"Come along," Harold called to the small orc. "You little monster," he said under his breath.
"Wait, wait!" cried Little Rat. "I hurry."
The orc slipped from stone to stone following the halfing's path. The two were almost of a size; the small, thin orc was just a hand taller, but nothing more than flesh and bones wrapped in a dirty rag of shirt and pants. Neither wore shoes, the halfling had the wide heavy padded feet of his kind and the orc had soles tough as leather, thick and scarred.
Harold stopped, his feet on a split stone projecting from the wall of rock. He heard voices drifting up from below and peered down to see who made them. Between a wide cleft of rock his companions sat in two small groups. The orcs gathered round their leader, while Talberth, Gytha and Ghibelline sat by the body of the man they'd rescued and who'd died this very morning. Ivo sat atop a high boulder, half concealed by the stones around him and a cloak which blended in with rocks dull gray shade.
There was a scrabble above, the sound of cracking stone, he heard a small sharp yell and jerked his head around looking up the wall of rock. Harold had time only to raise his hands. A wide-eyed orcish face came hurtling down. Little Rat crashed into the small thief and both went over the foothold in a tangle, both shouting as they fell.
* * *
Harold barely had time to scream out a curse before he and the orc bounced off a small lip of rock projecting from the stones. The tangled pair flew apart, all eyes turned up to watch; a dark shape with many limbs and a howling voice that was both a squeak and a sharp loud screech that came hurtling from the rocks above their heads.
The quickest to react were Talberth and Ghibelline. The mage wore a magic ring set with stones, each a different type of gem; these housed the power of magic spells which could be called upon instantly. The touch of Talberth's hand on a small green emerald chip and an arcane word unleashed the spell. Talberth directed its energy and an unseen force washed over the nearest of the two who fell. Little Rat seemed to swim through the air, his arms and legs beat like a humming birds, a blur of movement lashing out wildly. At first his effort did nothing to slow him down, but as the magic that Talberth cast came over him he began to float. The small orc drifted like an autumn leaf dancing back and forth in a slight fall breeze. He landed on his back and lay there looking up at the sky, not moving, lying still but for the rise and fall of his chest as he breathed.
The thief was not so lucky. Talberth's spell did not take hold of him. Harold plummeted down, he had only a moment shake the panic from his head and let his form go slack. Land loose as a drunkard his old teacher used to say, but still he hit hard. With a running leap Ghibelline threw himself beneath Harold, his arms stretched out to catch, but he'd jumped too soon. The little thief crashed into the elf's back slamming him face first into the stones. Harold bounced, he knocked himself unconscious, his head smacking against a rock. Gytha ran over to Harold first. She saw Ghibelline push himself up, his face scratched and bleeding, but the thief was her first concern.
"Harold, Harold!" Gytha ran her hand down the back of the halfling's head. It came away wet with blood.
"Is he all right?" Ivo had come scrambling down from his perch atop the high boulder.
"He is hurt, I do not know yet how badly," The cleric felt Harold's neck, but was careful not to move him. "Cuthbert, dear Saint, aid me with your strength again." She put one hand to the back of his wounded head and the other behind his neck. The Saint's power flowed through her hands and bathed Harold's head in a gold light. Gytha felt his body relax, she hadn't noticed his breathing before, but she heard him inhale, deeply, then exhale in a long sigh. "He sleeps now," said Gytha. "I would rather have him awake, it is not good to sleep with such a hurt, but he is in the Saint's hands, I can do no more."
"You have healed him?" asked Ghibelline. The elf cradled his arm against his chest. The bleeding cuts went unheeded, leaving trails like tears of red down his face.
"It looks like you need some healing too," said Ivo.
"I have done what I could for Harold, let me see your arm," said Gytha. "Your face needs tending to."
"I am worried about your friend," said Ghibelline. Gytha reached out to check his arm but the elf backed away. "Heal him first, Jalal was injured so, he did not wake, the same as your friend." Ghibelline nodded toward the thief.
