"You might have no future unless you use your senses," the man replied sarcastically. "Keep the blank expression, and don't look around – keep your eyes on me." Still smiling, Gellor added, "There are at least a score of verbeeg to our rear. I've seen them several times now. Those blasters can run, you know, and they're in a crescent formation behind us. I'd say that they want us to keep moving ahead… into whatever ambuscade their fellows are preparing for us somewhere close ahead!"
Gord wanted to turn and see if he could spot the following verbeeg. He had heard of these giant-sized men, creatures eight or nine feet tall, often gross and deformed, and as mean as they were ugly. He had never actually seen one, for as fierce as verbeeg were, they were hunted by men – an act of self-preservation, of course, for if given opportunity the verbeeg would rape, plunder and destroy the communities of their smaller cousins. In these hills it was not unexpected that such creatures would be found, dwelling in relative harmony with humanoid beasts and savage ogres and giants, as likely as not.
Gord looked quizzically at Gellor. "What are we going to do?" he asked in a low tone.
"Curley, tell that horse of yours to pull up as if he were lame," the one-eyed bard told his other companion. "Be quick!"
Soon Greenleaf was bending forward in his high-backed saddle. He patted the steed's neck, but no distant onlooker would have noticed anything else. Suddenly, the big stallion began moving in an odd gait, limping and favoring its right foreleg, as if some stone had bruised its iron-shod hoof.
"How's that?" the druid asked Gellor.
In reply, the one-eyed adventurer raised his hand, turned in his saddle, and called the column of men to a halt. "Rest!" he called. "Greenleaf s mount is lame. I'll explain what we will do." As he shouted all this, he turned his own courser slowly, riding back to the various and sundry lieutenants and minor spell-workers who rode near the head of the column. After a brief conversation there, these men rode back along the column of lancers and mounted sergeants with crossbows, all the way to the handful of officers and tough adventurers who guarded the company's rear.
The four files of" riders quickly split into two halves, one spreading out casually to the left, the other to the right, while the tail of the column moved forward. This maneuver was not done with seeming precision; horses were reined only loosely, heads low, and allowed to graze. There was certainly a plan behind it, however, and Gord noted that the animals' movements were quietly guided by knees and heels. Everyone seemed quite relaxed, though, even as the former column suddenly shaped itself into a line, two ranks deep, lancers to the rear, crossbowmen and the rest in front.
"What is Gellor doing?" the puzzled young thief asked his friend. "Why are we forming for a charge with our lancers behind? And what reason to charge ahead into some undiscovered ambush?"
"Don't be a noddy peak, my lad! Old Gellor may have only one real eye, but his brain and wits more than make up for it," Curley said bluffly. "Now you pay attention to him and be ready for a rapid change!"
Almost as if that were a cue, the grizzled adventurer suddenly brought forth his longsword and gave it a wave. Without any further orders, the two long lines suddenly wheeled to face to the rear. Now lieutenants barked orders, and as the horsemen began advancing in the direction from which they had come, mounts moving at a slow walk. A slight shift of the rear rank brought the crossbow-armed riders into the intervals between the lancers, and from there they could loose their bolts without fear of hitting their fellows. Greenleaf and Gord were at the center, a sort of third rank, along with Gellor and a pair of veteran mercenary lieutenants. Like groups had taken station on either wing, obviously meant to guard the flanks of the formation.
"Charge!" cried Gellor in a stentorian voice that could have been heard a quarter-mile distant.
The walking horses began to trot, then quickened their gait to a canter. The ground was too uneven for a full gallop, and even a charge such as this was not likely to prove as devastating as one normally would. Nonetheless, Gord was glad he was not standing before the thundering lancers and sergeants of the company as they moved thus.
Without warning, huge men sprang up from behind bushes and other cover that Gord would never have supposed would hide such tall savages. The verbeeg were clad in an odd assortment of armors. Some had fur hides and pelts, others scraps of armor attached to hide coats. Byrnies taken from who knew where were crudely converted into jacks to protect the upper bodies of these lean giants. Some bore shields of human make, others crude ones obviously fashioned by their own hands. Each bore an equally motley assortment of weapons. Most carried crude clubs and rough spears. A few had like weapons of somewhat superior craftsmanship. Here and there were pole arms and great swords recognizable as having once belonged to men. Bardiche and massive, two-handed mace were held with one-handed nonchalance by these behemoths.
