As rough hands pressed Rabin against the hard bark of a thick branch, more than a dozen of the forest men dropped down upon the lead pursuers and beat the armored bodies with their stone axes and wooden clubs. Surprised as they were by the onslaught and pressed so close, the three Raptor guards had no room to use their long swords. They fell to the ground, either dead or unconscious.
The creature who held Rabin loosened his grip for a moment. Rabin looked down to see that the leader of the Rehans, the one who must be Lord Rehail, had managed to untangle himself and run away from the fray. Rabin’s body lurched again. The Tree Man swung him to another branch as effortlessly as Rabin’s sister swung a doll. Then he was dumped back on the ground. Before he fell, he was caught roughly by two of the ferociously strong Tree Men who waited there.
They prodded Rabin back up the hill with urgent pushes. Had they known about the cave the whole time? As Rabin thought about it, it seemed likely that the Tree Folk had known about that cave far longer than the Hillmen did. Still, he resisted at the entrance. How could be be the one to bring gatebreakers to the children?
The nearest Tree Man had a bone and stone necklace across his broad and rippled chest. Rabin assumed that made him some sort of leader. The other creatures had no adornment on their bodies and only wore loincloths that they stuck their weapons in when they moved through the trees.
Rabin wrinkled his nose at the musky odor as the creature with the necklace turned to him and put a wide and heavy hand on his shoulder. The savage bared his teeth in what might have been a smile or frown. Only about a head taller than Rabin and not as tall as Del, the creature’s arms were thicker than the boy’s legs and seemed abnormally long. Still, Rabin did not pick up on any sense of menace but only urgency.
Despite the creature’s brutal appearance, the war leader surprised Rabin by speaking in rough but understandable Norcen, “We make children safe.”
“You’ll help us?” Rabin managed to croak.
“Yes, the Raptors go too far,” the hairy man said. He nodded grimly. “On my honor.”
“You steal children,” Rabin said.
“Ah, that’s for a bargain,” the leader said. “It’s to get a goat, grain, or a knife. Your own people beat us off when they find us in the crops and clear our trees to make new fields.” He gestured and cooed for a moment in his own speech as if he needed a moment to translate his thoughts. “It is fair war. It is a soft war. Children go home. We run off with grain. These men you call Raptors. They are savages.”
Despite his shock and fear, Rabin almost smiled. His people, the HIllmen, called these little men the Northern Savages. They called the Rehans monsters sometimes but considered their cities, scientists, and armies the product of a civilized culture.