Grove is an Erien Setting story by Terri Pray
Artwork by Sam and Terri Pray, created using Daz 3d, Photoshop, Axvis HDR Factory.
She was cold, wet and hungry. The torn remains of her clothing clung to her body and water dripped down her back from her rain soaked hair. “Priorities,” she whispered, glancing back over her shoulder at the dark shadows cast by the trees. “Have to focus on my priorities here. Only way I’m going to make it through this.” She took a deep breath and shook herself. “Shelter, heat, food and safety.” The order wasn’t important beyond the fact that safety needed to come first, but all four would be needed to see her through the night. The wind picked up, carrying a new wave of rain in her direction and she wrapped her arms about her upper body and rubbed even as she looked up at the cloud covered sky. At least the rain would solve one issue and she tipped her face up, parting her lips. Rain - at least would sate her thirst, or take the edge of it.
She swallowed the water, drinking down what she could before she turned her attention to her surroundings and frowned. The sun had been close to the noon point when she’d run now it had begun its slow dip toward the horizon. Her legs ached, breath rattled in her lungs and her skin was coated with beads of sweat. She leaned down, pressing her hands against her knees, head bent forward as she did her best to catch her breath. Her body complained but the need to escape continued to grow with each passing moment. She had to keep her mind clear, chase away the doubts before she made another decision.
No supplies. No plan. No where to run to. Left with nothing but her instincts and the hope that she would find a way to escape the hunters who had dogged her since leaving her home. Hunters who, even now would be following her, watching for her tracks and using them to find her and bring her to heel. Running without a plan hadn’t been the best of ideas. A smart move would have included supplies, a decent cloak and maybe even a horse if she’d been able to find the money to buy one. Of course she could have stolen one as well. Her brothers owned horses and after everything that had happened it would have served them right to lose one of their precious mounts.
Ellen rolled out her shoulders and looked down at her feet. Her bare feet. Somewhere along the line she’d lost her leather and wooden clogs. Shoes she’d worn for working outside of the house, cleaning the weeds out of the herb garden. They’d been heavy, clumsy things, suited for the work that had kept her busy - right up until the moment when she’d run. At that point they’d done nothing but slow her down. When had she kicked them off? She nibbled on her bottom lip and lifted one foot, then the other, checking the souls for signs of damage. She’d pulled off her socks at the first chance, the way they’d snagged on anything under foot had only served to slow her down but that had come at a price. Small cuts and bruises had left her feet sore, but she’d been lucky so far - no real damage.
Not yet at least.
“And this is what happens when you run without a plan.” Ellen muttered and rubbed at her feet, taking a moment to ease the pain, dirt and debris from her flesh. “Should have thought this one through a little more.” Keeping her socks, for instance, instead of tossing them aside would have then helped her with warmth now. Dry socks, oh what she’d now give for a pair of dry socks. Such a simple thing in life, like the warmth of a fire or a bowl of broth to chase off the chill. All forgotten for the lack of a plan.
But it had been the only thing I could do. No, not entirely true. She could have waited it out, watched for the hunters to leave, but the fact that her own family had turned her back on her and had been willing to sell her out to the hunters had only made matters worse. Female hunters - what did I do to them? What have I done to anyone? The fact that they’d been an all female hunting group had only made matters worse. Attractive women, with long legs bared to the view through their split skirts and mens leather pants beneath. Alright, so technically the leather had covered their legs but not the shape of them. Her brothers had stared, open mouthed and had been all too willing to hand her over in exchange for money and favors. She shuddered at the thought and looked back the way she had come. Traitors - the lot of them. No, not fair, Harold didn’t turn on me. Her youngest brother, barely two years her senior, but he’d been willing to stand up to the rest of the family. If it hadn’t been for his warning she’d have never made it out in time.
With her breathing back under control she stood up and looked around. No, not here. Anywhere but here. Fear gripped her, wrapping itself around her heart in a way that hadn’t happened before, even when she had made her mad dash for freedom. The forest. She knew this place. Knew the stories about the beasts that called this place home and the bodies that had been carried out of here, marked or without marks, it hadn’t mattered - the forest had claimed their lives.
“She’s out here, I know she is!” A woman’s voice, loud and shrill, mixed with laughter that held no warmth to it. “Find her! We only have until moon rise.”
“Tracks this way.” Another voice.
“And here!” A third.
