The Hill Giant Chief - Nosnra's Saga - part 70
"Do we still run, or are we turning back to the steading?" asked Harald.
The ranger stood at the end of the gully with Ivo and Telenstil beside him. The elf did not miss the displeasure in Harald's voice.
"We will turn back, but not yet," said Telenstil. "For now, yes we run, and still we need to find a place to rest, gather supplies and make plans."
"I thought that was why we went down that cursed hole," Harald nodded back toward the passage and the shaft down to the ruin.
"It was," said Ivo, "and since we didn't find any, we need to look again."
"Then we had best start looking now," said Harald gruffly.
"Lead us away from here," Telenstil told him. The elf put his hand on the ranger's arm. "I know you want to find a safe way for us to travel, but stay close."
Harald nodded, accepting Telenstil's command but grudgingly. "Have Ghibelline up at the front while I am scouting, he knows the woods as well as I."
"Ahead," said Telenstil, "not far."
"I know, I know," muttered Harald. "I know."
The ranger set off, disappearing into the woods that surrounded the crevice. He made his way to the north and west, away from the swath of devastation left by the gibberlings, toward the mountains and the lands untraveled by man.
* * *
The sky was purple, like a drop of ink swirled into a cup of water. Even the humans could make out dim shapes in the pre-dawn light. The ranger had no trouble with the dark, he moved quiet and sure as hunting cat, seeming to meld into the brush and brambles.
The small company trekked along all morning. Their pace was slow, the old gnome, the halfling, the small orc, even Talberth the young mage held the others back. The elves, Telenstil and Ghibelline, moved through the woods with the ranger's skill.
Gytha had been born and raised among the hills and wildlands of her home, and Derue, though silent, seemed tireless and moved with a strange grace. At mid-morning they rested. Hours of travel but they had gone only a handful of miles.
The way had been rough, the forest thick and filled with thorn bushes, the ground rising and uneven with no real path to follow. Harald found an old deer trail a little after dawn and the narrow track had led them to a spring. The water was cold, flowing down from the mountain ice high above. A small pool collected in a hollowed shelf of rock, the shallow basin formed by countless years of the water's ceaseless flow.
The ranger had disappeared after leading them to the spring, he returned suddenly, stepping from a hidden path and out into the bare space of rock around the pool. "Telenstil," Harald said. "You will want to see this."
"What have you found?" asked the mage.
"We've climbed higher than I thought," the ranger wiped the back of his hand across his brow. "There's a cliff nearby, it looks back on the way we've come."
"Any sign of pursuit?" Telenstil asked him. The elf crossed around the pool and followed the ranger into the woods,
"Nothing," answered Harald.
"I will come as well," said Ivo.
"Why not rest while you can?" Harald asked him.
The gnome looked at the others. His companions were lying about the small clearing, some asleep with their packs pillowed beneath their heads. "Talberth is resting enough for both of us," he nodded to the mage whose breath whistled out in sharp snores.
* * *
The land dropped away suddenly, the wood ran to the edge of the cliff, trees jutting at angles, roots sticking from the steep side. Far below, the ravine that held the entrance to the ruin could not be seen but a wide bare strip of land pointed to it as if it were a city gate. Gibberlings had flowed like a river from the ravine, annihilating everything in their path, leaving only a large tree here and there amid the desolation that had survived the stream of claws.
The monster's nails grew quickly and never stopped. They worked them down on stone or wood, scratching away even at metal. They ate most things, leaf and fruit, root and bark, but they preferred flesh and bone. They stripped the forest bare even churning the ground in their passing. Harald stood behind Telenstil and Ivo, looking over their heads at the scene spread out below them.
"It goes on for miles," said Telenstil peering at the dark path of destruction left by the gibberlings.
"I wish it went through Nosnra's steading," Ivo said.
"No chance of that," Harald told him. "Goes too far to the east and the north. Probably go downhill first chance they get."
"Yes," Telenstil agreed, "unless something distracts them. Any giants out searching would draw them."
"No chance of that, they set out before we did," said Harald thinking about the tracks he'd seen. "They were streaming from that pit before we'd left the steading."
"What woke them?" wondered Telenstil.
"Not us," said Ivo. "That shaft up through the stone. That took time, even for those beasts, but fate had a hand in it I do not doubt. Some purpose... that was a close thing, if we'd been in their path..."
"We'd be dead," concluded Harald. "Wait...back, back, I see something."
A wolf the size of a pony appeared on the dark trail below them. It came from the south as they had, its head toward the ground. Harald could picture its nose snuffling as it found their scent and its actions seemed to match his thoughts. It stood and raised its head. The cry came to them, drifting up like a cloud of smoke, a long drawn out wail. Then it stuttered into a handful of barks. The answer came both from the south and the east, though the cries from the east were very near, while the call from the south was distant and faint.
"That's done it," said Harald.
"They have not found us yet," said Telenstil.
"They are on our trail," Harald nodded toward the wolf. "And they are close."
"We are better off higher up then," said Ivo. "I don't mean some cave, they'll starve us out or block us in. We'll have to fight them off."
