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The hill looked almost bare after the stifling thickness of the surrounding woodland. Its rocky surface had inhibited growth, and red fire--and redder war--had ravaged there, as the scarred and twisted trees, the chewed bones and rusted shards of steel underfoot testified only too clearly. It was not a pleasant place. There was a feeling of ancient wrongs and lingering evil that extended a sinister welcome to the blackness of the coming night, and the distant storm rack. Yet, to the Giant figure standing motionless in the thickest shadows at the very edge of the forest, it offered secrecy amongst the tall rocks, escape from the festering air that clogged his lungs, and a lair from which to watch for trailing assassins.
He stood a moment longer, listening to the evening bird songs, as though seeking reassurance in their continued serenity, before he moved out of the shadows, and began to pick his way, carefully and silently, past the grinning skulls that stared sightlessly from great black hollows, and yet, seemed to follow his path with malicious intent. The last rays of the sun gleamed on the intricate green and black mail that covered his body, and flashed fire from the great sword that hung by his side, before it dipped below the distant mountains with a brief flare of red and gold. Night swept across the sullen land. Still, he continued up; no sound marked his passing. The failing light merged the pack he carried on his shoulders to his body, turning the whole into a sinister, grotesque oneness. Then he became just another shadow in that place of shadows.
Almost at the top of the hill, he smelt woodsmoke. He became still in all but the hand thatgently loosened the sword in its sheath, and lowered the pack to the ground. He waited with the stolid patience of the hunted; listening, smelling, feeling the currents of the air, scarcely breathing. Low voices reached him. He listened, intently analysing each sound. After a while, he decided that there were two, both seated, both male, one belonging to the so-called Elf people of the forest, the other unknown, with an accent he had never heard before, guttural and deep. Neither held more tension than one would expect in such a place at night. He decided they were not part of an ambush. He stepped forward, looming into the firelight, carefully shading his eyes from its glow.
The reaction was much as he had expected. A sharp exclamation, a brief scuffle away from the fire, the rasp of a drawn sword, and the softer snick of arrow notched on bow. He could see them now, standing an arm's length apart; the Elfman slim and tall with gleaming sword in hand; the other, a darkness, with only the firelight on the drawn bow giving a reference to his form. All else seemed to absorb the light and return nothing. The newcomer lifted his hands into the firelight to show that they were empty, and spoke one word, "Peace!"
It fell like a thrown stone into a pool of darkness. The silence stretched on a rack of tension. At last, the Elfman broke it. "Who and what are you?" he demanded. The strain put an unwanted quiver into his voice, and pitched it high.
"I am merely a traveller. I seek only shelter for the night. I mean you no harm." The voice was deep but gentle, with a soothing quality, but it was met with a harsh, disbelieving laugh.
"A traveller! A traveller in this place! Only Nasdarks travel here! Tell a better story! Quickly! Fool! Your life depends on it!"
"Never-the-less, I am a traveller. I travel through this land. I seek nothing in it from Nasdarks, or from you, Elfman, or from your companion, whatever he may be."
"Fine words from one who sneaks like a wolf in the night!"
"A wolf would have torn your throat ere this!"
Another long silence. "Answer then my second question! Who in Firetime are you?"
"My name is of little import. Men call me, Giant."
Again the harsh laugh. "I can believe that more easily. And what do Giants call you?"
"Oh!" There was a wealth of understanding behind the simple exclamation. Another silence stretched into the night. Then the Elfman spoke again. "If you want nothing from us, what do you here?"
"The night caught me. I need to eat, and rest. As you are already here, I need to come to some accommodation with you, or I may not rest, that is evident."
"How can we trust you?"
"I have no reason to hurt you. I could have done so, if I had so wished."
"How can you trust us? Outcast!"
"What call have you to harm me? And your secret camp here tells of more pressing business than reckless battle for no gain."
"You are right there, Giant, and I can see you are no Nasdark. Sit then, and share our fire and our peril, if you will, for I warn you, our path is desperate, and will likely end bitterly. I am Fairein, Prince of Vale-of-the-Wood, and this is, Pen, Drark of the Western Mountains. We go to rescue or release my betrothed from the Nasdarks, or die in the attempt."