“Tricky, tricky wench, covering her tracks and leaving false trails.” The first woman laughed once more. “Oh, bringing her down will be so much fun, but remember - we need her alive. It won’t work if she’s dead. The power, it’s in her blood, in her body, we can use it but only if her heart still beats.”
Alive, but for how long? Not something she wanted to find out. Won’t let them catch me. I can climb a tree or two if I have to. Doubt they’ll look up! Maybe they would but it was a long shot, they were too focused on her tracks and they didn’t look like the type of women who might climb trees or even think about climbing a tree.
“No, wait… damnit, she’s doubled back again.” Anger rippled through the words. “I’ll beat her ass before we begin our work with her. She’ll pay for making us work like this.” Pay - that didn’t sound good. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Her throat tightened, hands clenched into fists as she struggled to keep her fears under control. Ellen stepped back into the shadows and pressed herself against the nearest tree. Too close. The group was far too close and where could she go? There was only the forest and no one in their right mind ran into the forest on their own. Or even in small groups. Wild animals, Elves, beasts with multiple shapes, they all called the forest their home according to the stories she’d heard. Nothing good happened to those who entered the forest, not unless they went in carrying protection charms and did so in large groups in order to hunt. Even then they entered the forest and left just as soon as the hunt was over.
“Not the forest, she wouldn’t go in there.” The first voice again, an air of confidence carried through her words. “She’s not that stupid. She knows the stories. They’re well known here - and her brothers will have shared them with her, even if she never stepped foot in the village herself - which I find hard to believe.”
Oh yes, she knew the stories. Everyone did. The forest was forbidden if you wanted to stay alive and yet here she was, on the very edge of the nightmarish place.
“Back toward that hovel they called a home then!” A new voice, one she hadn’t heard before. Older. Stronger. “She’d run there thinking her brothers would save her.”
Hooves, voices, low laughs and the sound began to fade, drawn away back in the direction they’d all come from. To the place she’d called home until the moment her brother’s had betrayed her. They’d realize soon enough that she hadn’t attempted to return home and then they’d be back this way, looking for her. She tugged her fingers through the tangled mess that her hair had become and tried to calm down. It didn’t help. Her heart pounded so loudly she was surprised the hunters hadn’t heard it. Sooner or later they’d spot a foot step, a mark in the dirt and then they’d have her. She’d been trapped, hauled into chains and dragged off to where ever they planned on taking her for whatever rite they needed her for.
Blood magic? She was untouched and stories said that the blood of an untouched was what was needed for dark magic.
Another laugh, and a third, the sounds mingling into one. Closer this time.
Not going to hang around and find out.
Ellen turned, took a deep breath and fled into the forest. Better the beasts and creatures that claimed the trees as their home than be turned and used for whatever evil deed the hunters had in mind for her. She glanced over her shoulder, but there was no sign of the hunters, not yet at least. The forest - perhaps she wouldn’t have to venture too deep into the cover of the trees. A little way in, that was all she’d have to do, just a hundred steps or so, maybe two hundred and then…
She froze at the sound, her heart sinking down from her chest in an attempt to take up residence in her stomach. Coming back. They were coming back. And far too soon. She’d barely made it fifty steps into the forest. They’d still be able to see her. To track her. One glimpse of her tracks and it would be over.
Please, someone, anyone, distract them.
A howl split the air. Long, loud and mournful.
“Another reason why she wouldn’t have come back this way. That one will alert the others in the pack and they won’t want us on their land.” The woman snorted. “You’re being foolish, Belinda! We go back to the farm house.”
Belinda - now at least she had a name. One name in a group of six female hunters. Her jaw clenched as she filed the name away with the memory of their appearance. The women, beautiful, sensual and dangerous. Details blurred for a moment but she had the information locked away until such time that she might be able to use it.
Ellen swallowed hard and hurried into the darkness, not looking back, not daring to take the time to check to see if they were following her. Dead leaves and fallen branches tangled at her feet, slowing her down and adding to the noise of her passage through the trees. Sharp twigs caught at her hair, striking her face and tugging on her clothing, roots lifted in an attempt to trip her and a soft, mocking laugh carried through the leaves. She stumbled, a root lifting at the wrong moment but it was enough to send her sprawling to the thick, damp loam. She sobbed, curling into a ball, hands wrapped about her body as she shook and let loose the tears that had threatened since she’d begun her run.
