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hope beyond hope

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The log split in half with a satisfying THUNK .

He swept the split pieces aside into the growing pile to be carried inside, and took another whole log, raising his axe up and repeating the process. Clear, replace, THUNK . Clear, replace, THUNK . It was satisfying, if almost mind numbing in its repetition.

Some days, that was all he wanted; mind-numbing, thoughtless busy work.

A cold breeze washed over him, raising gooseflesh on his arms and making him shiver. The sweat cooled against his bare skin; soon it would be too cold to do this shirtless, saving himself the trouble of laundry, but the more he did now the less he would have to worry about that later, when the first real snow hit and left everything under a blanket of white.

Winters were harsher here, and longer, than he had been used to, in a past life— It made sense, he was farther north than he ever had been back then, and winters were already difficult where he had once made his home.

He raised his axe to continue his work, determined to stockpile enough firewood before the first big storm that they could make it through most if not all of the winter, when the sound of the back door opening distracted him. He lowered the axe to avoid any unfortunate accidents—

The scar that left a sizeable divot in his shoulder had not been the result of an accident, but it was a good enough reminder to take care.

“Glenn! Come inside, you’ll catch your death out there!”

“Coming, nana! Just a second!”

He reached down to pick up the crate he’d been dumping the firewood into and carried it to the back door; he would toss most of it in the back hall, and take some of it to sit by the fireplace where Nana didn’t have to walk all that way just to stoke the fire.

She wasn’t his actual grandmother, of course. Anyone could tell that just by looking at them. She had dark skin and a strong, serious face under the lines of age, where Glenn was almost as pale as the snow itself and had a delicate face that had been called feminine in his homeland, and here mostly prompted jokes about how fragile he looked, as though he could be crushed without much effort, usually when the local folks expressed surprise that he could (mostly) keep up with them despite his small size and looking for all intents and purposes like a porcelain doll to them.

No, she wasn’t his real grandmother, but she had taken him in when he had nowhere else to go and nothing in the world. She was lonely, she had told him, ever since her son had gotten married and left home, moving to live with his wife’s family. Whatever her reasons, he was grateful to have a place to live.

“Come, come, have some tea… Warm yourself… I don’t know what I would do if you got sick…”

“I’m alright, Nana,” he assured her as he dropped the chopped wood by the door. “It’ll hopefully be a good while yet before you have to worry about me being outdoors like this.”

All the same, it felt good to be indoors, out of the breeze. It wasn’t cold enough yet for them to keep the hearth lit in the day, though it would be soon; all the same, the kettle and stove in the kitchen radiated warmth throughout the tiny house, which was big enough only for her, though Glenn could hardly judge; his own lodgings were even smaller, located just behind her house at the edge of the woods, and he strongly suspected it had started life as a storage shed of some sort...

“Here, I’ll pour the tea… You’ve been working hard today, sit and relax a moment…”

He almost protested, but the elderly woman was off and into the kitchen before he could say anything, so he simply sighed and shook his head. He sat down and made himself comfortable in his threadbare chair by the cold hearth and sighed. His muscles ached, but it was a pleasant ache, the kind that came with good hard work instead of overexertion.

The only part of him that hurt was his shoulder, and Glenn sighed as he reached up to massage the tough skin there.

It had been a few years since he had woken up in this small village, in the bed of their resident doctor, barely able to move or even to stay awake for long. His injuries had been so severe that for some time there was a concern that he might lose the use of his arm entirely. The scar he bore from the… Incident was certainly the first thing most people noticed about him, if he didn’t go to great lengths to cover it up.

After all, it left a divot of several centimeters into his flesh, where he’d been practically carved like a roast…

As his mind started to wander, Glenn shook his head. There was a reason he enjoyed mindless busy work. It meant he didn’t have to worry about his brain travelling to places where he most certainly did not want it to go.

There was nothing good that could come of dwelling on such a bloody, distant past, after all…

“Is that scar bothering you again, Glenn?”

Nana set the things for tea on the little table between her favourite chair and his, looking at him with concerned etched in her severe face. He gave her his best reassuring smile.

“It’s nothing,” he assured her while rubbing the tough scar tissue. “It always aches a little when I’ve been chopping wood. I’m used to it.”

