Broken is an Erien Setting story, following on from Moments and Cluiun.
Artwork by Samuel Pray, created using Daz3D, Photoshop and Filter Forge.
Laughter and blood thirsty cries mixed with the crackling of wood. Figures danced through the smoke, swords waved in the air, burning brands added to the mix as the victors celebrated and split up the spoils. Order had no place here. Spoiled children, one and all. He shook his head, but said nothing. They’d worked hard, followed the rules and now they deserved a moment where he wasn’t screaming orders at them. One night - he could grant them that much, then they would return to work.
They’d report their failure to find and capture the heir.
Darren shook his head and turned away from the burning wreck.
The princess, this had all been about the unwed, unclaimed heir to the Isle. Their employer had been clear. The girl was to be found, taken and brought back to him unharmed. Still untouched. She’d been too young to enter the circle at Beltane. Her virginity would be, according to tradition, be intact. For some reason though it wasn’t important to the Isle, it was to their employer.
Had she been on the ship?
He frowned, letting his gaze move over the dancing flames. Yes, she would have been. She’d been seen at the last port of call, there had been reports of their interactions with the Dragon Throne. Rumors of an alliance, though he found that hard to believe. Neither heir would be willing to leave their lands once they were of age to rule, which made a marriage alliance out of the question. One built on friendship or trade, that would be feasible, but not a bond through wedlock.
It doesn’t matter, we failed. I failed. Now I have to explain to him how we lost the girl.
How had that happened? One of his men had mentioned three figures that had run for the trees, but only one had been found. A young man with blond hair. His blood spilled across the sand, weapon in hand, but no sign of footprints leading away from him. Only his and those belonging to the dead man nearby.
Had there been something more?
He turned, peering out into the gathering dark. Had he overlooked something? The magic users had been killed and their abilities had been weak at best, save for the queen, but she had failed to use the full abilities she - according to stories - had to hand. Instead she had died with blade in hand and a curse on her lips.
Who’d have thought it? A queen cursing like a sailor. Well, stranger things had happened, but that opened the possibility that the woman hadn’t been the queen at all.
He scowled at the thought. He’d check come the morning. The woman’s body would reveal secrets and if she’d been a bodyguard pretending to be the queen, then so be it. That he could use as an excuse for why the princess had been lost. He wouldn’t return, immediately, to their employer - no, he’d have a reason to continue the hunt. The girl would be with her mother, that made sense…
Even as he mulled the idea over he dismissed it. He knew the dead woman, with the intricate silver torc about her throat, had been the queen. The fire red hair, flashing eyes, skill with blades and fire magic that she’d used at the last, all confirmed she could be non other than the infamous red haired witch who ruled over the Isle.
“Never thought it would be this easy!” Wide eyed and half drunk, the sandy haired man waved a jug of rum from his left hand. His weapons - which should have been to hand - were no where to be seen. “So much for the great witch! I killed her myself, you know. She couldn’t even block a single blow.” The man took a swig from the jug and stumbled off, half falling into a small group, who laughed and pushed at him until he sat down, sharing the rum between them.
How many have claimed to have killed her now? Five? Six?
It didn’t matter. He knew the truth. He’d been there when the final blow had ended her fight.
He blinked, the image clear, seared into his mind. A long braid, the torc, blood marked blades, wild eyes and a dozen cuts marking her flesh. Yet she’d still fought, despite the dead laying around her, including her husband. She’d cursed, struck, blocked strikes and fought past the point when many a man would have attempted surrender. No, that word had never spilled from her lips.
Odd. This was a wife and mother, yet she hadn’t offered terms to protect her daughter, her son, or members of her crew. That went against everything he had been taught about mothers.
Her life hadn’t been important. The fight, it had been nothing more than a distraction in order to buy her daughter time to escape.
And it had worked.
A sane mother or wife would have pleaded for the lives of her family. He shook off the thought and rested one hand on the hilt of his cutlass. Come the dawn he would begin the search. One last look around for clues before setting off to report their failure. Their own boats, small, swift skiffs, had been hauled up onto the beach, well away from the wreck, and would then see them back to his ship. Even then it would take a week before they pulled into port and he had to report.