Betrayed. Abandoned. Marked as prey. This wasn’t how her life should have been. She’d had plans. Dreams. Hopes. Now they were gone and unless she found a way to hide, the courage to continue, she wouldn’t even be Ellen anymore. She’d be dead or worse. There’s a worse, isn’t there - something far harder than death to face. Yes, of course there was. All the stories said so. Even the ones she hadn’t wanted to listen to but had stumbled in on, when her brothers had been talking, sharing tales from one of the taverns or something they’d heard at the market. Curses, magic, turned into blood servants kept only for the use of dark magic but then there were the ones who used the good magic, or even the gray magic. Those freed blood servants, fought against the casters of blood magic and even if she was taken there was a chance she might find a way to be free. As long as she drew breath there would be hope.
Get up. Not her voice, not her thoughts but something from elsewhere. A voice that tugged on her thoughts, demanding attention.
Up, little one. Up now.
She swallowed hard and pushed her hands against the earth, forcing herself up onto her hands and knees.
Good, now move.
“Where?” Ellen whispered, her throat tight. “I don’t understand.”
Deeper, you need to come into the forest. We’ll protect you here.
Protect? She turned, slowly, trying to get a sense of where the voice was coming from. The voice of a woman. One she didn’t recognize but a woman nevertheless. Power, beautiful, warm power, soft and gentle as it tugged at her, trying to draw her into the depths of the forest. Fear fled as she took the first step along the tiny path made by rabbits. Branches creaked above her, the sound carried by the wind, mingling with the background sounds of the life that called this place their home. Small creatures, squirrels and rabbits, birds and something else. Rats maybe? Foxes? Something bigger like wolves? She nibbled on her bottom lip even as her legs continued to move. The pull growing stronger with each step. Hands, invisible hands grasped her by the waist, by the arms, and tugged on her, drawing her along a path she could barely make out. An animal trail, little more than a dip in the ground, led the way into the dark confines of the forest.
All will be explained when you find me. When you find us.
Them. Good or bad? She paused, digging her heels in, refusing to give into the tug that pulled on her. “Who are you?” She kept her voice soft, not a whisper this time - the memory of her father once telling her that a whisper carried too far - but a low pitched normal tone would be harder to overhear. “What are you? Where are you?”
“Oh gods above and below - no. My family - they’re back at the farm. They betrayed me.” Family. She wouldn’t, couldn’t, trust anyone who claimed to be her family at this point. “If you think that’s going to encourage me to to come to you, you’re mistaken.” She wiped her hands down her thighs, clearing them of sweat and dirt alike. “Not going to happen. Not now. Not ever.”
We are your real family, little one. Blood of my blood. Our blood. Down through your mother’s line. Come to us, child. Join us. You know where we are, listen to your heart, feel the pull of our home. Your mother’s blood is strong, far stronger than the weak blood of your brothers.
“My mother?” An image, a vague one, a woman with long red-blond hair and slender features, flickered through her mind. “She’s dead. She’s been dead for a long time.” An accident, the same one that had claimed her father - at least that’s what her brothers had told her. “I don’t understand - she was human, like me. It doesn’t make sense.” What had been hidden from her and why? Too many questions and no one, except a bodiless voice, left to answer them.
The hunters came for her, just as they’ve come for you. Your father tried to protect her, to protect both of them, but he wasn’t strong enough. She was like you, but not human, not like your father.
Had they been betrayed, the same way her brothers had tried to betray her? She took a step, and then a second. Before she had the chance to realize what she was doing, she was running, hurrying toward the pull of the voice. The source of the power that reached out to her. Family? Family she had never known about? But if that was true, why were they here in the forest? Why didn’t they live in the village, or even another village, away from this place. Away from the darkness and danger among the trees.
We wouldn’t be happy away from the trees, dear one.
Her brow furrowed. What was so important about the trees? “Will you answer my questions? All of them?”
When you’re here with us, yes. No secrets among our family. All will be well.
She wanted to believe. Needed to. “Why didn’t you come for me? If you’re family and my parents are dead, why didn’t you come for me?” She stopped, turning around to take in her surroundings. The threes were older here, much older. Thick trees, so old she couldn’t wrap her arms around and still touch her fingers one hand to the other. Moss and lichen covered parts of the trees, others hung with vines, ivy and moss. The undergrowth had thinned out here and - despite the lack of light, caused by the wide spread of the branches still heavy with leaves - Ellen could see that the narrow trail she’d been following had grown into a wider, well trod path. A path she could have sworn hadn’t been there a few moments before.