"We will talk as we move," Telenstil held his arm out inviting them to rejoin the others at the spring.
"This place is no good," said Ivo. "There are cliffs above us, they'll roll boulders down and squash us like melons."
Harald looked toward the steep rise above them. A series of ridges like huge steps cut into the side of the mountain.
"More than a hill isn't it," said Ivo.
"A tall hill," Harald admitted.
"Or a small mountain," countered Ivo.
Ghibelline met them as they returned. "What is wrong?" he asked reading their expressions.
"Wolves on our trail, not wild ones either, the giant's pets and hounds," Harald said to him.
"Come, everyone up," Telenstil called to the others, "We must be going."
Derue was sitting with his legs folded ankles atop knees. He rose in a single fluid motion. While they were gone he had found himself a length of wood and with a borrowed knife had cut away the branches. Now he had a staff, a help to walk with and in his hands a weapon to be feared.
"Someone wake up Talberth," laughed Ivo.
* * *
"Sleep...let me sleep," Talberth groaned as Ivo prodded him in the shoulder.
"Company's coming lad," said the old gnome. "Guests for supper, maybe lunch if we don't get moving."
"I'm awake," Talberth pushed himself up. The mage's eyes were red and thick with sleep. He crawled to the edge of the pool and dunked his head in the chill water. "Yi!" Talberth gave a cry.
"Quiet there," Ivo chided him. He left the young mage shaking out his wet hair and shivering.
Talberth was the last, the others stood about the spring, prepared to go, some calm as was Derue, others impatient, all more angry than afraid.
"Ivo what of magic?" asked Gytha. "Can we hide from them, Talberth and Telenstil, can they not strike down those that follow us?"
"Illusion is good for fooling the eye, there are magics that can fool the other senses," the old gnome told her, "I can weave such around us that these beasts will think us stones or trees. Spells that will sow disorder among them or send their worst fears hounding after them."
"And I can strike some down," spoke up Telenstil. "But more will come. These giants are tenacious, their strength is vast, as will be the numbers that gather here by Nosnra's command. We will hide or fight as we must but we came to do more than just strike a blow against a score of giants."
"I came to kill Nosnra," said Harald firmly.
"Yes," said Telenstil, "and to find out who aids Nosnra or leads him. We have bought some time for those in lands below, for Geoff and Sterich and the Yeomanry, and beyond. I tell you what we have done so far is not enough."
"Telenstil take us back to the steading," Harald faced the wizard and though all heard what he had to say, his plea was directed at Telenstil alone. "Use the magic that has taken us to and from that place already, stop this running, we will never find a place of safety in these mountains. While we have strength let's use it, use it, kill Nosnra and as many of his kind as we can."
"Friends," Ghibelline came from the edge of trees. "We waste time here."
"Yes. Harald you speak from despair," said Telenstil. "The time is not yet, I hope it never comes, when we must trade our lives for Nosnra. We will bring him low and we will survive. Now lead us to a better place to fight if that is what we are forced to do. Up the mountain."
"I go, but I will speak of this again," the ranger set off and Ghibelline urged the others on.
"There is more of the track we took before," said Ghibelline as they started out. "Harald says it must be goats beyond the trees, up there," he pointed above them toward the rocky slopes, "this must be a mountain, nothing except stones. I've never seen a mountain before."
"Surely you have," said Gytha.
"Not up close, no," Ghibelline smiled. "Hill lands are different and I've lived most of my life among the trees."
"I've never seen the woods except looking down on them from the hills," said Gytha.
"I'd rather not see either," complained Harold. "The only stones I want are set in walls or paving the streets, the only trees should be floorboards and tables."
"Quiet down," Harald said in a sharp whisper. The ranger had circled back on them and stood on a short ledge that overlooked their path. "There is a camp up ahead. Empty now but giants were there this morning."
The mountainside was a wild, rocky place. As the summit grew nearer the trail steepened till they were all half-climbing, leaning into their staves or against each other for support. Harald had run up the path, quick and sure as a mountain goat despite his size and years. He ran back and now lead them to the camp.
"How did they get here?" asked Ghibelline. "Not the way we just came."
"Over the top and down from the other side," said Harald. "It's the peak up there, beyond it's a range, not just a single mountain."
"How can you tell?" Harold asked.
"You can see more from the camp," said the ranger, "it's on a ledge that curves round the side."
"This trail, the stones have been carved away by water, haven't they?" Ghibelline ran his hand down the smooth side of the rock.
"Water," said Ivo, "water and time. The two will split a mountain."
"No sign of it now I suppose," said Harold loudly. "All this talk, it's getting me thirsty."
"Quiet there..." warned Harald. "There's a pond by the camp, though the giants and their wolves have been at it. Keep him away from the waterskins, he'll drain them dry."
"Hey..." Harold started to complain, but Ivo put his finger to his lips and hushed him.
They came up from the steep trail between a boulder to the east and dense brush to their left, the west side of the ledge.
"We've turned," whispered Ghibelline.