Into this suddenly revealed force the horsemen charged without hesitation. A flurry of bolts was sent speeding toward the verbeeg savages, just as the lancers in the front rank lowered their flame-pennoned weapons. The light crossbows carried by the men of the second line were quickly slung on pommels, so that the sergeants could ply other arms in the coming melee – sword, axe, or whatever weapon the soldier chose. Then the charging horsemen struck their enemies with a crash of steel on steel. Not a few of the leading riders, or their steeds, had been brought down by the heavy spears that the human-giants hurled at the closing horsemen. Undaunted, the charge went home, and the lances' impacts tumbled verbeeg and riders too. Maddened stallions bit and sent vicious kicks with skull-crushing force as they reared and came down. Helmets spun through the air, as did severed heads and broken weapons. Sobering blows and vicious thrusts then fell upon those of the human giants who still stood, as the second wave of riders fell upon them. A half-dozen of their most savage members still stood and fought, with bloody bardiche hacking or two-handed sword slashing death, but a score of their fellows lay dead in a matter of minutes.
A rapid check to left and right showed Gord that the flanks were secured. The expert fighting men and lesser magic-users there worked in conjunction to destroy the few towering verbeeg coming at the meleeing company thus. Gellor had been singing a heroic chant ever since the charge began, his voice somehow carrying above the thundering hooves and the din of battle afterward. The druid was also engaged in activity, moving toward the rear to watch for the expected coming of fresh foes, brought from hiding by the shouts and sounds of the struggle. Evidently Greenleaf thought the threat was serious, for two associated druids, the chief magician of the company, and a swarthy Chakyik, a slant-eyed, bandy-legged fighter of great prowess, renowned for his terrible horn bow, went with him as he retraced the route over which the company had just passed.
Virtually left alone, the young adventurer looked for the most likely place where his swordsmanship might be of use. A heavily armored verbeeg, laying bloody bodies in dismembered rows about him, was nearby. This fellow seemed to be inspiring the few remaining giants to rally, and Gord was disconcerted to see that a few more of the monsters were yet uncommitted, hanging back to see if they should fight or flee.
Setting his heels sharply into his warhorse's flanks, Gord rode to attack the giant, his blade held spearlike before him, aiming his course so as to sweep past the verbeeg chieftain and allow the point to drive home. Too busy fending off thrust lances and flashing blades to take the additional threat of a single horseman seriously, the human giant was an easy target for a sword as keen, and an aim as artful, as Gord's.
The impact of delivering the blow spun the young thief sideways, and he almost fell from his seat atop the courser. Only the high cantle of the saddle saved him. The verbeeg was reeling, Gord's sword imbedded in his side but still somehow managing to fight the men before him. Without thinking, Gord vaulted from his steed's back, ran toward the giant, and sprang through the air, leaping high and driving his long, enchanted dagger through the steel plate that protected the chieftain's huge back. The verbeeg gave an awful, bull-like bellow at the attack, then fell dead, for the dagger had struck him a mortal wound.
The skulking remainder of the band was sent flying by well-shot quarrels, and the whole affair was done. Over a score of the company was dead, or soon would die of wounds, and as many were injured. Explosive sounds, deep shouts of giant voices, and then more bangs and crackles sounded from beyond a hill that they would have passed over had the squadrons ridden on unaware of the ambush.
Gord had regained his wits and his sword, found his horse, and remounted. He peered at the hill. Brilliant silvery light sprang up and died as quickly, then a rainbow of jarringly wrong colors shot into the air. An arcing boulder made a momentary appearance in its flight, then fell from vision. More boulders appeared similarly, and their impact could be felt from where Gord watched, as the sound of their crashing and shattering could be heard. With that, the air above the source of these flying stones seemed to become red hot, actually turning a maroon color and shimmering, while waves of tawny flame undulated in it as eels swim in water. Bellowing and titanic howls arose, but no boulders did so.
A full minute elapsed with nothing more. The company was gathering its wounded, readying the horses, stripping (he dead of anything that they, still living, might use. Over the crest of the intervening hill came Curley Greenleaf and his henchmen, riding like the wind although no enemy pursued them.
Gellor galloped his horse pan way out to meet the group. "What happened, Greenleaf, my old friend?" he called as the handful of men brought their horses to a skidding stop. "Are you chased by invisible stalkers and fiends of the ether?"
