The old man tending the flowers smelled the barbarians before he saw them. They entered the meadow from the north east, sending ripples of movement through the rain blossom. They were breathless, and their furs stank of smoke and wolf shit and fear. The frost-hard ground here kicked up little dust, and their mostly bare legs remained caked in the softer, redder soil of the western Dessarin Valley – some fifty or so miles away. Several greeted him with solemn nods, and the leader placed her hand on his shoulder, simply saying, ‘Druid, go now.’ A handful took the remaining horses and the wolves, and rode on. The rest – thirty six Uthgardt warriors, men and women – crouched low amongst the swaying flowers, javelins and axes held flat to the dirt, and waited for their pursuers.
At the edge of the meadow, he slowly and carefully hauled himself up into the branches of a large and moderately friendly elm. It barely complained as he clambered higher, eventually reaching a solid and secure vantage point. Giving the moss-cloaked bark a gentle stroke, he willed his blue robe to gather up the same deep green colour. Then he sat, and waited.
There were four Hill Giants at first. They smelled as you’d expect Hill Giants to smell, though there was lemonbriar too, and the sharp scent of a variety of harpseed that grew only at the south of the Starmetal Hills. Their heads came into view first, along with a goblin riding high on the lead giant’s shoulders, squinting in the sunlight and sniffing at the air. The giants lolloped up the incline, stumbling into the meadow proper, then pausing – some forty feet or so from the first of the barbarians. The spotter goblin yelped, stabbing one finger furiously in the direction of the horses, and they were off again, trampling the plants underfoot. As they reached the centre of the meadow they slowed, the ground dipping there, and becoming boggy. The heavy giants continued with complaint, grunting and looking down at their feet as they pulled them forcibly up out of the sucking mud. At that moment, some unseen signal must have passed between the Uthgardt, for they rose as one, javelin points springing up amongst the bright petals.
The goblin shrieked once, then flopped. A javelin had passed neatly through his neck, pinning him to the lead giant’s wide, thick head, and eliciting a bellow of rage. Twenty more points flew, finding their targets, and the shouts of the giants mingled with a sudden chorus of war cries. From his position in the elm, the druid watched the other barbarians move low through the tall stems, quickly closing the distance, then leaping up to swing axes at their staggered foes. The air was filled with the dull sounds of metal on bone, and hard wood on flesh, and he began to lose track of the individuals amongst the mist of blood and dirt. After long minutes, a low, deep horn sounded from the midst of the battle, faltering then falling silent.
For several breaths it seemed as if the barbarians had triumphed. Less than ten had been struck down, and only three or four of those lay completely still. There was time for axe blades to open the throats of the fallen giants, and for an exhausted chant of praise, of relief, to rise up.
The song of Uthgar died as heads turned to movement at the edge of the meadow. The druid followed the gazes, and saw four, five, six more heads sway into view. These giants were not alone. A dozen goblins ran alongside, or clung onto their backs. One Hill Giant held two long chains in his fist, the taught leashes of two grey-white, feral-looking ogres. They snapped and barked like malformed dogs, then were suddenly loose – the chain released – biting and clawing and scattering the tribes people.
The Uthgardt fought their last battle well. Two more giants fell to their ferocity, but at the end, it was barbarian blood that soaked the roots of the rain blossom. It would do the flowers no harm, he thought. Their appetite would be whetted for the rains to come, and most of the bent stems would spring back in a day or two. The remaining giants knocked heads together in celebration, and tore some trophies from the corpses. When satisfied, they lumbered off northwards, towards the edge of the great wood – meandering now, victorious, but leaderless. Slowly, the druid began his descent into the white and red meadow.
The pollen gathering continued for three more days, but passed with little spectacle. Crows gathered in some numbers on the morning after the battle, and he was forced to scald them and chase several away. But then an agreement was negotiated with the lead birds, and after that, no more than seven picked at the bodies at any one time, and they stayed suitably distant from his delicate work. On the third day, an elf on horseback shouted something at him, and a gnome stopped to ask him questions about the blossom. His horse smelled of the silvergrass that grew alongside the road north of Phandalin, and the gnome himself of soot and something sulphurous. They talked briefly, about the giants and the trouble to come. After the travellers went on their way, the druid bade his farewells to the meadow flowers – and the crows – and set-off himself, towards the west, and the setting sun.