Moments is an Erien setting story, by Terri Pray.
Artwork by Samuel Pray, created using Daz 3D, Filter Forge and Photoshop.
Don’t move. When you’re safe, stay there, don’t let them see you. No matter what you hear, what you see, you must obey me in this and remain hidden.
She could still see the power glimmering behind those calm silver tinged eyes as her mother had issued the order. Calm, strong, determined and beautiful, those words and so much more described her mother. A mother she had argued with time and again, only to find out that mother or not, she was the Queen and would be obeyed - especially by her only child. Authority that commanded her on three different levels. No matter how she looked at it, she couldn’t disobey but Goddess, how she wanted to ignore those words. It would have been so easy to dart back to her parents, draw blades and fight. Yet she’d been forced to give her word, to obey her mother and leave, escape, run like the child they still believed her to be.
Shouts rang out from the beach. Cruel laughter, screams of pain,wood cracking as the ship died under the onslaught of flames, and more sounds, steel on something that she couldn’t identify. Dancer’s body tightened, muscles taut as she fought to hold position, her gaze fixed on the fire claimed form of the ship. Tears stung her eyes, blinding her in the moment that she let them spill, but didn’t dare to wipe them away from her face. Movement would only draw attention their way and with attention came danger, injury and the potential of death.
Only when she believed it was safe did her right hand moved to the hilt of the dagger she wore on her hip, the movement a slow, careful, calculated one. If they moved toward her, she had to be ready. A dagger wouldn’t be enough to save her life, but she could also use it as a focus for a spell, to gather the shadows and form them into a weapon, a trap, something that would help her to survive the moment.
Magic came at a price but it was one she was willing to pay, at least this time around. The spent energy replenished, in this case, quickly enough, leaving her ready to use her abilities again should the need arise.
Her gaze never left the men and women on the beach, though they made no move toward her hiding place. In truth they hadn’t left their spoils and the burning wreck in at least two candle marks. Not that she would allow herself to grow complacent. She’d been trained too well for that to happen. Yet the need to strike out, to claim their lives and take vengeance for the pain they had caused, pushed at her to take action. It itched beneath her skin, stinging her nerves until she was forced to focus on her breathing, letting the tension ease a fraction at a time.
The killers danced, moving across the sand in wild abandon, their feet marking new patterns in the blood soaked sand. Blood that had come from her family and friends even as the sun sank, casting patterns of burnt orange and red across the cloud heavy sky. The smell of burning wood and death saturated the breeze that carried across the beach, teasing at the loose strands of hair that had pulled free from her single heavy braid.
I won’t fail them. Her family, her people, her promise to her mother. She had to succeed, survive and make it back home. Nothing else mattered, not even her own pride or desire for revenge. Bugs crawled across her skin, digging under her still damp clothing, triggering a fresh wave of itching. Sand, sweat, gnats, salt and nerves all combined to claw at her nerves but still she didn’t move. She couldn’t, not without defying the final orders issued by her parents.
She blinked again, trying to clear her vision. She wasn’t going to cry anymore. Tears were for the weak. You didn’t cry in the midst of a battle, you barely even paused to wipe away the blood of your enemies mingled with your own sweat. Only doing so when you had a moment to spare or the fluids might interfere with your ability to fight.
No, warriors didn’t cry.
At least not where they might be seen.
Live. Survive. Return home. Nothing else had mattered to them when they had shoved her in the direction of her warrior Guardians. It hadn’t mattered that she had wanted to remain, to fight along side of them, they’d wanted her to leave. To be the coward and run, hide, not stand scream in the face of death.
Now they were gone.
Her mother, beautiful, powerful, with long red blonde hair held back in a tight braid, cheeks marked with blood and ash, her jaw set and gaze fixed on their attackers. No fear. No doubt. Only the sure knowledge that she had to hold the line until her daughter was safe. Twin daggers at the ready even as she screamed her defiance at their enemies.
Her father, flawed but strong. Bright blue eyes and a quick smile, laughter that had carried her through some of the dark times and a warm hug that had held her up when she’d stumbled. He was a warrior in his own right, something she’d witnessed again when Hawk had pulled her away from her parents. In that moment he’d turned and winked at her, his long sword in hand and his teeth bared in a hungry smile.
