The fire crackled as he awoke with a start. The pain in his chest receded slowly, the deep, throbbing ache a reminder of what he had lost.
As it had done most nights for the past few months, the dream had hit him hard and fast. He remembered little of it other than the look on Lysander’s face as the elf’s sword impaled him, Nuala’s gasp of surprise and the icy cold fire that filled his chest for the few heartbeats before he awoke.
He felt the sweat roll down his cheek as his heart gradually slowed and he forced his jaw to unclench. A footstep nearby caused him to roll over and face the fire.
“Are you okay, mister?” The little girl they’d picked up earlier asked. She had been walking along the side of the road as they came down through the mountain pass, her shoes torn and what few belongings she possessed in a small bag on her back. He sat up and smiled wearily.
“Just a bad dream. Why are you up? Standing guard?” She looked at her feet and shook her head.
“I can’t sleep. My parents,” She swallowed and absently tugged at a small bloodstain on her ragged dress. Hilmar guessed what had happened and gave a small nod.
“I understand.” The silence between them grew, the fire crackling and popping in the background. “Where are you going?”
“Do you have family there?” She shook her head.
“My mum always said to go there, to the temple of Pelor, if I needed protection.” He nodded again, feeling awkward as he did so.
“The gods protect us all.” He said, remembering the lessons of his youth.
It had surprised him that first day, to find out his gods were in this strange, new world. There were many other things that surprised him as well; the prevalence of elves, the same spells used in the midst of combat. So many things he recognised from home were here.
So many things were different though. The stars above made him uneasy, several of the travellers he had met were of a strange and unfamiliar form, even the fighting styles were subtly altered.
Craving comfort in familiarity, he had signed on as a caravan guard, escorting a collection of pilgrims and traders as they crossed the mountains towards Scour. He had been told by a wandering priest that if anyone could help him, it would be the scholars there. So he had borrowed some chain mail of strange make, stowed his damaged plate, and started marching, one hand always on the haft of his axe.
He had received some strange looks those first few nights as he sat by himself and tended to his arms and armour as best he could. Another of the guards, a quiet elf named Laraen, had explained that there was something subtly off about him. Hilmar had just shrugged and told the latter parts of his story.
The elf has listened intently and nodded once when he’d finished. It was he who had found the priest among the pilgrims and explained the situation to him. The priest had sought Hilmar out the next day and asked a few pointed questions. His replies had been satisfactory and the priest gave him some advice and instructions to follow once the caravan reached Scour.
“Come on.” He said, blinking back to the present. “Let’s get some water.” He stood, the blanket pooling around his feet. The little girl gasped and stared at the wound in his chest. It was an old, silver scar, far older than it should have been but very visible. He smiled and pulled a shirt from his bag, pulling it over his head.
“Did that hurt?” She asked, her voice quiet and her eyes firmly on her feet. He considered for a moment.
“I remember it hurting but it doesn’t anymore.” He said, trying to process it in his mind. When he had woken up in that glade, his weapons and equipment by his side, the wound was already old. He remembered the pain, but it was as if it had happened to someone else.
She looked up.
“I hope my parents don’t hurt anymore.” He met her eyes and smiled slightly.
“They don’t.” He offered her his hand and she took it. Her skin was cool and smooth against his rough, scarred palms and he gently closed his fingers around hers as they started walking towards the water butt.
The horses whickered quietly as they passed, their tails flicking absently from side to side. The little girl turned her head to look at them wonderingly.
“Do you want to stroke one?” He asked. She nodded mutely and he picked her up gently, holding her level with the nearest horse’s nose. She gingerly laid a hand on the soft hair and smiled widely as the horse pushed gently against her palm. She rubbed it slowly and the horse gave a small sigh of contentment.
Hilmar watched it with an experienced eye, the lessons of his youth coming to him easily. The horse was in good health and still in its prime. It was a good example of a riding horse and he wondered if the scholar who owned it, a young woman who had joined them earlier that day, would let the little girl ride it as they made their slow way to Scour.
“Thank you.” The little girl said quietly, pulling her hand away. He lowered her to the ground and they resumed walking to the water butt. They walked in silence for a few minutes before she raised her head to look at him.
“Where are you going?” He glanced down, seeing the stars reflected in her eyes.
“Scour as well.” She nodded and chewed her bottom lip for a few minutes.
“Why? Did your parents tell you go there to?” He faltered, mid-step, and looked away as he resumed walking. His heart thumped loudly in his ears and he forced his jaw to unclench.
“Not my parents, no.” He said, his voice strained.
“Hopefully someone there can help me find my way home.”