"Where is he?" Talberth yelled. The mage had awoken the orcs and showed them the food which Gytha had set aside. They'd muttered and grumbled, the leader, Boss, had tried to take six shares of eight for himself, till Talberth barked out a stiff rebuke. Now awake, the orcs milled about, eager to be on their way, still terrified of Talberth but certain that the giants would let loose their wolves and hunt them down.
"Up here!" Little Rat yelled out excitedly.
"We were up on the ridge," Harold called from above the camp, "and Harald is right behind us."
"I'll go get Telenstil," Talberth turned away immediately and ran down the small rise that led up toward the halfling and his pet orc.
Just behind the small pair Harald lowered himself carefully from rock to rock. He dropped down the last ten feet, hanging from his hands and landing in a crouch.
"Harold," he called to the thief, "do they have everything ready?"
"I'm ready," the halfling replied.
"Me too!" chimed in Little Rat.
"I don't know if they are ready down there, Talberth just went to fetch them," Harold nodded toward the camp.
"We need to get moving," the ranger said, "but the only path I found so far won't be easy."
"I didn't find anything but thorn bushes and rocks," Harold shook his head.
"I haven't checked the west. I can do that and the rest of you can start out for the center of the hill," Harald nodded first toward the rising mountains then back at the camp. "The way down starts up there at the eastern crest," he pointed back the way he'd come.
"Or we could wait here for you to find the trail," suggested Harold.
"I'll mention that to Telenstil and see what he says," Harald said to the halfling with a grin.
"Don't bother. I know him to well," said the thief, "no reason to let us rest when we can be stumbling over rocks."
"Maybe," replied Harald, "but we can't stay here."
"You sound like the orcs," the halfling looked down out the small group huddled together just below. "They're scared that Nosnra will send out his wolves."
"They're right," Harald agreed. "I don't know why he hasn't done it already."
"What!" Harold gave a small squeal of alarm.
"We must have caused more damage than I thought," said Harald. "They should have tracked us down by now. Just look over to the south," the ranger gestured toward the giants' hill, "you can almost spit on them from here. If they were looking they'd have found us."
"That is just great," the thief grumbled, "what are we doing standing around. Let's get out of here."
* * *
"There is no path to the west." Harald told them. He had returned to find the others gathered at the center of the hilltop near to the eastern ridge. "I don't like this."
"Yes," said Telenstil, "a trail that leads up, but only the same trail leading back down, and little up here to make the trip worthwhile."
"Nothing except the view," Harald agreed, "but there is no sign of a watchtower or a guard-post."
"A small mystery," smiled Telenstil, "but one we will have to solve at a later date."
"I might notice something that our ranger may have missed," offered Ivo.
"I searched carefully," Harald said looking from Telenstil to the gnome.
"There are things I might see which you would not know to look for," said Ivo. "You know the woods and hills, but I know stone, there may be signs that speak to a gnome, but are silent to a ranger."
"Ivo, no, we have stayed here too long," said Telenstil. "Harald show us this other path."
"It's no path, not even a rabbit trail," Harald said grimly, "I think we can make it down, but it is that or back down the way we came."
"Right into the giants' arms," said the thief. "Are we starting or are we going to stand around?"
"We are starting," said Telenstil. "Harald please lead the way."
The ranger lead them a little north, then up a rise where the ridge was not so high. The crest was where he'd left it, the rock chimney still the same.
"This is the path?" asked Talberth.
"I said it wasn't an easy way," Harald shrugged, "but it is passable. We will need to take some care." As they spoke the little thief swung his legs out over the edge and then began a slow descent, his fingers finding small cracks and his feet resting on the tiny ledges in the wall of rock.
"Harold!" Gytha called to him. "What are you doing?"
"Not wasting time," he called back, "with a lot of talk."
"I go too!" Little Rat said delightedly looking down the crevice. He practically dived headfirst but a huge hand grabbed him by the neck and held him suspended in the air. "Should I let him fall?" asked the ranger good-humoredly.
"Put a rope on him first," Harold yelled up to him. "Don't let him jump. He'll just end up landing on me!"
"Do we have any rope left?" asked Talberth.
"I have some," said Harald.
"As do I," Ivo pulled out a tight coil from his pack.
"Good," said Telenstil. "We can use both."