Enough time to put a believable story together?
So where was the daughter?
He turned toward the sound. “What is it, run out of grog already?”
Petion, a middle aged man who had served with him for several years, looked back over his shoulder at the sea before turning his attention back to his captain. “No, sir… it’s just. I’ve got this itch, right on the back of my neck. Like we’re being watched from out there.” He nodded back toward the water. “Makes no sense, mind. There’s not a light out there, nor sound - not that we could hear anything with the racket that lot’s making - but…”
Instincts. He’d learned, the hard way, not to over look such things. If there was something out there, then they needed to be aware. If not, it did the men no harm to cut their partying off now.
“Cork the bottles!” He snapped out the order, taking care to make sure it would carry over the noise of their celebrations. “Rouse yourselves, damned fools, better not have drunk yourselves into oblivion or I’ll be stripping the skin from your backs!” Protests arose from the small, scattered groups but they moved. Slowly at first, stepping away from the fire as slouched, stumbling forms, but they obeyed him as they always would.
“I don’t know if I’m right about this, Captain - but you can blame me if the men look for a scapegoat.”
He glanced at Petion and then away. He’d never toss the man to the others, he was far too valuable. “The decision was and is mine, there’s no discussing of scapegoats here. If you’re wrong, you’ve still given me a kick up the backside to get those grog soaked sods off their lazy backsides and up onto their feet.”
Petion laughed and shook his head, but the sound faded as the man took a step toward the rippling waves.
Malec scowled but followed the movement, his gaze narrowing. Something, he didn’t know what, moved on out there. His fingers tightened around the hilt of his cutlass, the steel half raised from its sheath before he realized what he was doing. There was something out there, he could see it, feel it, but the doubts remained.
One man stumbled back from a fire, a bottle falling from his hand to the sand. A low cry, followed by a second and a third.
Arrows? Who the hell shot arrows from the water?
He growled and reigned in his instincts to stalk toward the danger. He didn’t know the numbers, the source, if the attackers were coming in from multiple angles or…
Petion stumbled, an arrow in his shoulder but still alive. “Get back from the fire, Captain!”
Figures rushed forward from the water, splashing in from skiffs now half beached at the waterline. Men who scattered through the fires, striking out with cutlasses, daggers, cudgels and belaying pins. His own men, slowed by drink, didn’t have a chance. Men he’d known for weeks, months and in some cases, years, fell under the attack. Bodies dropped, men screamed, blood spilled as black ink on the sand as he made his way to Petion’s side and hauled the man up.
“We die on our feet,” he growled at the man, turning to block a blow from a cutlass.
“Aye, Captain!” Petion struck under the outstretched arm, sinking a dagger into the attackers side, finding a spot close to the armpit. “One less bastard to deal with.”
“Now let’s deal with the rest of them.” They were outnumbered and he knew it, but he was sober, knew the ground and he wasn’t about to let a group of strangers take everything he’d worked for.
“Give the word, Captain.”
“Kill them. Kill them all.”
They fought. Sand moved beneath his feet, blood marking both sand and steel alike. Men fell, some dead, others dying but the dead were mostly men he knew, only a handful of the strangers appeared injured - and only two of the dead that he’d seen so far.
Need to get out of here, before it’s too late.
He backed away from the fires and the fight. Petion moved with him, stumbling a little more from blood loss. The arrow had broken off during the fight but the blood continued to flow. He wouldn’t survive, Malec knew it, he’d seen men fall before and he wasn’t going to be one of them. If that meant letting Petion die on his own, so be it.
He turned, growling, gaze scanning the distant trees.
“Going somewhere?” A younger voice, male, arrogant and strong. “Not a good sign when a captain abandons his crew.”
He swore under his breath and forced himself to turn and look at the newcomer. “Sounds like you don’t know the duties of a captain, lad.”
A cocky, feral smile flashed through the near darkness. “Oh, I wouldn’t be saying that.”
Who in the name of the seven hells was this man? “A pup like you isn’t old enough to know what’s required to captain a skiff, let alone a crew like mine.”