"Rescue or release! Are they not the same?"
Again the mirthless laugh came bitterly across the firelight. "You do not know the Nasdarks or the Elves, Giant, to think so. We have hated and warred since the Firetime. They like nothing better than to capture Elf women. They keep them naked in cages, and make sport with them nightly until they die or become big with child. Then they let them out, and give them a sword. The strong kill themselves quickly, or attack their tormentors with the same results. The weak survive for a while as slaves, until their misery gives them courage to kill themselves, or it is done for them, when they can no longer please their masters, or they are given over to the women. That is said to be the worse death of all. When we find Alaine, she will be in a cage. If she is still clothed, we'll try to rescue her. If not, we'll release her from torment."
"Could you not rescue her in any case?"
"For what purpose? She'd only kill herself as soon as she could."
"Are you so sure of that? If you got her home to friends and family--"
"That would do no good. They would not accept her. They would break the law to do so. The Elf race must be kept pure, as it has been, ever since it was begun in the early days of the Firetime. We are amongst the first of the new peoples, and the purest. It is our nation's proudest boast. No women who has been made unclean can be allowed to live with Elfkind, not even a royal princess--most of all, not a princess."
"So, they kill themselves because they have nowhere to go, or friend to turn to. You do your foes' evil for them! I like it not! But it is not my concern. I wish you luck in your venture, Prince. If it is of any help, I saw many Nasdarks heading North-east from a river crossing, half a day's march back. Though I saw no prisoner with them."
The Elfman sat abruptly up from where he had lounged during the conversation. "You did? Then I am right! They have called a gathering. Alaine may be untouched yet. Tomorrow is the anniversary of the battle of this thrice-cursed hill, when they stole this land from us, and took the people captive. Not, since then, have they had an Elf Princess in their dirty hands, and they have called a gathering to make public sport of her. They will have kept her for tomorrow night. We must reach her before then. You must show us this river crossing. You are armed. To have survived as an outcast, you must be able to use that sword. Will you help us? You will be well rewarded, should we survive."
"As I said, it is not my concern, but I like not this usage of women. Where are your people, Elf, that you go to battle with but one companion, and he not Elf? Have the Elves grown so craven, that they do not fight for their women's honour?"
"My father forbade the marching of the army. He has grown old, and sick, and overly cautious. He believes we have lost too many men that way. They fade away before us, and kill from ambush. Their only real cities are in the mountains, and we are not strong enough to take them. My father will attack, when and where it suits him, and he'll avenge this deed. Nasdark blood will redden the Sharn waters, then, but it will be too late for Alaine. It may already be too late. Mostly after the first night, it is too late!" There was a sob in the young voice that did much to turn the Giant's heart.
"I'll aid you, Prince, though I like not the ways of your people. This I ask. I want safe passage through all the lands of elves, and I want horses when I reach the far side of these infernal woods. Have you horse that could carry me?"
"I have the finest horses in the country, Giant! Some could bear you easily. Man is not the only creature to cast Giants since the Firetime. Here, take these tokens. My horse master will recognize them, should I be dead, and you can claim whatever you wish from my herds on the plain. Show the large one to any of my people, and they will gladly serve you in my name. But be you warned! If the Nasdarks take you, and find this, then your death will be the more horrible for it." He leant forward, and passed two metal tokens across the fire. The Giant took them, held them a moment in his hand, where they gleamed with the captured glow of the fire, then abruptly tucked them into a pocket under the mail.
"So am I paid," he said. "Now I must eat, and rest. I have journeyed far this day."
Soon he settled down between the rocks a little way from the fire, and his deep breathing denoted sleep. The Elf and the Drark also lay in the shadows, but it was long before they slept. One thought on a girl in a cage, and what might even then be happening, and, through his tears, vowed horrible revenge; the other dreamed of far-off mountains, and a lost home, and cared not that the morrow might be his last.
