"Harold, can't I leave you on your own for a minute?" the ranger said quietly, standing over the small sleeping thief.
"He will be fine," Gytha put her hand on the ranger's arm then leaned her head against his shoulder.
"He fell?" asked Harald.
"He has gained an apprentice it seems, the little orc. The orc fell and both tumbled from the rocks up there," Gytha pointed to the sheer wall of stone that rose up above their heads.
"Where is this orc?" Harald asked in a slow and dangerous voice.
"Now Harald, the little fellow meant no harm," Gytha said and held tightly to the ranger's arm. "He has become quite attached to our halfling friend. I talked with him, he feels very bad. He told me that Harold saved his life up there."
"I do not trust orcs," said Harald. "Even little ones."
* * *
Midday, the sun was bright overhead and the company found themselves still camped atop the hill. With the aid of the ranger's skills and the gnome's illusions they were safely hidden from all but arcane sight. The orcs slept, they hid their eyes from the sunlight laying themselves face-down on the stones and hard-packed oerth. The others were awake and all but the scout Derue were gathered about the body of Jalal.
"Will this work?" asked Gytha.
"Talberth and I have studied this spell, it will work," Telenstil replied.
"Ghibelline, it will provide a safe resting place for his body," she said to the elf.
"I wish I knew the customs of his kind," said Ghibelline sadly.
"His body will be safe, hidden and encased in stone," Telenstil said calmly.
"Will he rest, or will his spirit be trapped here as well?" asked Ghibelline.
"I think he will rest," said Gytha. "We all wish him peace."
"He died free," Harald said. "He escaped from that hole of Nosnra's. I think he will rest. It is a beautiful place this land, even the nearness of the giants cannot take that away."
"They are a blight," muttered the little thief, "they should be wiped out."
"Harold, I am glad to hear you speak," said Telenstil.
The halfling had been quiet and withdrawn since he had awakened. He had overjoyed his companions when his eyes first opened, but his words were dark and he had not smiled, a great change for the small thief.
"Be assured we are not finished with the giants yet."
"And they are not finished with us," said Ivo.
"Yes. We need to speak of this, but now let us put Jalal to rest," said Telenstil.
"I will carry him," the ranger said.
"No," Ghibelline spoke up. "No, I will."
"Let us help you," said Gytha. "The ground is rough, we will lend a hand."
Ghibelline and Gytha held the dead man's shoulders, while Harald lifted his legs. They carried him across the hilltop to a place near its center where a large patch of stone lay bare of oerth worn smooth by the wind and the passing years. Carefully they placed him near the stone. Ghibelline removed the cloak which he had taken from the steading and wrapped it around Jalal then Harald tied ropes around the legs and chest of the shrouded form. They stepped away, all bowed their heads and said silent prayers or words of farewell, then Talberth and Telenstil motioned for the others to step back.
"Sax-Am Va-Ere K-Am," Talberth intoned. He threw a thimble made of raw wet clay that held a clear drop of water, it struck and seemed to melt then the stone rippled like a pool of water in the rain. Ghibelline reached out and clasped Gytha's hand in his own.
With the clay that Talberth had used to form his thimble, Telenstil fashioned a miniature bucket and a tiny spade. He held these in his hand and spoke a single word. "Fo-Dere!" he commanded and the mud became a pit, the edges piled high with the wet oerth, thrown out evenly by the magic spell.
"Quickly now!" Talberth called out.
Gytha and Ghibelline lifted the rope tied about Jalal's chest while Harald and Talberth raised the body by the rope around the legs. They stumbled across the slick oerth and half carried, half dragged Jalal over to the muddy pit. Ghibelline swore beneath his breath at his awkwardness, while Gytha mouthed a prayer. The walls of the pit caved in and fell upon Jalal, the sudden weight pulled the rope from their hands almost dragging Talberth down beside the body of the dead man. Ghibelline stood ankle deep in mud. He looked down at the mire of Jalal's grave and said goodbye.
"Farewell my friend, rest now. I will find your kin one day and repay the debt I owe you, my freedom and my life," the elf knelt down in the mire and with his hands began to push the piled mud back down into the pit.
Gytha knelt as well, then Harald, then the other Harold, no longer grim but with eyes as wet as the muddy oerth.
