The Sylvan Elf huntress stirred from her rest. A silent, painted shamaness brought the daily offering of water scented with irises and fresh jeth-tree sap. The deep bowl was proffered through the leaf-shaped flap to the huntress' simple abode, high in the mist-shrouded trees.
The huntress awoke. She was powerfully built and dusky-skinned, the muscles of her belly and her battle-scarred, sinewy biceps stretching to the morning sunlight. She tasted the air. Humid—a foreign scent—perhaps a Winged Serpent had passed close by. If she found it, it would make a good meal and secure feathers to trade with the Grey Elves. She sat up from her mattress of stuffed rattan-work that lay close to the floor. She was naked. Sweat, not from heat, but from exertion, trickled, slick and lustrous, between her full breasts. It was the second time she awakened that morning.
A Wood Elf ranger slept on beside her. The ranger was lithe, taller and more slender than the huntress. Long-limbed, with swept, alert features and a cool, androgynous beauty, she seemed haughty. Her emerald-green eyes and high cheekbones had been the first thing the huntress had admired when they had met by chance at the foot of a dormant volcano. The huntress remembered soft, black soil under her bare feet, warm and full of latent fire. The ranger was a traveller from colder lands to the North and had never seen the snow-rimmed calderas and steaming lakes that capped the Dragonreach Mountains. They had seen eye to eye from the first moment. That had been a moment of Eahyyn – what the Wood Elves called a 'realization of kinship' – a bond formed between two whose life-paths the Moon Goddess meant to cross.
Now the ranger lay silent, half-asleep but vigilant, her long, satin-soft, verdant-green hair free flowing down her back, ending just a little above the athletic curve of her bottom. She was paler than the Sylvan Elf, but hard. Hard like a wilderness hunter ought to be. Strong arms to draw a bow wield a scimitar and make love. The huntress was fortunate. The ranger was quite a find.
The dusky huntress rose and slipped on a corded loincloth. Around it was her fang-dagger, adorned with an intricately twisted lock of ember-red hair. It was shameful for a huntress to be awake unarmed. She knelt and took the offering of scented water. Dipping her fingers in the cool liquid, she brought some to the ranger's pale lips.
The ranger stirred. She tapped the huntress' thigh with her foot. The huntress drew closer. Rich, musky aromas hung densely in the air. Sweat, nectar, fresh hathal-nut oil. The ranger moaned softly and turned on her back. Her belly was still covered in the residue of the huntress' creamy nectar – the earthy, powerful elixir of the dusky Sylvan Elf's passion. The ranger's eyes fluttered open – sharp, alert, observant. She rose to her knees. The huntress took a great draught of water in her mouth and kissed the ranger. Sweet water poured between their lips. The ranger swallowed gratefully and lay back against the abode's pliant, wooden walls, her thirst quenched. Hunting trophies and painted reed tapestries adorned the simple one room habitation.
The huntress drank a little and scrutinized the ranger's equipment. Soft, exquisitely fashioned leather leggings and jerkin, a sturdy cloak made from a giant leaf that had been hardened by druidic magic, and a fine longbow and wickedly curved sword. The huntress had been skeptical at first. No metal should enter the caern in the Forest Mother's presence. But the ranger's scimitar, inlaid with strange, complex calligraphy, was adamantine. Forged, not refined, from the depths of the earth. The ranger's grandfather was a High Elf, who had insisted she take the family's heirloom with her.
The huntress watched the ranger. The Wood Elf woman's breathing was soft, her taut, sculpted belly rising and falling almost complete silence. The huntress' gaze worshipped the fat, smooth mound of the ranger's sex. Deep pink nether lips, ever so slightly parted, still slick and inviting with their irresistible scent of female and musk. That same cunt had sheathed the huntress' hand many times the previous night. That morning, it had been the ranger's turn. So the huntress had let the ranger mount her, spread her; fuck her until her throat was raw from crying out. The ranger had been well pleased.
They waited, taking turns drinking from the bowl of water. Only after hunting would they eat.
Finally, the huntress spoke. "Do you wish to bathe?" Her voice was rich, like the rhythmic cadence of her speech.
The Wood Elf nodded. The huntress went to her armour stand and retrieved a white cotton loincloth and handed it to the ranger. The ranger slipped it on and the huntress felt a pang of regret. Now the ranger's fertile sex was obscured. The ranger knew the huntress' longing and she knew the ways of the forest. In the wild, there was no time or need for long discussions on the aesthetics or propriety of intimacy. A huntress, like a ranger, was expected to always be available for her partner's desire or comfort.