"I will want mine back," said Ivo. "Not left behind as we did back at the steading."
"Talberth or I can use a spell to descend," said Telenstil, "and lower the rest of you as well."
"Telenstil," Talberth said quietly to the elf, "I'd thought to conserve our spells."
"A good thought," replied Telenstil, "but I believe we can afford to expend this minor magic and save the rope for later use."
"I prefer the rope," said Harald.
"Well, someone tie a rope around this orc and drop him," Harold called from the bottom of the small drop.
Harald still held Little Rat suspended over the crevice and the rocks thirty feet below.
"Drop?" Little Rat asked confused.
"Klaxend," Harald told the orc in his own tongue.
"No drop! No drop!" the young orc cried out and began flailing its arms and legs.
"Harald please put...what are you called?" said Telenstil. "Please put him down."
"Rattklin, me Rattklin," the young orc pointed at himself. The ranger laughed, "That fits."
"He is called Little Rat," Ghibelline explained.
They cut a path through the thick underbrush leaving a scar across the slope as if a giant snake had scrapped its belly over the ground. It had not been difficult to lower themselves down the crevice but it had taken time. The sun was past its height and sinking behind the hill, but there were some hours left before the night would fall. The ranger grimaced at the tracks they left. He kept up a nervous watch and tried to guide them down the slope, searching for the safest way between the boulders and slabs of rocks or through the bushes, sharp-thorned mostly, that clung to the hillside. Some stumbled; an orc fell to his knees and dropped the end of the pole that he carried on his shoulder. The scout Derue crashed heavily to the ground and gave out a muffled scream. Gytha ran to him and checked the ropes that tied his hands and legs.
"Set him down, carefully!" she told the orcs.
Talberth gestured to them and the orcs obeyed.
"Gytha," asked Talberth, "why are we stopping?"
"These ropes are cutting at him," she said. "He can't be kept tied up all the time, the ropes will cripple his hands and feet, kill him maybe."
Talberth scowled. Better to kill the scout and be done with him he would liked to have said, but he knew Gytha would not approve.
"That had better wait till we are on less precarious ground," said Talberth.
They were halfway down the slope, the hilltop now high above them. The grade was not so steep but there was little cover where they stood. Not far below the grade lessened and the trees began till they filled the valley and ran up the opposing slope. It was all hills and valleys in the lands around the steading.
"We go, we go," one of the orcs dared to say to Talberth.
The fear that they felt for the mage was not as great as that which the thought of the giants instilled.
"Gytha, is there anything that you can do for him while he is still bound," Talberth said to her. "We must be going and we cannot untie him here."
"I will try to heal him, but I do not like this," she said, "it is too much like torture."
"It is the best we can do," said Talberth, "it is a mercy, at least as much as we can offer."
"I know, but I do not like it," Gytha bent down and put one hand on Derue's wrists where the rope dug past a leather scrap they'd wrapped around his arms. They'd tried to keep the rope from biting, but the leather was pulled tight and had rubbed the flesh raw, a small trickle of blood flowed from his wrists.
"Mercy for the vanquished, dear Saint. Mercy for one taken by the dark, gift me with your healing strength," A gold-green light suffused the wounds, they healed but a red flash struck out like a whip, a deep fiery red like metal pulled from a bed of coals, barbed with flickering needle spikes. It struck the cleric and knocked her back, a line of burnt and bleeding flesh appeared along her hand and arm.
"Gytha!" Talberth cried out in alarm.
Ghibelline came running over to where they stood. He had moved ahead, born to the woods, he helped to find the best way down the hill, but Telenstil had noticed the others lagging behind sent him back to find out what was wrong.
"Gytha!" Ghibelline repeated Talberth's cry.
The two men, though one an elf, stooped beside the fallen cleric. Gytha waved them both away and stood up on her own.
"I'm fine, that spirit of evil inside of him struck back, it did not like the feel of the Saint's power."
"And you want to untie him!" Talberth gasped.
"Gytha your arm," said Ghibelline, "are you badly hurt?"
"No," she said running her fingers beside the wound, "it looks worse than it is."
"You!" Talberth commanded the orcs. "Pick him up and get him out of here. Go on, pick up, pick up," the mage gestured. The orcs obeyed, they barely understood the words, but lift and carry was most of what they did when they were the giants' slaves.