Dawn found them threading a careful path through the thick jungle that bordered the river Sharn. Three Nasdark patrols delayed them, but were easily avoided. That the Giant could move so silently through the thickets amazed his companions. The pack had been left hidden at the base of the hill. From it, the Giant had extracted two long leaves of steel that clipped together to form an incredible longbow, and a quiver of arrows, each as tall as an ordinary man. These he slung on his back, the bow in pieces, and wrapped so as to be soundless. They fitted snugly beside an ordinary bow of polished wood, and a quiver of ordinary arrows, steel tipped and deadly.
In the morning light, he looked formidable indeed. He stood fully three meters tall and massively built, but light in movement, like a great cat in its prime. The armour, too, was a joy to behold. It was, for the most part, chain mail, but so intricately formed and linked, that not even the sharpest arrow could pierce far. It flowed with the rippling muscles, so that it seemed not to impede movement at all. His face was mostly hidden by the same material, but the dark eyes held a steady, gentle gaze that contrasted strangely with the warlike apparel, and there was a look of sorrow there, that reminded the Elf of the night's conversation. "What do the Giants call you?" he had asked. "Man!" had been the answer. There could be nothing more desolate than that. But, watching the movement of the Giant through the trees and vines, the Elf, for the first time, allowed a tiny spark of hope to lighten the darkness of his heart.
They had to backtrack and swim the river, for the ford was well guarded, but a noisy band of late comers saved them the trouble of having to search for the place of gathering.
They heard it, long before they saw it. In a wide, clear, river flat, many brightly coloured tents fringed a circle of bare sand. Hundreds of revelers milled about it, while two stripped opponents fought savagely with axes in the centre. To one side hung a wooden cage, just about level with the heads of the contenders, and in it, standing with both wrists tied to the bars above her head, was a woman.
"Alaine!" whispered the Elf, his eyes bright with rage, and his hand trembling on his sword.
"Naked," said the Giant quietly.
"She is not harmed. They fight to be the first." The Drark spoke for almost the first time since they had left the hill in the dawning. "See! The women still torment her."
It was true. The cage was flanked by women who hurled scraps of food and taunts at it, and there was much ribald laughter and obscene gesturing.
The Giant studied the scene. "There are more cages!" he said, "and they have people in them!"
The Elf followed his pointing finger to where three other cages stood a little back from the crowd. Each held a prisoner, but these were not tied upright, but crouched on the floor. "Her lady companions. There were five of them. Two must have managed to kill themselves, or were given to the army that watches for our coming. There is nothing we can do for them. It is too late. They were captured five nights ago. Where best to attack, think you?"
"When, is the more important problem. How much time do we have? Can we wait for dark? In the dark, we have a chance. There are over five hundred fighting men there. We couldn't reach her in this light. We would die for nothing."
The Elf turned darkly. "I do not know. I've never seen such a thing before. But we have until they begin to lower that cage. Then we attack! No matter what! Are you agreed?" He turned firstly to the Drark, who stood watching the scene below him impassively. A shrug was all the answer he got, but it seemed to satisfy him. Then he turned to the Giant, who regarded him steadily for some moments. "So be it," was all he said. Then he settled himself comfortably against the bole of the tree that hid them. "Let us rest. We will have need of it."
All afternoon they watched while the victim hung in her cage, and the contenders fought beneath her. They fought savagely with a variety of weapons. Some fought until they were wounded, and threw down their weapons, and were helped from the circle with cheers and laughter. Others fought bitterly, and the bouts ended only when one lay bloodied in the sand, and could not rise. Some were lifted and carried away. Others were dragged out by the feet, and left with those for whom the revels had suddenly turned sour, and these, for the most part turned their grief and spite against the poor creatures in the cages, and beat at them with sticks. The Giant watched with a growing rage.
The sun set, and still the revels went on. Fires and torches were lit, giving an even greater satanic character to the scene, as the smoke and the flickering light played over struggling contenders, and highlighted the nakedness of the pitiful figure hanging in the gently swaying cage. Then a great wooden platform was dragged onto the sand amid cheering and scrambling for vantage points, and the three rose to their feet.
It was time to go, but they had been granted darkness, and the revelers had drunk much. So had the guards, and they died suddenly, and silently. One was still drinking when the knife found his throat, and the liquor spurted with his blood.