Sword. Her mother had lacked a sword. That weapon, one her family had wielded for generations, had been passed into the hands of the senior Guardian, with strict instructions not to place it in her hands until they were safe. No, not they, her. The daughter. The only legitimate child. The only one acknowledged by both grove and Goddess alike - and the one the attackers had been sent to find. Or so Hawk had told her before they’d run, before the majority of the attackers had reached the ship. He’d recognized something about the force, their colors or the cries. She was the target, and death would not be the fate they had in mind. No. A marriage as a means to claim the island they called home.
She nibbled on her bottom lip, sucking in between her teeth, her gaze focused on the remains of the ship. Tattered, burning sails moved in the wind, though only half of the main mast remained. Figures moved in front of the burning wreck, men for the most part, though there were some women among those who had attacked the ship and all but wiped out both passengers and crew. Any spoils had been dragged onto the sands, and more than one of their attackers had opened a keg of ale or helped themselves to wine as a part of their celebrations, adding to the maelstrom of movement. Light glinted from the tips of blades, laughter and blood curdling howls carried on the air, though thankfully the screams of their victims had ceased some time ago. Had others survived other than herself and the bleeding, silent man who lay behind her?
If so, where were they?
Would she be able to find them? Would Hawk allow her the chance to look?
No, his priority would be returning them both to the Isle.
“They will be gone soon, Dancer.” Hawk’s low voice reached her ears. “There’s nothing left for them now and our tracks were covered. Come back here, please.”
Of course they are, you made me cover them up. Magic, a subtle spell, just enough to return the sand to normal, wiping out any traces of their passage though the time it had taken to cast the spell had cost them both something that could never be replaced.
Tony. Sweet, over protective, always smiling Tony. Gone now. One of the many lives claimed by the attack. The man she had planned on marrying, despite protests from Hawk and an outright ban from her mother. He was her guardian, or rather guardian in training. It wasn’t unheard of for a guardian to marry their ward, but it was very rare indeed. Her mother had, for a short time, been involved with one of her three guardians, long before she’d married the man who was Dancer’s father. Nothing had come of that, no child, nothing long term, but plenty of memories that had brought more than one smile to her mother’s face.
A relationship, a time in the grove, a Beltane lover, all of these were acceptable but a husband - less so. But she loved him. Had loved him from the time he had been brought into her life as a guardian in training when he’d barely been more than fourteen. Now, at nineteen, he was dead. His blood feeding the sand like so many other friends and family members.
Had loved him. He’s dead. Gone. I can’t bring him back. Not even the Goddess can bring him back.
Her Tony. Beloved. Trusted. Calm and considerate, barely willing to steal more than a kiss, despite her attempts to persuade him otherwise. No, he’d been sweet, loving and had wanted to wait. So they had waited. Now it would never be. No wedding night, no Beltane blessing, no dancing around the fires with him, sharing mead and more. Only memories of a few kisses, of holding hands and whispered promises. The ring, she didn’t even have her ring anymore. It had been lost, snatched from her hand in the desperate flight from the ship. It hadn’t been much, just a simple band of silver with a small piece of amber in a filigree basket.
Lost to one of their attackers. Stolen, just as he’d been stolen from her.
Blue eyes, blond hair, and an innocent smile. Too innocent for this world. She knew that now, had known it from the start if she wanted to be honest with herself. He’d hated his hair but had loved hers. Candle marks spent with him untangling her braids, unweaving the strands and finger combing it. Fire. Living fire, that’s what he’d called it.
Blaze red, flames, the mark of the Goddess if the legends were to be believed. Her mother hadn’t been a full chosen, but one of the bloodline, keeping the throne until the next true born came of age.
Had she known?
“We’ll be able to move soon,” Hawk spoke, his voice soft but not a whisper. He was too smart for that, a whisper would carry, just as a hiss would. Better so soften tones and not have your words carry beyond the ears you intended them for. “But I need you back here, Dancer. Now.”
Dancer didn’t look back at him. She didn’t want to. Not after the way he’d dragged her away from the fight. Anger remained in the pit of her belly, a sullen, still hot coal that refused to cool. Yes, he’d done the right thing, she’d accepted the order - reluctantly - but it didn’t stop how she felt.