"Come, it is only the fair oerth, no shame to have on your hands or your clothes," Ivo said to his fellow mages. The old gnome joined the others then both Talberth and Telenstil sank down on their knees and helped. A small figure looked on, and quietly crept beside the thief. Little Rat had no qualms about sinking his hands into the mud. They were a filthy mess when they backed away. Telenstil made sure that no one would be affected by his spell, then spoke the words and threw a piece of stone and a handful of water on the mud.
"K-Am Va-Ere Sax-Am," he said, and the mud froze to stone again.
"We have very little water up here," said Talberth. "But I can use a small spell to remove this dirt."
"I will let it stay awhile," said Ghibelline.
"As will I," Harald said as well. "There is a clear stream below, I will enjoy a soak."
"I need to study. I will have to rid myself of this dirt before I touch my book." Talberth reflected for a moment then cast the spell. With a gesture he wiped the dirt from his hands and robe.
"This oerth is a most honorable covering," said Telenstil, "but I must consult my grimoire as well. Talberth if you will."
The young mage used his power once again and with it made the drying mud slide away from the elf's clothes and skin.
"Now, we had best break camp soon," Telenstil told them, "But before we do, we need to talk."
"What is there to say," the little thief said glumly.
"Hey! Hands! Hands! Use spell, clean hands!" cried out the young orc. Little Rat pranced about and held up his filthy hands for Talberth to see.
"Get away!" yelled Talberth.
"Come my friend," chided Telenstil, "It is a small spell. You still have it prepared, do you not?"
Talberth scowled then cast the spell. It fought against the grime already caked on in layers atop the orc's skin, but the magic proved the stronger of the two. Dirt both old and new fell from Little Rat and pattered around his feet in a small pile. Little Rat rubbed his hands together then wiped his palms across his face. He licked one hand then scrubbed at his arm."Look! Magic, all clean!"
"Powerful magic there," said Harald snidely.
They had no fire and few supplies, but what they had they shared among themselves. The orcs had raided the giants' kitchen and had taken what they could stuff within their belts, but they had eaten it all in one frenzied meal.
Gytha shook her head and then kneeled in prayer. "Sustain us, my Saint, we are in need, our enemies are near, bless us with your strength and the food to keep our own strength pure," she intoned, and the ledge before her shimmered. Upon the stones there was now a cloth and upon the cloth bread, fruit, meat, and skins of water and a few of wine.
"Thank you for this meal," said Ghibelline.
"Thank Saint Cuthbert," chided Gytha pleasantly, "This is his bounty."
"I thank you both," replied Ghibelline with a smile.
Murmured thanks went around the gathered company and they set to with gusto. Gytha put aside a portion for the orcs as well. Little Rat sat himself beside the halfling and ate heartily, while the other orcs accepted the food and water but offered no thanks themselves and sat several yards away.
"A waste of good food," Harald complained.
"Maybe it would be better to leave them here," Talberth suggested.
"Perhaps," Telenstil said then cleared his throat. "First though, we need to decide on our next step. My friends, we came here to discover, and to punish, as best as we were able. We all began this quest knowing something of what to expect, beyond that, beyond the depredations of Nosnra and his kind that brought us here, we possessed merely guesswork and rumors. Some of what we came to find has been found. That map, now I hope safely in the hands of my Queen, will be of help to those concerned, your leaders, your kindred or your patrons. I do not feel that the map alone has been enough. For myself I cannot return home till more has been done."
"Yes, I say yes. We must kill Nosnra and as many of his kindred as we can," said Harald.
"Wipe them out!" called out Harold.
"Yes, that would be well," said Telenstil. "Let me speak," he cut short any further replies. "Henri said to us that Nosnra was just the finger on a hand, I agree. Killing him and all his kin will not end this, delay it perhaps for a time, but cut down Nosnra and another will rise to take his place."
"Like a tree," said Ghibelline.
"No, more like a weed," Telenstil said. "These few score giants, they are powerful foes, but throughout the hills and mountains there are many more. What I saw on the map were names of chiefs, more clans than the number of giants that people Nonsra's hall. It showed these lands, and at their borders where the great mountain chain takes hold, it showed the route that their allies would take. It did not name them, but from what some of us have seen they are the giants of the frost and snow, their ambassadors and scouts have already arrived, and these cold monsters are greater beasts than any of their hill dwelling kind."