Ellen crouched down and traced the tips of her fingers over path. No grass. Smooth stones. The occasional bared root. A path that had been formed by hundreds if not thousands of feet moving back and forth through the trees. Yet everyone knew that this place was dangerous. No one in their right mind would have entered the forest, not this deep except I did. “Not as if I really had a choice.”
There’s always a choice.
“Stop that!” She yelled at the bodiless voice. “This talking to me inside my head is too weird for me. Come out here and look at me! I want to see who it is I’m talking to.” Better to know where the attack is coming from or if I have to run. She stood and turned, searching through the trees for a sign, something, anything that would help her. A flicker of movement, little more than a shadow, darted between two large oaks, followed by a soft, feminine laugh.
No sweet one, we’re not hunters, we’re your family.
Ellen blinked and then stared at the gap between the trees. The movement came again, soft, a rustling of fabric and a sweet voice raised in wordless song. Music that built, one voice and then two, more joining the melody as the figures moved, winding through the trees until she lost count of how many women sang and moved between the trees. Only then did Ellen realize she’d moved closer, her steps carrying her near enough to make out the figures. Some slender, others voluptuous, some barely taller than children, others willowy with hands that lifted up to the sky as they danced, and all with long hair of varying shades of red, gold and some with touches of green.
“Come to us,” the same voice she’d heard before, the one that had echoed within her mind, only this time it came from behind a tree.
“Who are you?” Ellen whispered, wrapping her arms around herself, a shiver claiming her flesh.
“Your sister, we’re all your sisters.” A woman, taller than Ellen, perhaps close to six foot, stepped out from behind a tree. Long hair hung loose about her shoulders, curling down her back and held back from her face only by a wreath of oak leaves.
“Dryads…” Ellen breathed and took a step back. “This is - it’s a grove. Your grove.”
“And yours dear sister,” the dryad held out a hand to her. “Join us, be with us. You’re safe here. No huntress can enter the grove, the magic protects us here. It will always protect us in this place.”
Dryad. It wasn’t possible. She had brothers. Her father was…
“All dryad’s have a non dryad father - we have to go elsewhere for a mate, there are no male dryads little sister.” The dryad tipped her head softly to one side, a warm smile claiming her full lips. “You’re still young but your tree is ready for you. That’s why the hunters came for you, your magic has awoken and it called to them.”
Magic? She shook her head, that didn’t make sense. She hadn’t changed - had she? She shook her head, trying to clear her mind. Peace, a welcoming peace wrapped around her. She wanted to deny this place, that it existed at all, but it was here, it was real - she was real. Am I a dryad after all? Doubt warred with hope, confusion ruling for a moment until a merry laugh pulled her out of her thoughts. “This isn’t happening.”
“Yes it is, but you wouldn’t feel the depth of the magic - at least not until you connected with your tree,” a hand touched Ellen’s, soft, warm and gentle. “Come with me, you’ll understand soon. Just come - you’re safe, I promise you’ll always be safe with us.”
She didn’t resist, not this time when the grip tightened. She followed where she was led, through the trees and the dancing women. Dryads not women. They smiled, waved, called out greetings but made no move to impede their path through the trees. Trees that leaned away, parting to make their passage easier. This isn’t happening. She wanted to deny it, to shut out the possibility of this but the dryads, the trees, the sense of peace that seeped into her, those were undeniable.
“Here,” the dryad let go of her hand and stepped to one side.
The oak called to her. Wordless and undeniable it reached out for her with a warmth that seeped into her body. Ellen reached out, the need to touch the tree consuming her. Nothing else mattered in that moment beyond the desire to touch the oak, to feel its bark beneath her fingers, pressed against her chest, her legs, and her face. Home. This oak was safe, it was home, it was everything she needed in this moment. An emptiness she hadn’t even known existed now ached within her and the tree, this oak, was the answer. Tears filled her eyes only to then spill down her cheeks before she finally touched the rough bark. Ellen closed her eyes and leaned in against the tree, wrapping her arms around the trunk as far as she could reach. Life pulsed beneath her touch, energy shared between herself and the tree, moving through her, changing her, waking something deep within. A knowledge, power, understanding and true peace.
“Welcome home sister,” a light touch, one she barely felt, brushed her shoulder.
“Home!” A dozen voices merged into one, a musical welcome that echoed through the trees.
Ellen turned back, looking over her shoulder at the women, her throat tight with tears still waiting to be shed. Her brothers, the farm, the life that she’d lived - none of that mattered now - the hunters and the betrayal of most of her brothers, that had changed things. But this - the trees and her sisters - this was where she belonged. This was her home.