"Jalal was old, his time had come," Gytha smiled sadly. "I feel that Harold's time is not today. Trust me, he will wake, but you are injured now and we may need that arm of yours."
Talberth looked down at the snoring thief; he bent with the thought of turning the halfling to make Harold more comfortable.
"Don't!" yelled Gytha. "Don't touch him! Talberth you may hurt him worse if you try to move him."
The mage held up both his hands and turned away, chastened by Gytha's angry shout.
Ivo grabbed the edge of Talberth's robe and lead him aside. "Best not to interfere, she has things well in hand."
"I was just trying to help," muttered Talberth.
"Harold will be fine, but you and I will need to take watch, and decide what to do with our scout, and these orcs." The two wizards looked over at Derue and beyond him to where the orcs sat in a rough circle. Their leader talked with them and was answered with a few grunts and sullen looks, but they were a quiet lot. "I would prefer them to be loud," said Ivo.
"They are nothing to worry about," Talberth dismissed them from his mind.
"Well then, I will worry for you," said Ivo. "A knife is always dangerous, especially if it is behind you."
They soared, but Harald did not feel like a bird, he just felt sick. Telenstil brought them over the hill, sweeping in from the south. If any watched from the steading they would see a strange sight indeed as the elf and the ranger crossed the sky.
The land below was bare atop the giant's hill, the trees cut down long ago to help build the steading's halls. They stripped the land around, but new growth had begun fill the slopes around their hill. At the top the giants had pulled the roots from the ground and hacked down anything taller than a man, but beyond the crown they did not care if the trees returned.
Harald scanned the slope; his eyes were old, but still sharp, sharper than an elves they used to say. He yelled out when he caught sight of the ledge where they had camped the night before. He waved to Telenstil and shouted over the rushing wind.
"There!!!" he cried. "Look!"
Telenstil waved back, then directed the orb down toward the ledge. They passed by their old camp then followed the trail, flying straight up the hill. The elf's head turned right then left. Beside him Harald did the same, searching for the friends they'd left behind. As they rose the mage felt a weight begin to drag at him, the orb had changed, no longer white, it dulled. No time to warn his friend he set them down, the power draining completely from the orb before they landed.
Harald was taken by surprise. He brought his feet up but skidded across the uneven trail on his knees. Telenstil nimbly stayed on his feet and ran to aid his friend.
"Harald, my apologies, are you injured?" asked Telenstil solicitously.
"I've skinned my knees," Harald gave a groan as he stood. "I had worse when I was boy falling down a tree, but I wish you could have told me we were going to land."
* * *
"We will have to walk from here," said Telenstil.
"The Oerth Mother be praised," smiled Harald. "No more flying for me, it's too hard on the knees."
The sun was climbing on toward noon when the pair crested the hill and left the crossbacked trail. Telenstil marveled at the ranger's strength. Harald seemed tireless while the elf needed to stop and rest more than once as they followed the steep path.
"Their trail is clear?" asked Telenstil.
Harald laughed, "On this hill, it is like footprints in new snow. There isn't really anyplace to go here except up or down." The ranger looked back the way they'd come. "It is all rock and cliff-face. Easy enough to climb, but it would be slow going for our lot. Besides, climbing up these rocks only takes you to a higher leg of the trail."
"Yes," Telenstil agreed. "This slope climbs the hill like it was the side of a Ziggurat."
"A what?" asked Harald.
"A vast structure of stone," Telenstil explained, "a building big as a hill, each segment is a huge square block with another smaller square of stones set on top till it ends with a small plateau, each side a set of stairs running from the summit to the ground."
"You're joking," laughed Harald. "Such things exist? What a waste of time."
"They do, at least such is recorded in the journals of the wise," said Telenstil. "One such building is said to tower over the jungle lands far to the south and east, a place of great power."
"They must be lowlanders who built the thing," mused Harald, "and have no hills of their own."
