They wandered down the trail to where Gytha stood beside Ghibelline. The ranger talked with them, straight and tall, the grievous wounds he'd received healed by the cleric's faith and prayers.
"...be more." said Harald.
"I know, they will be hunting for us, those wolves of theirs will track us down," Ghibelline said.
"There are a few tricks to throw them off our trail," Harald glanced up and down the path. "But this place, they may lose our scent among all these bodies and blood."
* * *
Telenstil had been right. The moons were up and still the party was on the move. It was slow going, and despite Harald's best efforts they were leaving an easy trail. They were heading north and west, away from the hills and up into the mountains, but they hadn't left the woods behind.
Low branches slashed at them, roots and stones caught their feet, made them trip and stumble; they followed a deer trail that weaved through the underbrush. The ground was rough and uneven, the trail narrow and lined with thornbushes, they moved with a slow and awkward pace.
Harald had gone ahead, some said that he had the elven sight but it wasn't true. It was Talberth and Gytha who had the worst of it, neither could see far in the dim moonlight. Gytha at least had some woodscraft, she'd lived within the hills and mountains of Geoff all her life, but Talberth had been born and raised in Greyhawk, the hub of the Oerth as he called it. The young mage knew much about the arcane crafts, had served as an apprentice to Telenstil and seen the world beyond his city's walls, but he had never been far from a campsite or an inn. He was not used to wandering through the woods at night, looking for a place to camp, forced to sleep out under the stars, his pack as a pillow and his arms folded about him for a blanket.
They traveled single file, the orcs last in line carrying Derue, the thief and young orc leading the others over the trail. The two humans were kept at the center of the file where those with the nighteyes could keep them from falling in the dark or straying from the path. There was a hiss, low and subdued, it came from the halfling and it brought them to a halt.
"There is a clearing up ahead," Harold whispered to Telenstil and Ivo.
"Where is Harald?" the elven mage asked.
"I have no idea," Harold snapped back. "What do you want us to do?"
"Did you see something?" Ivo asked him.
"Nothing but the end of this trail," said the thief. Harold was not pleased to come upon a surprise when his friend the ranger was somewhere ahead and nowhere to be seen. "He should have come back to warn us. I don't like this."
"Can you circle the clearing?" asked Telenstil.
"I can," said Ghibelline speaking over the gnome's head. "Let me go, I'll see what has happened to the ranger."
"I can do it," Harold said with a huff.
"You're as quiet as a mouse in slippers," said Ivo, "but Ghibelline has the woodscraft."
"Shhh..." hissed Ghibelline.
"Yea, quiet down." a voice said from nearby. Harald worked his way slowly from beneath a thornbush.
"Where were you?" demanded the thief.
"Sorry, you made better time than I expected," Harald replied. "I found us a decent spot. There is a spring up here and a small rise just beyond the clearing where we can camp."
"We nearly had to go looking for you," complained Harold.
The ranger shrugged. "Good practice for you, out here you never know, scouting ahead is dangerous work, sometimes you don't come back."
"Harald," said Telenstil, cutting off the thief before he could say anymore, "Show us this place. We can all use the rest."
Talberth had never slept more soundly in his life, but he awoke with a terrible ache, every muscle in his body felt like it had been pulled apart and sewn back together with twine. It was sometime before dawn, he lay upon a bed of fir branches with his pack was beneath his head. The night had been cold but dry and with a second layer of branches piled over him he had been warm as if he'd been sleeping in a bed.
The sky was purple, day would be coming fast but already the others were astir, all except for the orcs. Boss, Meatstealer and the surviving pair, Halfknife and Brokenhand, would have preferred to travel by night. They liked the dark; the day was for sleeping more often than not. Months had passed while they had been the giants' slaves; day was when the torches burned, when they worked digging the tunnels beneath the steading. Night was when they were locked in their unlit cells; they had not missed the sun.
"Time to wake up," Ivo gave Talberth's shoulder a shake.
"I'm up," he yawned. "How long did I sleep?"
"Five hours, a little more," laughed Ivo quietly. "You were out on your feet last night. You were asleep and snoring before Harald cut the last of the branches for your bed."
"I don't snore," muttered Talberth.
They ate a cold breakfast of half-cooked beef. Harald had found one steer that had burned longer than the rest, he hadn't mentioned the body of the giant he'd found roasted beneath it, avoiding any qualms that the others might have. The orcs had taken their own choice cuts, preferring their flesh raw or at most just kissed by the flames and nothing more. They were less squeamish than the others, a week rotting in a canvas sack just added to the taste for them.
"Which way now?" Talberth asked just before they set off.
The scorched beef had been passed around with fresh water from the spring.
"Muphlimm-umph," Ivo answered him then swallowed the mouthful of food he'd been chewing. "North, Harald's finding us a trail."
"He's back," Harold spoke up, pointing to the ranger weaving his way through the brush back up to where they sat. "I'll go get Ghibelline, he's keeping watch by the spring."
"Talberth, why don't you get those orcs moving?" Ivo asked the tall mage.
"They seem to listen to Ghibelline just as well," said Talberth.
"That was yesterday," Ivo replied, "they were just obeying the tone of his voice, they forgot he was an elf. Go on, they're scared of you, all the qualities that a leader of orcs needs."
"Since when are you an expert on orcs," Talberth said annoyed. He didn't enjoy his status with the orcs.
"Well this is a first for me," laughed Ivo. "But I know orcs, too well I know them, believe me."
"Well I've never had them on my side before either," said Talberth.
"Oh don't make that mistake," Ivo told him seriously, "they aren't on our side, don't trust them, if they think they can get away with it they'll put a dagger in your back, especially because they're scared."
"I don't trust them, I don't like them," Talberth replied heatedly, "I don't want them with us..."
"Easy there," Ivo said in a calm and friendly voice, "I agree, but they are with us for now. You are they best to deal with them. We need you Talberth, don't let us down."
"I'm sorry Ivo, I... I just needed more sleep," Talberth said quietly, "I'll go get the orcs."