In all fairness she was still a child in the eyes of many, but that was an excuse and she knew it. She’d been trained better than that. Her entire childhood had been dedicated to school, training, everything that would help to prepare her for her role as Queen upon the death of her mother. Something she had assumed would be years from now, decades, when she was ready to take the throne. Not when she was sixteen.
Today was supposed to be my birthday.
It was still her birthday, just not one she would ever want to remember.
Defying Hawk any longer made no sense. She didn’t need to watch the killers that closely, no, they’d be able to see and hear any approach from the cover she’d settled Hawk into. In all honesty, she’d moved to the edge of that cover because she hadn’t wanted to be near the man who had dragged her away from both her family, and the cooling corpse of the man she loved.
Don’t think about that.
Too late. His open, staring eyes, slack lips and blood pooling in the sand. The light gone from his eyes now and forever.
Dancer swallowed hard, forcing the wave of fresh grief under control before she eased back on her belly through the undergrowth, slow, careful, stopping anytime she thought she’d made a sound, or there was a drop in background noise. She wouldn’t be the cause of them being discovered, even if she had to take a full candle mark in order to make it back to Hawk.
Her last remaining guardian and a man who was injured. Badly injured by the smell of blood that reached her nose, another thing they would have to take care of before they attempted to move from the precious cover they currently used. Gods alone knew they had been lucky to find this spot.
He made me leave my family, abandon them once and for all. Why should I care if he dies or not?
Because he was family as well, he’d been obeying the orders of the queen - her mother, he cared for her, protected her and had been her primary trainer since the day she had taken her first wobbly steps. He’d pushed, forced, bullied and praised her through training, always seeking improvement, never letting her grow complacent. Though she had magic at her fingertips, he’d forced her to learn how to use weapons skills, fighting, agility, and most of all, her mind.
The greatest weapon a warrior had was their mind - or so Hawk had told her time and again.
Emotions battled against common sense even as she turned her attention to her sole remaining guardian.
Hawk watched her, his dark brown eyes narrowed on her form as she turned to look at him, moving from her belly and onto her feet, crouching as she moved closer to him before settling down onto her knees by his left leg. He didn’t speak, though his face was lined with pain and a gray tinge marked his skin. Blood matted his close cropped hair from a gash on the top of his head, but that wasn’t the one that worried her - at least not since he’d reassured her that he showed no signs of real damage. It was nothing more than a shallow gash that bled heavily for a time. No, the sword he’d taken in his left thigh was her real cause for concern.
“Look at me, Dancer.”
Her jaw set but she turned just enough to meet his gaze. “We let them die. We saved our own damned skins and paid for that with their lives.”
“No, we obeyed the orders of the Queen.” His gaze narrowed, voice cold. “It had to be done.”
“No, it didn’t and now she’s dead. I could have saved her, if you’d just let me - if she’d… she’s gone. They’re all gone.” Her throat tightened, fresh tears threatening to spill even as she blinked furiously. No tears. No more public tears. She’d made herself that promise. “We should have stayed, argued with her, done something to help them, but we ran. Like cowards we ran.”
“Yes, they’re gone but that doesn’t change anything. When it’s safe to move we’ll make our way out of here and begin the journey home.” His voice never faltered, remaining cool, detached even as his gaze held hers. “We withdrew on the orders of our Queen, our commanding officer. There will come a time when you have to issue an order that someone else disagrees with, but you will still expect that order to be followed.”
Dancer bit back a growl as her hands clenched into tight fists. “I know.” It didn’t matter that he was right, that she had been taught better. This was her mother! I want my mother back. I need her. I’m too young to be without her. No child should bury a mother so early. Except there wouldn’t be a burial. The burning ship was a pyre for both her parents.
No father to stand at my wedding, sword drawn, ready to strike if my husband proves false.
Only Hawk remained to stand in the place of family, friends, and loved ones. A sworn guardian, a warrior who would stand at her side but also willing to take her life should the darkness claim her. A terrible duty that only two guardians in the history of her family had ever been forced to follow through on.
“Let go of the anger, Dancer.”
“How?” That wasn’t all she wanted to say, but anything else that came out of her mouth would have made the situation worse. “I don’t even have time to grieve! I want to - damn you - can’t you give me time to grieve?”