The ranger rose and the huntress led her out. She took her ancestral scimitar with her. If she left a huntress' abode unarmed, some might mistake her for the huntress's girl. A platform had been built around the huntress' tree. A flock of rainbow-coloured birds streamed in front of them. In the distance, the other Sylvan Elf abodes beckoned with their tremulous, wispy, spirit-lights. A great circle of trees ringed the Mother Tree - a gnarled, immense matriarch that hung over the forest, at least five hundred feet high with a trunk so broad it struck many casual observers as the base of a hill. There lay the shrine of the Forest Mother.
The ranger had discovered many things since coming south. She was a traveller by profession and by vocation. Her bow and her scimitar had never betrayed her, even during her travels across the Middle Sea. The more she travelled, the more she realised there was much she had to learn. It was a boon that she had encountered the huntress in her first excursion into the Storm Forests. Not only because she had found a companion, but also because the huntress knew the place like her own soul.
The huntress was a stern teacher. The ranger had been mortified by her lack of knowledge of the local fauna and flora: the honey of giant termites was only good for a day before it became poisonous; when your cycle bleeds, you must wash your sex with camphor-balm, otherwise Arrow-Lizards will follow your scent. But she was learning. The ranger looked up into the misty sky and, in the distance, saw two shimmering metallic circles reflect the sunlight.
"Airship," the huntress said. The word was alien on her tongue.
"Will it stop here?"
"Should we go meet them?" the ranger inquired.
The huntress thought for a moment. Her last visit to the abodes of stone had opened her horizons. The strange, fire-headed woman she had met there had been the first truly interesting encounter outside her own lands. Now, perhaps the time was ripe to see other realms. "Perhaps. First we bathe, then we shall hunt, eat what we have taken and pray to the Forest Mother."
"Couple?" the ranger smirked, patting the huntress' iron-hard bottom.
"Of course." the huntress smiled. A cutting, predatory smile that befitted her feral, indomitable beauty. "You ought to take me with more vigour. Remember, by day I am yours just as by night you are mine."
"That is what we agreed. Our pact," the ranger nodded.
"Long may it last."
They bathed in a pool of glassy, warm water that had collected in a basalt crater at the volcano's foothill. The jungle was shrouded in mist – dense, impenetrable, vibrant with life. They filled their waterskins with sharp, spicy sap tapped from deep within a thick vine. The huntress knew exactly where to slide her dagger so that the dense, amber fluid trickled out uninterrupted. It would be both food and water for them during their hunting expedition.
The ranger dressed swiftly and helped the huntress fasten the straps of her intricate corded armour. Together, they moved in silence – two ghosts hidden in the morning mist. The huntress felt the trail under her bare feet. Something stirred behind a serried rank of gnarled, dark trees, their roots half-submerged. The previous night's rain had almost waterlogged the terrain. The ranger struggled, her boots slogging in the water. She had already begun to perspire under her jerkin. The sensation of clammy, wet leather and fabric liner against her skin was a constant irritation.
In front of her, the huntress navigated the wet ground with ease. Each tree, each fern, each moss-grown rock seemed familiar to her. The ranger followed, resolving to learn. There were no challenges left in the boreal and deciduous forests of her homeland – it was time to see the uncharted, exotic belly of the World-Mother.
They trekked through a narrow defile, ancient trees looming over them like knotted giants. Heady-scented flowers bloomed. The air was ripe with pollen. Fertility abounded, so that every crack in the earth gave shelter to some form of life.
The huntress paused. "Faral," she whispered – for that was the ranger's name, "do you see this?"
"What?" The ranger stepped closer. Her boot sank into the mossy ground, so that water splashed up under her knee.
"Here," the huntress indicated, uncovering a pile of fallen leaves to reveal a scrap of dark, glistening metal.
"It's a scrap of armour and crude at that."
"Outlanders passed here," the huntress said between gritted teeth. "The roots speak of the blasphemy of their intrusion."
"Txat," the ranger said with a grave nod. Feral bugbears.
"They should not be here," the huntress said grimly. "Our meal must wait."
"Someone injured one of their number – the metal is sundered."