“A crew that’s now dying back there.” Hazel eyes narrowed. “Looks like you’re being a coward in running from them, but what would I know if I’m such a pup?”
The man shifted his weight, a cutlass in both hands, something Malec had seen but once in his life. Either the lad was skilled or over confident. “Run, pup. Unless you want to die.”
Screams echoed through the night. Odd, the sounds had died down some time ago when the last of her people had fallen beneath the blades. They’d even thought her dead when she’d fallen from the ship, a blade buried deep within her body. She swallowed hard. By rights she should be dead, but there was something she had to do, something she needed to do before she went into the arms of her goddess.
Tired, she was so tired.
Not dying yet. One last duty, then I can go.
He’d be waiting for her. Not her husband, but the guardian who had died so many years ago, the one who had trained her and prepared her for everything she had faced. Her husband, he’d died as well, shouldn’t she feel something for his loss?
Poor man, he married me knowing it was for the bloodline.
No love there, but respect. He’d have a better time in the next life. A woman who loved him instead of an arranged marriage that he had suffered through. Still, they had brought a daughter into this world.
She dug her fingers into the sand and hauled herself away from the water. Her vision wavered, cold claiming her limbs as she crawled. The bleeding wouldn’t stop, not until her heart stopped, she was woman enough to admit that. There was no surviving this, even if she was found by someone who wanted to help her, the cuts were too deep, the blade in her side had caused too much damage…
“Captain! Over here!” A voice, male… one of the attackers?
No, they wouldn’t find her, she wouldn’t die surrounded by enemies.
“What is it?” A younger voice, not the one who had laughed as her family had died around her.
“A woman, Captain.”
No, that couldn’t be the captain who had led the attack. He’d been older, a bitter man, wrapped in darkness, his laughter cold and cruel as he’d watched her people die. She frowned, turning her head toward the sound. Men, several of them, some with torches that were little more than burning brands grabbed from the fires, all approached her.
Weapon, she needed a weapon.
Her hands refused to move, her body no longer willing to obey her no matter how hard she tried.
“She’s injured, Captain.” The one who had discovered her announced.
“So it seems,” a cooler tone now, but still the same one who had been named captain. “Get her out of the water, but be careful about it. No need to add to the lady’s pain.”
He cared about her pain? Was he one who served the Dragon Throne? Even as she thought it, she knew it to be wrong. This wasn’t a man who served, but a man who commanded. I know him. Somehow I know him. Except she didn’t recognize his voice.
A pain filled cry rang out but it wasn’t until they set her on the sand did she realize that the cry had come from her. Shame colored her cheeks. She wasn’t a weak willed maid who had never stepped foot outside of the castle. She was a warrior and queen, her pain was hers alone, not to be inflicted on those around her.
“Fo-forgive me… for making su-such a fuss.” She forced the words into life, though speech cost her dearly.
“Lady, there is nothing to forgive.” The man named captain moved to his knees at her side. “We need water and something to clean these wounds.”
She tried to shake her head but she lacked the strength. No, better to focus on words. “Do not waste your time. I- I am dying and we both ken it.” For a moment the brogue of the Isle slipped through. She frowned. Normally she was so careful not to let that slip into her words, unlike her daughter. It was a provincial thing and looked down upon by those beyond the Isle and those few other places who had such a thing in their background.
A hand touched her cheek, his voice lower now. “I know that accent, lady though few here would recognize it. What brings a woman of…” he paused his hand moving to her throat and the torc. “A woman of the noble lines…”
A smile fluttered across her lips only to turn into a grimace of pain. “You are not of the Isles.”
“Nae… but my people were of the clans many generations ago.”
There it was, a soft touch of brogue - different to her own but still linked across the bloodlines as long as you traveled far enough back into the past of the tribes. Tribes, clans, the people, they had so many names depending on where you found them, yet the origins were the same, according to the triple faced goddess.
“Wh-who do ye serve?” Her mother would have clipped her ear for letting her brogue claim her, just as she’d tried to correct her own daughter.
