Lante’lei – Steel Rain

The thick head of the carabull raised up from the bush it was eating. He snuffed loudly, swinging his head back and forth, looking for what had startled him. His four horns glinted in and out of the light as he searched, his heavy shoulders bunching in anticipation of attacking whatever was near.

Pret froze. She was about 10 meters from the bull. Too far to spring the attack, and she knew that Shana’s bow wouldn’t do much good against the large creature. Pret wasn’t sure what had spooked it. Surely Frey hadn’t been the culprit, she was much too experienced to have made such a dangerous error.

The bull huffed his breath in and out twice then started trotting into the forest. His path would take him away from the Verka Selde’s hunters, which was both good and bad. Since it meant none of Pret’s hunters were in danger, but they’d also be missing out on the meat and leather they could have had by killing the bull.

As Pret stood, watching the bull disappear into the forest, she saw Frey stand on the opposite side of the clearing, hanging her twin axes back in the loops on her belt angrily and glaring at the bull. The two of them walked to where Shana had been laying in wait with her bow.

“What happened?” Shana asked, looking at her tribe leader.

“I don’t know,” Pret answered grumbling. “It wasn’t us, though.”

“Shhh!” Frey hissed, raising her hand and listening.

With the quiet, Pret heard the ring of metal on metal. Someone was fighting somewhere in the forest. “Lante’lei?” she asked quietly.

Frey shook her head and pointed up. “Alda’lei.”

Pret nodded and listened carefully. Once she decided where the sound was coming from, she said simply, “Follow.” And started running off into the woods. Not bothering to see if her order was being followed.

The three huntresses for the Verka Selde glided through the forest, stopping now and then to listen and get a bead on the sound of the fighting in the treetops. Finally, Pret stopped, raising her hand clutched in a fist. After a brief pause, she motioned them forward. “Up there,” she said as the other two came up to stand with her.

Three hundred feet above them, along a series of three rope and wooden slat bridges, warriors from two Alda’lei clans, the Vdony and C’tay, were locked in battle. The two rival clans had been bickering over border rights between their two villages for nearly two decades. At stake was access to the rare fruits of the flowering vines that grew in this area.

The young men fought hand-to-hand, jumping quickly from one position to another with barely a thought to the long drop below them. Archery was difficult in the swaying tops of the trees with the shifting cover and constant movement of the branches and combatants alike. Besides, this reckless abandon with which the men threw themselves into the fray was one of the reasons that they had been selected to try to secure the valuable fruit and herbs for their tribes.

Fris, one of the Vdony fighters, dressed in patterns of green mimicking the foliage of the trees, squared off with his C’tay opponent. Seirv, the C’tay dressed in armor patterned in shades of brown and red, held his small shield low near his waist and his short curved blade out to his right, inviting an attack at his chest.

The younger, inexperienced Fris hopped forward, extending his long slender dagger toward Seirv’s chest. Seirv smiled as his opponent took the bait. His left hand swung up quickly, bringing his round shield in place to block the expected attack. At the same time, Seirv countered with a strong swing of his own aimed at Fris’ head.

Fris yelped at the stinging of his right hand as his attack was blocked. He saw the oncoming counter attack almost too late and desperately brought his diamond shaped buckler up to block the blade whistling at his head. The combination of the shock of his attack being blocked and his concentration on stopping the blade swinging toward him made him lose his grip on his dagger. It bounced once on the swaying planks of the rope bridge, then clattered over the edge to fall into space.

On the ground below the battle, Pret, Frey and Shana backed up against the trunk of the tree, listening and watching. Without any means to make metal implements of their own, the Lante’lei relied on scavenging the debris of battles like this and other sources for weapons and other implements they needed to survive.

Frey caught sight of the glitter as the tumbling dagger fell through a ray of sunlight. She pointed up at the falling weapon, tracking it with her eyes and calculating where it would land. It was dangerous to be below a battle like this. But the need to collect whatever metal they could find made the risk worth taking. Pret said “Go” and Frey sprinted forward to move toward the area where she thought the weapon would land.

The dagger tumbled slowly as it fell. It struck a thick heavy bush almost flat, crashing down and snapping branches as it came to rest on the ground below. Frey was glad she wouldn’t have to do too much digging to retrieve this one. She grunted as she pushed her way into the bush, ignoring the scrapes and scratches of the thorns on the branches. She reached in and grabbed the hilt of the dagger, pulling it out of the foliage.

As she jogged back to join the others, Frey examined the dagger. It was a serviceable enough weapon. The tapered diamond cross section and sharp point showing it to be designed for piercing more than slashing. Nothing too fancy, and certainly nothing that Frey would replace any of her several blades for. As she got back to the tree, she flipped it toward Shana, chuckling softly as she watched the other elf dodge to avoid the blade and then bend to pick it up after it bounced hilt first off the tree behind her.