The huntress prodded the damp soil and dug out an oversized Ghatt-wasp stinger, the length of two of her fingers. "One of your people – we do not make wasp-daggers."
"The Txat was struck from afar, perhaps wounded. His hunter is circling the group, waiting. That means there are many of them."
They needed no further confirmation. The huntress traced her hands into the mud and ran the rich earth between her fingers. The scent pointed towards the rising sun. Perhaps the bugbears were after the sun-rock of the cold river that flowed under the volcano. 'Civilized' Elves, who had forgotten the Forest Mother, and lesser races valued so-called 'gold'. Now, the interlopers would know better than trespass the lands of the Sylvan Elves.
The huntress followed the trail in the direction of the rising sun. They would find higher ground first and prepare an ambush. Txat would be hunted like any other animal. Their presence in the pure lands was unconscionable. The huntress would bring shame on her mother and grandmother if she failed to repel them. By the time they reached the place where the jungle gave way to the rockier, shrub-clad volcanic pools, the scent of sulphur was thick in the air. There, it was easier to track. Predictably, the Txat had taken the easy, flat path that would lead them straight into the shallow mountain caverns where the sun-rock river flowed.
Faral spoke, her voice piercing the distant hum of the rushing river, "Should we pursue them through the upper caverns?"
"No," the huntress shook her head, "the terrain will be difficult and we have little time."
"And if we were to stalk them as the basilisk hunts?"
The huntress smiled – a cruel, predatory grin. "So be it."
The ranger spread out her leaf-cloak and wrapped it around herself and the huntress. With a word of command, the druidic magic in the cloak began to shimmer. Light now reflected off the cloak, hiding all beneath in an illusion, so that they appeared indistinguishable from a moss-grown rock.
Taking position near a natural bottleneck at the entrance of the river-cavern, they concealed themselves near an outcropping of boulders and waited. The sound of the rushing river echoed through the stony cavern. It was cooler inside, and that brought relief to the ranger.
They did not have to wait long. In the distance, a trudging sound grew louder. Hunched, bestial and snarling, the hyena-faced Txat came baying and gibbering down the cavern path. Their eyes were yellow-orbs set deep into their haggard, grey-furred skulls. They walked on two legs, but their limbs were bent like those of a wolf, so that they stooped low, ready to pounce. Their armour was crude, a mishmash of leather, cord and metal, their weapons rusted.
Faral and the huntress waited. The Txat did not march in formation, but one male at a distance from the other, more like a pack of wolves than a war-band. Three stragglers brought up the rear, snarling and growling invective. They let them pass.
In a split second, the right moment was decided. The ranger surfaced from behind and slipped her gleaming sword between two of the Txat's ribs. That would collapse its lungs and sever its windpipe, preventing it from crying out. The movement was immediate, a flash of tense action. Blood gurgled from the bugbear's maw. The creature thrashed and only succeeded in drawing the sharp, agonizing blade deeper into its chest.
One of its companions shifted its head curiously to one side. The huntress was already upon it. With a flick of her wrist, the huntress brought her red-braided dagger to cut the second Txat's throat. A jet of dark blood splattered against the stony walls.
The third bugbear whipped around and drew its rusted broadsword. Faral swept forward and cut its belly open, her blade humming its deadly music as it sliced through the humid air. Steaming viscera spilled out like a bloody nest of worms. The bugbear fell before it even had time to cry out.
The huntress decided they needed to press their advantage. She went forward while the ranger readied two arrows in her ancestral longbow. It was dark, but the ranger's eyes could pierce the blackness with the ease of an owl's. The huntress struck from the rear. She brought down a bugbear by slipping her obsidian dagger in its back to cut its spinal chord. Then her fang-dagger finished the job by cutting open its throat.
Two bugbears whipped around, excited by the smell of blood and the odd splashing in the waters behind them. Faral loosed her arrows. Giant thorns, sharp as steel, pierced the air and parted company in mid-flight, finding an erratic, curling path into the two bugbears. They fell, mortally wounded, into the stony riverbed. The huntress finished them off methodically, as if she were slaughtering wild pigs.
Six down. The huntress motioned the ranger forward. They progressed down, deeper into the passage. Luminescent mosses covered the cool, dark volcanic rock, shedding a phantasmal glow. The path led them to a wide cave. The sound of clashing blades could be heard echoing against the backdrop of flowing water. Someone had beaten them to their prey.