“No one, I’m sworn to protect my crew, m’lady - nae other.” He touched the torc, his frown deepening. “This ship, the one that now burns, it was carrying you and yours, aye?”
She nodded weakly, coughing.
“You weren’t alone?”
“D-daughter… she lives… escaped.” She knew that, the slender link that bound them remained, a link her daughter wouldn’t know of until death severed it.
The captain nodded and waved the other men back. “They weren’t close enough to hear but this… I know who ye are, lady.” He tapped the torc again. “This, there’s only one other like it, aye? The one worn by the heir.”
She smiled, few knew the truth. “Nae… there is only one. Both are one,” a new wave of coughs stole her breath. A metallic taste filled her mouth and she turned her head enough to spit, except she lacked the strength and it oozed from her lips. “Magic… ye ken?”
He frowned and pulled his finger back from the metal around her neck. “One. So when…it will vanish?”
Odd, he didn’t want to say that she was dying. Her eyes half closed but she could see him still. A man, young and bold, older than her daughter by eight, maybe ten years. Yes, closer to ten. Something glimmered behind him, a figure, a hunter and the shape of a wolf. “Wolves… I didnae understand…” She forced her eyes open but the wolf was still there, laid over the features of the man, bright gold as it sank into his flesh, merging, becoming one with the man.
“I’m known as The Cluiun.”
The Wolf. Yet that still didn’t answer all of her questions. A name alone wouldn’t be enough for what she had seen. Not the beast, not the hunter behind it. Great Goddess, she was running out of time. Cold claimed her limbs and she could no longer feel her fingers or toes. It wouldn’t be long before she lost feeling in her legs as well. She wouldn’t see the sunrise, she was honest enough to admit that.
“Lady, we - I don’t have a full healer with me. If I did…”
She smiled, too weak to shake her head. “That wouldnae be enough, lad. We both know that.” She swallowed, trying to clear her throat but it didn’t work. He was a stranger marked by a power she didn’t know yet recognized in some form. “My pouch, there is something… a ring… take it.”
“Please… while I have… strength left.”
Hazel eyes narrowed but he nodded, reaching down to the small leather pouch. He fumbled for a moment before opening it, tipping the ring out.
She didn’t need to look at it in order to know what it looked like. The same ring that her husband had placed upon her finger on the day of their wedding. Just as it had been placed on her mother’s finger, and her mother’s before that. It should have been given to Hawk, to hold in trust, but there hadn’t been time.
She’d wanted to, but something had held her back, now she knew what.
“Take it to her, when you can.”
He turned the ring in his fingers. “I don’t understand.”
“Ye will… when ye see her. Until then, keep it safe. Show no one save her… she will understand.” Would she understand? Her daughter was a stubborn young woman, yet to have the edges smoothed out.
“I’m to give this… to your daughter?” He looked down at the ring again, turning it in his fingers before meeting her gaze. “Nothing more.”
She coughed and for once was grateful for the disruption. She could see it, the haze around him, the hunter and the wolf. He’d find her, maybe not now, maybe not for years, but he’d find her. Hawk would keep her safe until then - if the Goddess was with him. With them. Shadows pressed around the edges of her vision and she blinked, trying to clear it.
“Nae… a thing… more… will I ask o’ ye…” A weight sat on her chest, pressing down, stealing her breath. “Swear… ye…” She didn’t have the strength to continue.
Fingers touched the side of her cheek. Rough pads that marked a man who worked hard and didn’t flinch from a challenge. “I give ye my word, lady. None will know save your daughter.”
A daughter whose name he didn’t know and she lacked the strength to give him.
Had she closed her eyes? She frowned, unable to see for the darkness that had stolen her vision. No, her eyes were still open, she could feel them blinking, moving, but it made no difference.
“Lady? Hold a little longer, please.”
It was too late, she knew that, even if he didn’t. He’d have thought her daft, addled by the loss of blood and shock. A promise made to a dying woman, one he doubted he would ever have to keep, but she knew the power of such words. Understood the word given and the bond that had been made.
Cold claimed her body, leaving no pain, no fear. Only the knowledge that it was time - and she was going home.