Ivo saw them first, though Talberth had the better view. The young mage was a poor watchman, his mind ruled his eyes. A blank look would fall across his face as he stared out over the hilltop, and he would become lost in thought.
"There they are!" Ivo gave Talberth a nudge and ran across the boulder they stood upon, surefooted as a mountain goat.
Talberth cried out for the gnome to wait, but his plea went unheeded. He took great care crossing the same length of stone that Ivo traveled with ease, he had to stoop and crawl, undignified but safe from falling off the boulders' smooth surface.
"Telenstil, Harald, thank goodness you two have returned unharmed," Ivo said with relief.
"What has happened?" asked Telenstil. "You sound concerned my friend."
"Harold has been injured, he took a fall..." began Ivo.
"What! How badly is he hurt?!" demanded the ranger.
"Gytha has tended to him," Ivo assured the man. "He sleeps. She says he will be fine, but he hurt his head..."
"Then he should not sleep!" Harald said angrily.
"Yes she does know!" it was Ivo's turn to interrupt. "She has done all she can, and she says he will be fine. Tut!" Ivo held up his hand and silenced the ranger before he could interrupt again. "Gytha knows more of the healing craft than you my friend, or do you doubt her?"
The ranger's shoulders sagged. He leaned against a rock. A great fatigue came over him.
"You are right master gnome. I am in the wrong, my apologies."
"No need," said Ivo.
"Where is our thief?" Harald asked subdued.
"He sleeps near to that rise," said Ivo, pointing to the east where the bare stones became a peak. "You can find him by his snores."
"My thanks," Harald answered him politely. He gave a deep and respectful bow.
Ivo bowed back then watched the ranger rush by.
"How did it go with you?" he asked Telenstil.
"I believe the results were worth the effort," the mage replied. He paused for a moment then looked down at Ivo with a serious expression on his face. "Would our presence have saved Harold from his fall?"
"Some would say it was his fate," Ivo shook his head. "Who can say? Each footstep takes us down a different path."
"Ah well," Telenstil sighed, "Our quest may lead us all into the endless sleep."
"If that is so..." the old gnome grimaced then brought the talk back to the here and now. "Tell me how your little side trip went."
"It went well enough," said Telenstil. "We ambushed two of Nosnra's messengers, killed them, but a third escaped. That will cost us later I am sure."
"No doubt," Ivo agreed.
"It went well, a third might have been too many for us to stop," admitted Telenstil.
"Fifty years ago you would not have believed that you could slay one giant let alone two," mused Ivo reflecting on the past.
"Our ranger is a mighty hand with his sword," said Telenstil. "It was his hand that slew the greater of the pair."
"Humans, fifty years ago he was a babe in swaddling," laughed Ivo. "They lead a may-fly life."
"They burn bright in the time they have," Telenstil smiled back. "As do you and your kind my friend."
"Elves," Ivo said dismissively. "You live a dragon's years. What a gnome could do with such a lifetime. You play more than you work."
"Life is worth enjoying," Telenstil laughed in reply. "It is worth thinking about as well. The hours pass as slowly for us as they do for you or for our human friends, but the years, Ivo, the years go quickly by."
"Speaking of time," said Ivo, "we had best get on the move, unless we are to camp here."
"I will need to rest a bit before we move on," said Telenstil. He sat down on a chair-sized rock and opened up his pack. "Here, I took these from the bodies of the giants. Messages sent from Nosnra I suspect."
Ivo eyed the huge rolls of skin that Telenstil drew out.
"One for you," said Telenstil handing a roll of hide to Ivo, "and one for me."
"We will be camping here then," Ivo bit his lip. "I am not sure that is for the best."
"There will be time enough," Telenstil said. "Time for me to rest and time enough to sort out Nosnra's letters."
Ivo raised a bushy brow as he looked over the scroll the size of a cloak. "A giant's scrawl, this may take some time to decipher. It is always like a code. Giants, they never manage to spell a word the same way twice."
"We will manage," Telenstil assured the gnome.