Laddy awakened suddenly from a deep sleep. His chest was tight with panic, and his breathing shallow and quick. Sweat caused his tunic to stick to his chest, he trembled in his bed roll; something was terribly wrong. Keeping quiet and without moving he looked around the small campsite, quickly surveying his immediate surroundings.
All in the waking world seemed perfectly normal. Trees framed the starlit sky above. Though the stars were beautiful, they were not the ones Laddy remembered best. Still they were normal for this time. The gentle night breeze blew quietly through the woods, sighing of peace and tranquility. Somewhere an owl hooted in the night.
Soft embers of a dying campfire glowed peacefully in their ring of rocks, and the pleasant aroma of dinner still lingered about the cook pot. A delightful smell of what was endearingly called “torture pork.” A meal only two people in all of time could make, at least the right way. Tilly, or the Dragon Lady as Laddy liked to call her was one, the other was long since dust.
For a moment he feared the dream that had woken him was more than a dream, and that he was once again in the time before time; that he had somehow returned to the age of Gods. Slowly he breathed in through his nose then out through his mouth calming his mind, and slowing his racing heart. He focused on the smell of Tilly’s cooking, using it to reaffirm his place in time.
The camp, the little fire, and the feel of the world all around him combined to assure him that the age of the Gods had passed. He felt, and understood, that it was the time of mortals, and the occasional monster now. Lying beneath these young stars he could sense a few of these mortals near to him. His comrades, his friends, and he was glad to be with them. For better or worse he yet lived, this made him sigh.
Across the fire eyeing him, with sincere, worry sat the Dragon Lady. She was keeping watch while the others in their band slept peacefully.
“Are you ok?” Tilly asked quietly, ”your shift isn’t for a couple of hours Laddy.” The genuine tenderheartedness, and capacity for sweetness the Dragon Lady possessed always surprised Laddy. She was one of the fiercest, and most effective, warriors he had ever known. And he had known a great many. Her goodness and ferocity combined, formed a unique pairing that fascinated him. She managed to be both dragon-like, and lady-like at the same time. And, she was truly kind.
He smiled a genuine smile that froze in place out of habit, becoming fake, like a mask he wore constantly. He replied quietly, “Just a nightmare, nothing more, they tend to happen this time of year.” He responded flippantly, attempting to mask the truth behind his smile. His voice betrayed him though, with the tiniest quiver, like that of a scared child. He cleared his throat trying to cast it out.
Tilly looked well past his false face and seemed to see straight into his troubled soul. “Would you like to talk about it?” She invited kindly. “We who fight so much for the sake of others, too often have the darkest dreams.” She said, the offer to help lovingly evident in her voice.
Laddy shifted slightly and he looked around the fire at the various bed rolls, five in total, including his and the Dragon Lady’s. Three others besides his were occupied. The first, and furthest from him was filled by Veron, a relatively new vampire. One of the occasional ‘monsters’ that popped up in this new era of men. Though as far as ‘monsters’ went this one wasn’t all that bad. Laddy hoped to free Veron from the curse of immortality, someday.
The second bedroll, immediately to his right, contained Illidan. The demon boy, as Laddy affectionately called the youngest member of their little band. Though he was not really a demon, nor much of a boy anymore. His skill with the blade put both demons, and full-grown men to shame.
Ja’ika O’Connor filled the last bedroll to Laddy’s left. The O’Connor’s were from Ireland but Ja’ika was a life-long wanderer, as well as husband to the Dragon Lady. He was also a good friend.
They were in a calm part of Woodland on a routine patrol for the Order of the Rose. The place and people Laddy was currently calling home and family. He was comforted and happy, in a way, to see these people surrounding him.
The silence between Tilly and Laddy stretched on for several minutes. Tilly respectfully waited for Laddy to accept, or refuse her invitation. Eventually lifting his head from his rucksack pillow he spoke, looking directly into the eyes of the Dragon Lady. “First, you have to know that this dream, isn’t just a dream, it’s a memory.” He paused while Tilly acknowledged his statement. “And,” Laddy continued, “I used to have a family.”