She tutted her concern, clearly not believing him but too charmed by him (or so he liked to think) to dig any further, which he was glad for because he wasn’t sure he could handle anyone poking at that wound, physical or metaphorical…

They sat and drank their tea in companionable silence, Glenn taking great pleasure in the way it warmed him from the inside (maybe the chill had gotten to him more than he thought…) while she shared the latest village gossip with him. It was comforting, familiar…

Glenn wished it could last forever, even when he was painfully aware that it couldn’t.

“You know, it’s such a comfort having you here,” his Nana said, completely out of the blue— Or maybe Glenn was so lost in his own thoughts that he had missed what she ahd said that lead up to it. “I hope you don’t feel lonely, with just this old woman for company.”

“Nonsense, Nana,” Glenn said brightly to disguise the way he cringed inside when she said that, knowing what was coming next.

“I just worry about you. You don’t seem to spend much time with people your own age. I wonder if you wouldn’t be happier with them…”

“It’s fine, Nana. I’m happy to spend time with you, and focus on getting stronger.” He smiled at her, and hoped he deflected the conversation completely. Some days, that was enough; some days, she would try to push a little harder. He didn’t like those days, because he didn’t like hurting her feelings, but sometimes he had no choice but to get a little less than polite when she would refuse to drop the subject…

He knew she meant well, but what she was suggesting? Well, it was the farthest thing from his mind.

She opened her mouth to say something else, and a sinking feeling told Glenn that this was going to be one of the difficult days, but a sudden pounding at the front door that made both of them jump cut her promptly off. Glenn reached for the shirt he’d left on the back of his chair when he went to go chop wood and pulled it on as she got out of her seat and tottered over to the door.

“Nana! They need your magic! There’s a man who hurt his head!” one of the village children, no doubt sent to run and fetch her because they could run the fasted, yelled at an ear-splitting volume.

“Oh dear… Glenn, grab my staff, would you?”

Glenn was already out of his chair before she even finished asking, grabbing the rough-hewn wooden staff from the corner of the room where Nana left it. Nana wasn’t the town doctor, but she was the most talented healer in the village, and people came to her for all sorts of injuries and ailments that traditional medicines would take much longer to heal.

She didn’t have to ask him to offer his arm to help her down the steps and follow the child into town. He just did so.


The village was small, so small that Glenn knew everyone by name, and it seemed like every single one of them had turned out for what was the most exciting— and distressing— thing that had happened in…

Well, probably in the years since his own arrival, which he didn’t remember but was told had been something much like this. Having dragged himself bloody and barely clinging to life in search of help and collapsing on the edge of a farmer’s field…

Concerned parents were trying to keep their rambunctious and curious children out of the way, while the less preoccupied adults gathered loosely around, maintaining a circle but keeping their distance. Over the murmuring din of voices and the occasional loud interjection from a child who had not yet fully grasped the concept of ‘volume control’, Glenn could hear the village doctor, clear as day, her stern voice calmly picking random people at hand to fetch her this or that, water, a blanket, something from her office…

Nana toddled up to the loose circle of people and they parted easily for the two of them, Glenn following behind carrying her staff. When the doctor caught sight of them, she immediately ushered them over and people moved out of the way even faster.

“We haven’t wanted to move him in case it makes his condition worse,” she said to Nana, skipping any basic explanation of the situation to get straight to the point. “I can’t see any signs of an external injury, but it would make me feel more secure if you could use your magic, just to be certain he’s stable enough to be moved…”

Glenn wordlessly handed the staff to the elderly healer, who was more than happy to dive straight into the work.

He knew it was best for him to stay out of the way, as everyone else was doing; even the doctor had moved back to give Nana space to work, though she didn’t move far in case she was needed, if the collapsed man’s condition took a turn for the worse. But as he was moving to get out of the way he caught sight of a flash of skin as pale as his own beneath the dark travelling cloak the man was wearing— or he assumed it was a man, since that was what everyone had been saying, though from his less than ideal vantage point he really could only see a pile of ragged clothing.

Not a native of Duscur, then. Hardly an impossibility, but people from the South rarely travelled into the Duscur region if they didn’t need to, and never to places as small and inconsequential as their village. A merchant, desperate to unload his wares before the long and difficult winter came and made his travels all but impossible, perhaps? Lost on the difficult roads that could grow confusing to anyone not familiar with them…?

Then Nana slid the man’s hood from his head just as Glenn took a step back in a careful circle to get a better look at the man, and he gasped. Soft, blond hair framing a long, sturdy face, and though he was somewhat gaunt about the cheeks and his beard had grown out wildly as though he hadn’t had a proper shave in weeks, it was without a doubt...