Pret shook her head slightly at the exchange, but kept her eyes on the branches overhead. One dagger already made the trip worthwhile, but she was hoping for more. Shana dusted the dagger off and slipped it into the small satchel she carried on her back.

On the rope bridge, things had gone from bad to worse for Fris. He’d drawn a secondary weapon (a short handled axe with a wide flat blade and a curved spike on the back end), but his buckler had been damaged to the point of being unusable. He was backing away from Seirv, his eyes locked on the fighter, but keeping an ear out for a possible attack from behind.

The sound of leather creaking behind him made Fris glance back over his shoulder. Seirv took advantage of the distraction and rushed forward, bringing his curved sword up from low to his right. Seirv put all he had into the blow, knowing it would end this fight. Then he stopped suddenly, gasping as his lower back erupted in pain.

Fris looked back in time to see the blade drop from Seirv’s grip. The look of shock and pain clearly on his face confused the younger elf. Then he looked behind and saw his tribemate Ploe. Ploe’s short spear which ended in twin prongs like a fork was embedded in Seirv’s back. He’d used the C’tay’s focus on his kinsman to cover his silent approach.

Ploe set his feet and grunted as he lifted the older elf and twisted him over the railing. The rest of the Vdony fighters were behind him and they needed the bridge cleared. Fris slipped his axe back into his belt, picked up Seirv’s dropped sword and turned around to help clear the way to the next platform for his tribesmen.

At the base of the tree, all three of the women heard the sound of a body falling through the branches above. Shana was the first to spot it and pointed silently, thinking a brief prayer in her head to Kira for the soul of the man falling. The body fell through the branches, managing to miss the most massive of the boughs, bouncing instead through the springier finger branches and leaves.

The three elves started forward toward the landing spot. The falling body hit the ground hard, but its fall had been slowed somewhat by the branches above. It bounced slightly in the soft earth on the forest floor. When the three got to it, it was lying face down, partly obscured by the undergrowth.

Pret and Frey started into the task of stripping the body of anything useful. Pret looked to Shana, who was hanging back from the scene anyway and said “Keep an eye out. We’re not the only ones who will recognize the sounds of a battle and come around to see what rains down.”

Shana nodded once at her leader and nocked an arrow in her bow, turning slowly to scan the forest for potential threats. Both scavengers like the bush dogs and other elves could challenge them for their right to the spoils. As she completed her first circle, she glanced down and noticed that Pret and Frey had rolled the body over.

It was a male elf, of course. All the Alda’lei warriors were men. None of the women spared much of a glance at his face, though. His chest was covered with a sheet of overlapping steel scales, each leaf shaped piece overlaid the one below it to form a vest that protected all the vital areas. The steel was covered with an enamel in red and brown, but the value was in the metal, not in the artwork. This was an unexpected treasure. He must have been someone important to be wearing that much steel.

As Frey started to use one of her daggers to cut the leather straps that held the chest piece in place, the man groaned slightly. Frey jumped and hissed in surprise. Shana said “He’s alive! After a fall like that he still lives?”

Frey moved her dagger over and slammed it up under his chin, driving the blade into his head. She looked up at Shana, who’s look of surprise and disgust showed what she thought about the action. “Not anymore,” Frey said with a quiet chuckle. Then she pulled the knife out again, wiping the blood and gore on the man’s tunic he wore beneath the armor.

Shana scowled at Frey, considering whether the later retribution would be worth making a comment back. Pret forestalled that, however, by saying sharply. “You’d have done the same for any animal that was wounded like that, Shana. Now do as you were told and watch for danger!” Shana jerked her head around and started scanning the forest again.

Pret and Frey quickly stripped the precious armor and a few other pieces of metal off the man. The leather that the Alda’lei made was of lower quality than the Lante’lei who had access to better hides from the creatures of the forest; so that was left behind. Pret found another dagger, short enough it was probably more of a ceremonial knife than anything, but she placed it in her pack despite it’s uselessness as a weapon. On the talanor, nothing was wasted if it could be made to serve another purpose.

As they worked, Shana noted that the sounds of fighting from above were dying down. Apparently this man had been one of the losing side. Or he was just unlucky. In either case, she repeated her earlier prayer for his soul and asked Kira to take him and comfort him.

Pret and Frey were done in a matter of minutes. They stood and looked around, also noticing as Shana had that it was quiet. The rain of metal was probably done. Pret looked hard at Shana and then said to both her hunters, “Back to camp. No food today. But this is worth more.” Once again she started off running, knowing they would follow.

Frey sneered at Shana. Shana tried to look down submissively, but Frey bent down so she could still look into her eyes. “You and I will talk at camp,” Frey said quietly. The look in her eyes made Shana shudder in anticipation of the pain that would accompany that “talk”.

Frey turned and started running after Pret and Shana followed. No use dwelling on things she couldn’t change. She’d been used as an example before when Pret or Frey wanted to teach others in the Verka Selde about the cost of failing to obey the many rules of the tribe.

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