"Yea," that trail seemed straight enough didn't it," Harald agreed. "Loose an arrow down that path and you'd see the curve."
The wood elf and the ranger circled the clearing, one to either side as the others made their way up onto the wide ledge. There was a clearing before them, much like the little spring they had left below, but here the trees had been felled and the stumps either pulled up or turned into the legs of a bench and table of massive size. The center of the clearing was bare except for a large pit, the remains of a campfire still smouldering within the circle of stone. A roasting spit was left above the embers and on it the bones of a massive elk, bits of bloody flesh and gristle still clinging to the ribs and haunch.
The ranger came back to the group as they gathered by the firepit. He watched them for a moment, a tinge of resentment and anger at the limits set upon him by Telenstil, but a stronger sense of care for his companions overwhelmed such petty thoughts. He was angry because he could not protect them, the same way that he had failed to protect his homeland from the depredations of the giants. The memories of the dead came back to haunt him. They fled and each step that took them further from Nosnra and his steading ate into Harald's spirit, gnawing him down to his heart.
"Could we cook some food?" asked the halfling staring at the smouldering ashes in the pit.
"We should not stay that long," said Telenstil.
"This place is no better than the spring," said Harald. "Up there the trail is above us, and there is even less cover here."
"They've cut down all the trees," said Gytha. "Those stumps are old."
Harald nodded in agreement. "They've been using this as a camp for some time."
"Where did they go?" asked Talberth. "And why did they come here?"
"They went downhill," answered Harald. "The path they took is to the east, it goes down and up along that side of the mountain."
"More settlements lie to the east," said Telenstil. "Those messengers, they were headed in that direction, and those herdsmen they were coming from the east."
"These mountains and hills are thick with giants," Harald said grimly. "They infest this land."
"Well, other than giants we should not have any beasts or monsters to worry about," said Telenstil brightly.
"What of those wolves?" asked Harold. The halfing felt more and more lost out in the woods beyond the walls of cities and the comfort of paved streets and warm beds.
"They serve the giants," said Harald.
"That doesn't make me feel any better," Harold replied.
* * *
"What now?" asked Harold.
"I should have brought a sage along," said Telenstil. "Perhaps it would have been a good idea at that. We keep moving," he said to Harold and the others.
"Then we move," said Ghibelline firmly. He looked from one to the other of his companions till he had met each of their eyes, even that of the small orc who kept himself behind the halfling. "I tell you I cannot feel anything but hope about our actions. I was in a place equal to that of the very Hells. Death would have released me but not before much pain. Torture was my fate at the hands of those monsters, you freed me as you freed Jalal."
"I regret that he did not enjoy his freedom long," Telenstil said sadly.
"I wish that he had lived..." said Ghibelline.
"We all do," Gytha touched his arm. Ghibelline smiled.
"I can speak for him, escaping was enough, just one breath of freedom was enough. I never thought I'd see the sky or be among the trees again. Whatever happens I have had my freedom. All you have yours, before I was captured I didn't know, not till we stepped from Nosnra's hall, not till then..."
"We had better go," Telenstil told them. "But Ghibelline. Everyone. Ghibelline speaks true. We are here by our choice, free to go if that is how our fate takes us."
Harald shook his head but did not speak. The old ranger lead them from the giants' camp, taking them along the eastern edge of the slope where a path had been cut through the boulders and the trees. Stones had simply been tossed aside or split and the fragments rolled down the hill. The giants had carved their trail long ago and kept it in use, no plants had taken root. During the spring the path ran like a city sewer, dark silt and mud pouring down, cutting deeper into the oerth till there was only bedrock paving the way.
This was a stark land, the hills turned quickly into mountains and the mountains seemed to go on forever, rising higher and higher as they climbed toward the west. The lower slopes were thick with green, and valleys were plentiful between serrated peaks. As the mountains grew taller, snow sat upon their shoulders like great white shawls, the tops rising above, too high for the frozen carpet, some so tall that they disappeared in the clouds. The view offered to the party as they stepped upon the giants trail was breathtaking. It forced a smile to the ranger's lips. The grandeur of Oerth, its vastness and beauty struck a chord at the center of his being. He felt comforted by the sight.
"This is the Oerth Mother's true temple," he said.
"The trees are pleasant, though it is a little sad to see them penned by those mountains," said Ghibelline.
"They are a might high," mused Ivo.
"The stones up among the peaks, they're old, its said they make the howls that you hear on the wind," Harald told them. "They cry out as time wears them down and the cold splits them. That's why mountain dwarves are grim, living up among the ancient stones."
"We are truly in the middle of nowhere," complained Harold, but quietly.
They all stood for a moment, looking out from the ledge toward the north and west. The sound of the stones calling out seemed to be on the wind. It made the halfling shiver and brought the ranger back from his revery.
"Wolves!" he cursed. "Look down there." he pointed to the valley floor to their east. Half a dozen grey shapes moved along the bare path far below. They howled and their voices were not that of ancient rock or wind.
"They're above us too," warned Ghibelline.
The first call had come down to them from the mountaintop and the wolves below them cried out an answer to that call.