The ranger dashed forward, her curved, bloodstained blade held perpendicular to her body. She lunged into the twilit battlefield and struck down a bugbear whose back was turned to her. Metal and bone cracked together. The arcing slash cleaved the bugbear open from shoulder to spine. Through the mist of blood the ranger saw the war-painted face of a girl. She had no time to contemplate who the mysterious ally was. The air had shifted to her right; a bugbear was trying to flank her.
Faral readied her blade, ducked out of reach of a clumsy lunge and spun round to riposte. Her sword flashed through the air and struck the bugbear's snout, slashing its muzzle open. She finished it off with a swift, furious thrust to the throat.
The huntress had taken the opposite end of the cavern and was closing in on the pack's alpha male. It was bigger than the others and better armed, too, a fine lance of Grey Elven make was clutched in its clawed hands. The huntress ducked under a wide sweep of the Txat chieftain's wicked lance and rammed a dagger into its belly before sliding between its legs. The creature doubled over, howling even as blood issued forth from its mouth and nostrils. Faral took her signal, drew her bow and loosed a single, deadly arrow. The dart thudded in between the alpha male's eyes.
Silence fell. Blood stained the river water red as it washed around the huntress' bead anklets. Red on turquoise beads. The huntress called the strange girl over. "You are a Wood Elf, these are not your lands – introduce yourself!". It was a common courtesy between warriors to declare name and intent when in the territory of another caern.
The girl stood resolute. Handsome, wiry and tan-skinned, she remained defiant. Faral scanned her. The girl's armour was first-rate leather, patterned like falling autumn leaves – gold, red and auburn brown to match her short-cropped hair. Faral sheathed her sword and said, "Do as she says, girl."
"Iniila," the young warrior said with a hint of indignation, "I am Iniila, a warden of the Caern of Brook-under-Sunshine and I beg your forgiveness for intruding into your pure lands, but I have offered my prayers at the First Tree and I am most certainly no girl. I am a warden and a ranger, just like you."
The huntress laughed mirthfully. "Well met, but the jaguar-kit needs to learn to hunt before she roars."
Iniila growled, "I am as much a huntress as you – archery, bladecraft any art..."
Faral interrupted her, "Speak when spoken to, understood? She is our host."
"But..." Iniila protested.
Faral's searing green eyes compelled her to silence. Faral was the more experienced ranger. Despite her bravado, Iniila's archery bracers marked her out as a junior warden. She owed Faral obedience and that was final.
Faral nodded in approval, glad that she had defused the situation. "I am Faral and I follow my dream-geas. What brings you to the Dragonreach Mountains?"
"I came with the airship," Iniila said – sheathing her crystal daggers for the first time, "there are legends of an ancient shrine deep inside the fire-mountain."
"Shrine?" Faral inquired. She turned to the huntress, "What do you know of this?"
The huntress spoke gravely, "Only that our shamans use it in their rites and that the rest of us keep our distance."
Iniila interjected, "By law or by custom?"
The huntress replied, "There is no difference, for us they are one and the same. But you are bold to address us so. We see your courage and are pleased that you, too, sought out the interlopers."
Iniila's lips curled into a half-smile. "It was my duty as one of our People, but your approval is greater than any reward – rarely have I seen such a fine, deadly art as yours."
Faral gave a soft chuckle, "You flatter her only because you seek her permission to go deeper into the cavern."
Iniila said, "If there is a shrine, I wish to find it. A friend of mine is a Grey Elf – an educated woman, who knows the drawn-words. She says that the shrine is powerful and I wish to see it for myself."
The huntress nodded, "I will accompany you deeper into the cavern, but you must go alone to the shrine. I am bound to follow the advice of the shamans. There are spirits here I do not wish to anger. Will you come too, Faral?"
"So be it," the ranger said. She sensed curiosity in the huntress's demeanour. It was a curiosity that had touched the bottom of the ranger's mind ever since they had set foot into the cavern. As if the river were calling them forward.
So they set out, following the flow of the river, pausing only to drink the cool sap from their waterskins. The stone became a deeper black the further they penetrated into the bowels of the mountain. It was humid and, despite the river, the further they walked, the hotter it became. Iniila seemed to chafe under her leather armour. The suit was beautifully oiled, but tight, for it had been fashioned for far colder climates. Iniila's hard muscles rolled under the leather. Faral admired her and found that the huntress did, too.