Grieving meant tears, that would be done in private, not where someone else could see her.
“Do you want to add the ‘it’s not fair’ to your wailing, or are you done with the whining, Dancer?”
The harsh words sliced through her deeper than any blade. She inhaled deeply and looked away. She wasn’t whining. Was she? Dancer turned away from him, soft trembles running through her body as she looked down at her stained leathers. Leathers her father had gifted her with a day ago. Matching boots, leather pants, a jacket and the soft off white linen shirt had all been presented to her the previous night. Black leather, now marked with sweat, blood and salt water. The right leg had a slight tear, but that she could fix. Maybe. Or pay someone to fix it, if she had enough money.
She reached back, rubbing at her neck, at the coating of salt, blood and sand only to shift the heavy silver torc she wore about her neck. The symbol of her rank, her acceptance by both the throne and the grove alike, and yet right now all she wanted to do was tear off the thick silver and throw it away. Yet she couldn’t. No matter what she felt, how angry, how many tears clawed at her eyes and throat alike, she couldn’t abandon the torc and everything it meant.
It’s not fair.
The thought jolted her. Goddess, yes… she was whining.
“I’m sorry.” She lifted her chin but didn’t look at him, not yet. She couldn’t. Hawk knew her too well, if she met his gaze he’d somehow know that those ridiculous words had echoed through her mind. “You’re right, I’m better than this.”
“Don’t be sorry, change the action.” Hawk’s voice softened. “It’s been a long day, you’ve been through more than anyone your age should have had to face. These are the moments that define who we are, Dancer. What you do now, how you choose to react when faced with all of this, will leave a mark that you will carry for the rest of your life.”
Dancer glanced back over her shoulder, blinking hard and fast. She wasn’t going to cry. Wouldn’t give into it. Not now. Not ever. “We need to get your leg seen to. I can’t do much more than I already have unless… there’s the one spell.” A spell she’d only used twice before, but it had worked. “It would allow you to get back on your feet, I’ll just need a little time to recover from it, that’s all.”
“No, you’re not going to use that. Not on me. I won’t put you at risk.” Hawk shook his head and reached out to touch the bandage on his upper thigh. “The kit. It’s a small one but should have a needle pack.” He grunted, the sound a low one as he shifted his weight. “You’re going to have to sew it, and get some of the green salve on it.”
“If we have any,” she grumbled but pulled over the small canvas pack. Green salve, there was another name for it, but the fact was green salve was easier to remember than the three part name the healer had given it. The spell would be faster but it would weaken her for a time, yet surely that was better than being stuck with a companion who would barely be able to walk, even with the salve?
Do it, use the spell, deal with the consequences later.
No, she couldn’t do that. Hawk had a trick up his sleeve, one he would put into play if he believed she might try to use her magic on him. The guardian to ward order, a compulsion spell that would lock her in place, forcing her to follow through with a simple command, but it would be enough to snap her control over the magic.
Damned stubborn man. I need him on his feet.
“We do, I packed that bag so I remember - for the most part - what’s in it. We have the green salve and some of the black salve. Should been a needle kit and a small bottle of ice-spirits. Should be enough in there to get me on my feet.”
Ice-spirits - that would help. With all of the dirt and ash they’d been forced to move through, crawl through in some cases, cleaning the wound had the potential to be a nightmare, but with the spirits they would be able to kill infection - or so the healers had drummed into her. Dancer smiled, pulling out the small bottle, wrapped in thick raw wool to reduce the changes of the bottle breaking in transit. Once that was set aside, she added the pot of salve, needle kit and bandages. A quick glance into the bag sent a chill down her spine. The bandages she’d pulled out where the only ones in the pack.
“We don’t have any back up supplies, Hawk. What’s in this bag, and what few things we both have in pouches and pockets, are all we have to hand.” Dancer struggled to keep her voice calm, even as fear clawed its way into the pit of her stomach. “I have some coins with me but I doubt that will get us very far.”
“We’ll find help once we’re on the road, Dancer.” Hawk explained as he shifted and touched a pouch on his belt
“Should be able to buy horses, or at least one horse. That will make things easier. There was a fishing village on the other side of the point, and farms not far from the coast, between those two we’ll find the help we need.”