The Dragon’s eyes narrowed looking at him skeptically. Laddy waved her off and continued, “No, I don’t mean a wife and children.” He smiled, pleasantly amused by his own joke. A smile that quickly faded as he continued. “I had a mother, and a father too. One brother, the eldest, and a sister between us. I was the last of my family. And the last alive too.”
Laddy turned on one side to face his alert and attentive audience. Before continuing he closed his eyes for a moment, trying to regain some composure. Speaking slowly and meticulously, searching for the right words in the correct language, he went on.
“We had been traveling for a long while, it’s what you did at the time. You followed herds, and camped around them when you could.” He smiled softly remembering that simple life, then continued, “We lived on an island. It was a beautiful green paradise. We believed it to be uninhabited by any other people.” He interrupted himself, “This is that island now known as Ireland.” Tilly nodded, and Laddy resumed. ”We thought we would be safe there from other humans, or monsters. Though which is worse I can’t say.” Lady’s words filled with bitterness and anguish. “We were wrong though. There were men there, worse than monsters.”
“On the last day of my life my brother,” here Laddy paused looking for the right word in English, “Hunter, is what I suppose you would call him in this language, because that’s what he did, you see. He hunted, but it was more than that, it was, what he was. He knew, he always knew, where the game would be, and when. It was like he could think like them. He could move so quietly, and hold still for such a long time, it was like he was part of the world not just a man upon it. Whole herds would move in around him, and they would graze for hours, then he would take one from the midst of them with such blinding speed that the animals around him had no idea it had happened. They simply continued eating. Hunter wasn’t just his name, he was Hunter.”
Laddy looked up from the fire and saw the dragon watching him with rapt attention, so he went on. “On the last day, Hunter and I were after a boar. We found one, he found one. A big one. He said it would feed us all for a month or more. My mother made pork like you do,” Laddy waved a hand in Tilly’s direction and continued. “My mouth watered at the thought of it.”
“I was about 14 winters old at the time, Hunter about three winters older, and he knew best in this situation. Even father agreed. I looked up to Hunter, I idolized him. Father trusted him. We went on this hunt without father.” Laddy took a sharp breath and forced himself to let it go slowly. He coughed out another quiver and blinked his eyes rapidly forcing back tears. He could not talk about his father.
The Dragon watched him. His description of Hunter made her look from side to side checking the woods all around them, making sure they themselves were not being hunted in the dark. Laddy waited with a small smile, for he understood, Hunter had that effect on people. Slowly she reassured herself that they were safe, and she nodded for him to continue. His mouth had become terribly dry thinking of the events that followed. He drank water from a canteen that he kept near his bedroll wishing for something stronger.
“We spent most of the day pursuing the boar, carefully following its tracks along the tree line. The tracks ended in a clearing surrounded by stones and boulders with symbols carved into them. I felt a power in that place, a dark power. I wanted to turn back.”
Laddy looked to the stars above him. He didn’t see the stars as they were, but as they had been. With his face to the sky he continued slowly, “My brother was the best tracker there was, maybe the best there will ever be, but where he understood animals, he equally misunderstood men.”
The anger in Laddy’s voice grew. his head snapped down and he locked Tilly’s eyes with his own, they blazed with well nurtured rage. “There were men there in that evil feeling place. They hailed us in a language we did not speak. I was scared of them, Hunter was not. We tried to communicate with them, but we could not understand each other. They smiled at us, and appeared kind, but when we left they followed us without our knowing.”
Laddy pounded his fist hard into his thigh. “We led them straight back to our family! Right to the very door of our tent!” Tilly’s jumped at Laddy’s outburst. Veron grunted in his sleep and turned over. Tilly and Laddy watched for a moment to make sure he was asleep before returning to the memory.
Calmer, Laddy sighed heavily, then continued. “This is where the nightmare really begins.”