"Don't attempt poor jests now!" the sweating druid called back. "There must be a hundred hill giants, verbeeg, and ogres back there. We gave them hell, but a couple of bigger ones – probably mountain giants – began tossing rocks at us. We hit them with a lick or two of magic, and that stirred up a hornets' nest. I'd say that there are a dozen of those big bastards back there with the rest."
"What do you think they'll do?" Gellor asked in a worried tone.
"Come boiling after us in a minute!" cried the druid. "Even though we did for a bunch of them, there's more than enough left to do the same for all of us!"
"Then we make a fast detour to the west," the one-eyed man said laconically. He waved to the surviving members of the company to follow, and then trotted his horse to the left, angling slightly southward and bringing the animal to a faster pace as he reached the head of the column that had formed. Gord, Greenleaf, and the rest spurred their mounts to catch up, for huge heads were appearing on the hill crest – giant heads. The rest would soon follow, and not one of the men cared to stay and see if the creatures in this horde were interested in surrendering.
The remainder of their trek through the hills was rather anticlimactic. A brush with some passing brigands and a few incidents with prowling carnivores of typical sort were all (hat occurred. Before a week was out the force came to the verge of the Suss Forest, the place where the easternmost arm of the woodlands came to a halt upon the northernmost slopes of the Drachensgrabs. Curley and his three attendant druids were most relieved and happy to be there, but Gord and most of the others didn't share the prospective joys of the forest, for the Suss was renowned for its dangerousness, being the high road for humanoids and various less desirable creatures seeking haven in the wilderness of the Pomarj. When such traffic existed, predators found it to be a steady food source and settled down to inhabit the region.
Any creature that hunted ores, bugbears, and ogres was bound to be a tough customer for anyone else to face, including seasoned adventurers such as these troops were. Furthermore, lancers on horseback were entirely out of their element in timber. Just as Gellor had predicted, the lieutenants of the company met and voted that the men ride east to seek employment with the Lord of Elredd. That was that.
The few remaining members of the sundered company were formidable enough without the mercenaries who had ridden away. And they were certainly varied: Gellor the bard; Curley Greenleaf with his three aspirant druids in tow; Gord; the Chakyik barbarian, Jokotai; and three mercenary adventurers who thought their prospects were brighter with such as this group – a Flan named Incosee and two crossbowmen called Moon and Patrick respectively. The latter two were appreciative of the care Curley had given them, his druidic power saving both men from death due to wounds suffered in the fight against the verbeeg. Now both determined to be obligated to him, and the druid was less than pleased about that but could not dissuade either one.
Before night fell, the ten adventurers comprising the band rode northeast out of the hills and along the edge of the Suss Forest, taking care to leave as little sign of their trail as possible. If any followed the company, they were likely to take the obvious track left by the larger group and ignore the few who went off in another direction. That is what Gellor wished.
"Before I leave you," the half-elven druid and ranger told his comrades, "I must reveal what has transpired…"
"About time, Curley!" Gord interjected. "This is a long story, Gord, and if any of you hope to sleep this night, I suggest that you interrupt infrequently… if at all." The rotund druid paused and looked around at the faces of his companions, letting the seriousness of his statement sink in.
"Very impressive, you half-breed reprobate," Gellor contributed, "but let's cut the theatrics, or your account will be spun on until dawn… He enjoys his role, you know," Gellor said, now addressing the others, "for it isn't often that everyone has to listen to this windbag. Now we must!"
"I refuse to rise to your baiting. The views of a one-eyed old scoundrel are necessarily… ahem… limited in their perspective!" Smiling gently at his own wit, Curley Greenleaf launched into his exposition without further delay.
"The result of my efforts – that is, the combined work of Gord, here, our missing associate Chert, a steely-eyed and thick-hewed barbarian, and me, of course – released a powerful relic into the proper hands. That is to say, the object was somehow brought from its obscurity and inaccessibility by forces beyond our understanding at the time of its need, the supernatural influences seemingly utilizing we three, and now the druidical circles, and the Hierophants too, to further their ends. As to the nature of these unknown powers, I can not speak, for I know aught of them and only suppose their actuality. Of the relic, however, I can speak with considerable enlightenment, understanding given to me by others – including our companion, Gellor.