Octal Dragon hacked his way past a knot of bushes. "Are you sure you went this far north? I see no sign of water or hills."
"I've told you before," replied Gryffon. "I was hard pressed by a troll at the time." The ranger pulled his cloak loose from the thorny undergrowth. "I lost a sense of my bearings."
The pair of Sunset Knights broke into a small clearing, a temporary respite from the dense wood they had been fighting for the last few hours.
"Let's rest here a moment," suggested Gryffon, "then I'll take the lead." He handed his friend a thick slice of cheese and a bottle of wine.
"Tell me more of this vale you found," said Octal between chews. He leaned against a crooked tree and pulled the cork free from the bottle with his teeth. "Are you sure Samantha will like it?"
"My friend, it's a place like no other. The greenest grass I've ever seen. And flowers with purple petals like fat grapes." "Like grapes? Perhaps we can use them to make some decent wine," said Octal. "This swill of yours tastes like it was strained through Arogorn's undershorts."
"It was," said Gryffon. He walked out from the shade of the trees, leaving Octal spitting wine into the grass. The afternoon sun warmed away the chill of a morning spent within the deep forest. "And the lake," said Gryffon, returning his thoughts to the vale, "that's the finest piece. As smooth as glass. A perfect mirror of the sky." And a perfect place to dedicate to the Lady Samantha as a token of his forever devotion to her. All that remained was to find the vale again.
Anxious to continue the search, he turned to chide Octal back to his feet. Only to find his friend charging at him with sword held high for a killing blow.
"Down, Knight," Octal screamed, slamming the sword hilt into Gryffon's chest. Gryffon stumbled backwards a step, space enough to take just a nicking cut from the battle axe of the skeleton warrior behind him. As Gryffon dropped to one knee, Octal parried the skeleton's backswing with his shield and struck with a strong slash of his own.
Gryffon bounced back to his feet, sword out before him, to see two more skeletons emerging from the eastern trees. He moved between the busy Octal and the approaching undead. "A word in warning would have sufficed," he yelled over his shoulder. A splintering of bones behind him and Octal was at his side.
"I called three times without you hearing me," said Octal. "Let's hope this vale is not the death of us. Left or right?" "But what a glorious end it would be," answered Gryffon. "Left."
Flat to the ground, the two knights peeked over the hill down into the vale. Hills continued east and west, encircling the lake in a bowl of tall grass. With the morning sun to their backs, the knights had a perfect view of the vale in all its splendor. But at the moment, they were focused only on the orc hunting party camped at the lake's edge.
Gryffon voiced the obvious problem. "They'll see us before we're halfway down."
"That's not the only trouble," said Octal. He pointed to a skinny orc that barking orders to several others. "That would be a mage," he said. "I can smell the magic of him from here."
Gryffon knew the better plan would be to wait on the orcs, attack when they move on and spread thin in the forest. But he could not stand the thought of the ugly creatures having their way with the vale. "I'll not wait for them to leave," said Gryffon. "They've desecrated this place enough."
"Easy, my friend," said Octal, patting his friend on the arm. "We're of the same thought. Besides they don't look to be moving any time soon and I've no intention of spending another night in these woods. But we must kill the mage first, before its mates can join in."
"Can your magic help us?" asked Gryffon.
"Not at this distance." Octal nodded at the hills ringing the western edge of the vale. "Those are closer to the lake. I'd still need a diversion to get closer to the mage but only a few seconds."
Gryffon remembered the small herd of cattle they had passed in the grasslands approaching the hills. "Make your way west," he told Octal. "You'll have your diversion."
Gryffon poked and prodded the cows to the base of the hills. One quick rush and the herd would stampede right into the lap of the orcs' camp. Quickly he climbed to the ridge top to be sure the orcs remained where he had left them. A glint of metal told him Octal was in position. Gryffon returned to the rear of the herd. The cows eyed his every step, suspicious of the human that had roused them from a lazy grazing. Slinging his longsword across his back, Gryffon loaded a bolt onto his crossbow. With a word of magic, he called a wand of sparkles to life.
The orcs stood stunned as the cows barreled down the vale's slope, followed by a whooping human waving a stick that spit colorful, crackling sparks. Before the first orc even moved, two of the monsters were trampled beneath the thundering hooves. A third orc tried a grab at the knight but Gryffon dashed in among the cows and the clumsier orc dared not follow. The plan was working perfectly. Octal had the time he needed and more.
Suddenly, the cow directly to Gryffon's front exploded in blood, its body veering off to the side. In its place stood a tree-wide orc, pulling a spiked mace from its belt to replace the axe left in the cow's head. The orc's thick lips pulled back into an ugly smile of green yellow teeth.
Gryffon could not stop in time nor could he change direction enough to avoid the mace. So he took the only course left open, speeding up and throwing himself under the orc's swing into its midsection.
Over and over, the two rolled, human and orc tied up in a tangle of arms and legs, each trying to end the ride on top. It was a battle Gryffon could not win against a beast more than double his weight.
The orc pinned Gryffon to the ground, its mace ready to smash in the knight's helm and his skull along with it. Gryffon was helpless.
Or he would have been if not for the one glaring weakness from which all orcs suffered. They loved to gloat. "Me eat you guts," the monster explained to the knight, "and you heart and you brain." Caught up in its dinner plans, the orc never noticed Gryffon's hand find the crossbow in the grass beside him until the point of the bolt was pressed hard against the underside of its jaw.
"How about you just kiss my arse," Gryffon said as he pulled the trigger.
Climbing out from under the twitching brute, Gryffon found the orc mage facing him not more than five strides away. The monster's clenched fists glowed with black energy building to a deadly release.
Gryffon pulled his longsword free of its sheath and charged the orc, knowing he would be two strides too late.
The air about him sizzled as a bolt of lightning struck the orc mage and sent it tumbling away head over heels. The mage's violent magic passed wide to Gryffon's left and slammed into another orc, exploding it to dust.
From its knees, the dazed orc mage watched Gryffon approach and offered no resistance as the longsword separated its head from its shoulders.
The battle ended that quickly. The remaining two orcs tried to flee, each reaching the ridge line before a ball of fire spun by Octal sent them over the other side in a mass of wailing flames.
After retrieving his crossbow, Gryffon found Octal sitting beneath a tree, examining the orc mage's pouches.
"That was more than a few seconds," said Gryffon.
Octal shoved several herbs into his reagent bag and tossed some others aside. He looked up at his friend with a smile and a wink. "What's this? I almost get trampled by a cow and you're complaining."
Gryffon helped his friend to his feet and the two began the task of removing the corpses from the vale. By the time they finished, both knights were drenched with sweat and thoroughly worn out.
"I guess we should gate back to the castle now," said Gryffon, wringing the sweat from his bandanna. "I did promise to help with the new addition to the library."
Octal brushed loose dirt and leaves from his tunic. "And I promised to translate some old scrolls for Samantha. You know how impatient she is when something needs to be done."
The knights looked at the lake, so blue and still under the hot sun.
"Then again, maybe not," they said together. Laughing, they started down towards the water.
"Have any of that cheese left?" asked Octal.