted Harald, but still he had to work around the massive limbs and immobile bulk of the dead monster. He'd used a small knife with a razor edge to slice the belt away, then checked the body from toes to crown of head, but found nothing else. He could not check the side that lay upon the rock or move the body the slightest inch, he could not even lift the giant's lifeless arm.
"Harald, check the belt, I will come and help," called Telenstil.
"This one is a bloody mess," Harald shook his head, then dunked his gory hands into the stream and scrubbed them one against the other. "He has spilt out his innards. Whatever he had beneath his belt is ruined."
"What say you my friend?" asked Telenstil hopping from stone to stone trying to keep his robe from the water's touch.
"Just look at this," Harald pointed to the coiled loops which bulged from the deep rent left by Harald's sword. The giant's bowls were like huge red and purple snakes swarming in the stream, the water foamed red around them. "What is it we are looking for?" asked Harald. "Is it worth trying to sort beneath the giant's gizzards?"
"There should be a message from their chief," said Telenstil. "I have found one on the other giant, this one should have another."
"All right," Harald shrugged. "No worse than gutting a deer, it shouldn't be, but it is, this is foul work."
"I will help," Telenstil assured the ranger. "What can I do?"
"My sword is no good for this, it's a butchers job," said Harald. "I'll cut, you keep pushing the guts away, too bad he isn't facing down the stream."
The two went at the giant's body with their spirits set for the gruesome job, they were bloodied from hand to shoulder, but when they finished they'd found another roll of hide. It was soaked and had a gash left by the ranger's sword, but Telenstil held it like the rough bundle was a fine tapestry made from cloth of gold.
"Is that it?" asked Harald wearily.
"This should be it," said Telenstil. "Now we can find our companions, they will need your help to find another camp."
"I'll wash this muck off first," said Harald.
"Let me," Telenstil cast a minor spell, a mere cantrip, but one which he had found useful more than once already. With a word and a gesture he caused the blood to jump from the ranger's clothes and skin, then he did the same again and he was clean as well. "Now we must take flight."
Telenstil removed the small white orb whose enchantments had taken them like birds over the valley and ahead of the giants they had just waylayed.
"Can't we just walk?" Harald asked, leery of the magic which carried them through the air. "I could scout out the land."
"They may need us," Telenstil reminded him. "I would have let these giants be if I had not believed it was of vital importance to stop them. We have also gone far. It would take some time for us to find our companions trail."
"All right," Harald conceded. "Let's get this over with."
"This will be the last that I can use this toy to fly, for some time at least. I doubt it could have taken more than you and I with the power it still maintains," said Telenstil.
"That's good to hear," Harald said. "Are you sure it has enough power left to take us back?"
"We will find out. Now take hold of the sphere and let us be gone."
Ivo stopped them at the hilltop, both Talberth and the orcs were thankful for the chance to rest. The young mage had tested his endurance many times with long sleepless nights spent in study back in civilized lands, but it had been years since he had carried a heavy load, or done much physical labor on any kind. The orcs were used to hard work, but they took every opportunity that came their way to rest, such was how they survived their enslavement by the giants. All set down their burdens carefully. Gytha, Talberth and Ghibelline lowered the body of Jalal slowly and with respect, the orcs deposited Derue and the heavy chain on the ground with care as well. Talberth kept a watchful and scowling eye on them, but he was more concerned with his magic chain than the safety of the scout.
"We will wait for our thief's return here, for awhile," said Ivo. "We have not gone far."
Gytha stood beside the gnome. They were above the winding path on the south-edge of the hill. The top was a long cresting ridge rather than the wide flat plateau that the steading sat upon. It was lined with jagged rocks rising in a series of humps, longer from south to north than east to west. A higher ridge, a line of weathered stone lay to the eastern side of the hill. Narrow and barefaced rock, it hung over the wooded valley below.
"The giants would have a hard time picking through these rocks," Gytha looked across the rough, uneven ground.
"It will be hard going for us as well," said Ivo. "Perhaps we can find a suitable resting place for our rescued elf's departed friend."
"I will speak with Ghibelline and see what he thinks," answered Gytha.
"We will still have our mad scout to carry. Talk with Talberth about that magic chain. We could hide it here as well as Jalal's body."
"Yes. You speak with Ghibelline, I will speak with Talberth," Ivo agreed.