“I know,” but would the people they found be willing to help them? This wasn’t their home and their attackers - they’d be searching for them. For her. “Fine, let’s get this done.” A wound, an injured older man, and a teenage girl. Weeks from home, by sea, maybe longer as she didn’t know how much magic her mother had poured into the sails, and the odds of them having enough money to make it home were somewhere between slim and none.
“The Dragon Throne, your mother signed a treaty with them several years ago. They will help us.” Strength and confidence carried through his words. “Have faith, we will manage. The Goddess will protect us. You’re her chosen, the heir to the throne and the one recognized by the grove.”
Would the Dragon Throne help them? What if they were behind the attack. Why would the Goddess protect them when they were so far away from their home? Her mother, after all, had turned down a suggestion that the prince - Rhodan or something like that - join their houses through marriage. No, that wasn’t how it worked on the Isle. No arranged marriages. That went against the wishes of the Triple Faced Goddess. How could such an attack take place within the boundary of the Dragon Throne unless the royal family was involved, or had at least agreed to turn a blind eye to what was going on?
“Fine, we get this wound dressed and then we move.” She inhaled slowly, releasing the breath after holding it for a count of ten. “This is going to hurt,” she warned before reaching for the bottle of ice spirits. “I’ll be as gentle as I can.”
“I have faith in you,” Hawk tensed, his breathing changing as she worked.
Dancer glanced up and then returned her attention to the wound, stripping away any cloth, though some had stuck to the flesh. Cold sweat washed over her body when she looked at the wound. Deep, torn flesh and muscle. She wasn’t a healer but the look of it - she wasn’t skilled enough to deal with this.
Her hands trembled even as she poured a small amount of the ice spirits on the open wound. Her guardian didn’t make a sound, though all color drained from his flesh, leaving him pale and shaking. His scent changed, a subtle shift into pain and fear but she didn’t mention it. He had his pride and she wasn’t about to tear that away from him.
Odd, not long ago she’d wanted to hurt him, to make him feel the pain she’d felt at the loss of her family. Now she was willing to defend his pride. Hawk was right. It all came down to moments in time. Decisions made and acted upon, instead of reacted to.
“Alright, we’re almost done, just a little more.” She frowned at the needle, already cleaned with the spirits, and threaded it on the third attempt. “I can’t promise that this will be neat.” Sewing, she’d only managed it a couple of times and only then because Hawk had insisted all warriors needed to be able to take care of minor repairs. Using that limited knowledge to sew up a wounded leg wasn’t something she’d expected.
“You can do this. Breathe through it, focus on the stitches, not on the material.”
Not on the flesh, the muscle, the blood. Goddess have mercy, I have to do this. I can do this.
Cloth, not flesh. Leather, not muscle. She repeated the litany as she worked, securing the stitches in place, keeping them as small and neat as she could despite the fading light. Her hands didn’t shake, her breath didn’t hitch, all she knew in those moments was the feel of the needle in her hand. Only when she tied off the last stitch, cleaned the needle and tidied up the kit did she realize it was over.
With a quick shake of head Shadowdancer, heir to the Isle, pushed aside the last of her doubts and soothed the green salve over the wound before wrapping it and securing the bandage in place.
“It’s not perfect but it’s done.” She lifted her gaze, meeting the pain clouded eyes of her guardian.
He took a shuddering breath and wiped one hand across his brow before he spoke again. “Thank you, your highness. Now we move, they won’t leave the beach until dawn, and we’re going to make the most of the darkness.” Hawk confirmed, waiting only long enough for Dancer to return everything to pack and secure it with the single buckle before he held out a hand. “We do this together.”
For a moment, a heartbeat, she hesitated. Doubt, fear, uncertainty all washed through her mind and then vanished. She couldn’t do this alone, she needed to find a way home and for that she needed Hawk. Not just the guardian, but the friend, the second father, and the only person she knew in this strange land. He hadn’t betrayed her, he’d chosen to comply with the final order of his queen. He hadn’t dismissed her grief, he’d pulled her up short for acting like a child when she was on the cusp of being an adult. He’d done his job and no matter her pain, she couldn’t - with a now clear mind - find fault with his actions.
She offered her left hand, bracing to take his weight as his larger, stronger hand slapped into hers, fingers closing around hers even as she tightened her grip and pulled her companion to his feet.