Hedge Knight

Chapter 44

Leaf was numb as his body tumbled through the air.

The destruction of Elly and Jahora’s barrier triggered a shockwave that knocked the defensive party off of their feet, scattering them across the field as the Father passed by, his eyes still white with rage as he charged towards the town. In reality, the blast was a blessing, as his body would be little more than red paste if he’d been directly in front of the Troll.

What little strength he had left was gone after the defense was broken, and he hit the ground with only a vague awareness of the shock that traveled through him. He felt limp, and he felt a creeping fear crawl through his mind as he could not tell if it was due to fatigue or injury. A twitch of his hand told him it was the former, and slowly the numbness gave way to fire lancing throughout his body as every muscle in him told him not to move.

An impulse that he promptly ignored.

With a groan he pushed himself up to his knees, and his gaze turned to Southsheer’s gate, and the sight of the Father bearing down upon Sophia, arm of stone raised. He felt himself reach for his bow, pull back the bowstring, channel Ether into an arrow and let it loose in an instant. A phantom of an action, as his arms remained hanging at his sides, twitching as desperation expended the last dregs of its energy. He could only look as the stone arm was brought down.

And the explosion of silver light that sprang forth.

His body shook as raw force surged forth, wracking his body with enough power that he thought he was about to be sent into the air once again. However, it washed over him with an eerie gentleness, like a tide sweeping over sand, carrying refuse into the clutches of the ocean it was born from. His mind went blank for a moment, cold from the touch that slid over its reaches, silencing thoughts yet to be born. He felt… safe, like everything was going to be fine.

Until the hand on his shoulder shook him from that peace.

“Leaf!” Helbram yelled, enough strength behind his grip that he felt that the warrior was about to crush his arm to dust.

The archer shook his head, his thoughts lethargic as they returned to him, “W-what?”

“Center yourself,” the man urged, “I am afraid our troubles have only begun.”

Helbram wrapped his arm under Leaf’s and pulled him up, making sure that the archer could hold himself up before letting go. He was still in half a daze, but shook his head and slapped his face before returning his attention back to the Father. The Troll was frozen in place, his stone arm shaking as it fought against the force that held it still.

Marcus, with the Sword in his hand.

The young man had changed. His brown hair was now a gleaming silver, suffused with the same light that glowed from his eyes. Gone was his anxious, earnest expression, replaced by a still, serene visage that exuded an unnatural calm. The shell of Marcus was present, that was clear, but Leaf wasn’t sure what lay beneath held any semblance of the man at all.

This was only emphasized by the fact that Marcus was holding back the Father’s stone appendage with just one arm. Any evidence that the Father’s strike held any weight was the slight bend to the young man’s elbow. The Sword remained rigid in his grip as it held the stone in place, and with a flick of the barest effort, he tossed the blow aside.

Marcus remained emotionless, the lack of any stance to his posture making him seem almost casual as the man turned to face the stumbling Troll. The Father whipped around, swinging his stone fist in a backhanded strike. Marcus raised the Sword again, catching the blow with the flat of the blade, silver Aether flowing from its profile and washing over the stone fist. He pushed the Sword up, and the Father’s hand followed, shaking as the Troll fought against the magics binding him. His eyes were still white with rage, but Leaf started to realize that there was something missing from the Father’s attacks.

His magic, magic that had brought a Sword-empowered Marjorie to her knees.

“The master wishes to make a show with his puppet,” Helbram said, his tone was measured, but there was a tremble beneath it all, a shake that betrayed the anger beneath.

Marcus and the Father continued their exchanges, with the Troll swinging wildly and the Sword’s chosen deflecting the attacks with little effort. A tempo that began to accelerate as the soldiers dropped their weapons, staring at the sight, eyes filling with silver light. Sophia looked on as well, that same light radiating off of her as she looked upon Marcus in a daze.

Helbram cut his gaze away, expression hidden behind his helmet as always, but Leaf knew of the frustration that lay beneath.

“We need to help the others,” He said, walking deeper into the field.

Leaf turned to follow, but paused as he saw Helbram was now walking with a pronounced limp. His sword and shield were gone, and his arm hanging loosely at his side. The archer held a hand out to his companion, his lips parting as he was about to say something, but he closed them.

There was no stopping his friend, not now.

He followed Helbram towards the others. Jahora had already risen from the ground, signs of any magic affecting her absent as she rubbed her temples. Elly, however, lay still on the ground, her eyes glazed over with a soft silver hue as she started to the sky, her mouth agape.

“Jahora, help me,” Helbram said as he tapped her back, drawing the attention of the Mage as she centered herself.

She turned to follow Helbram, but, like Leaf, paused when she saw the state of the warrior. The archer and her met eyes, and he shook his head. She frowned, but went to his side all the same, assisting him with Elly. To the archer’s relief, the small woman seemed to be in the best shape out of all of them, and sprang to Helbram’s side, betraying no signs of pain.

Leaf turned away from the rest of his group and looked around, finally spotting August a short distance away. He stumbled towards the Awoken, feeling the strength in his legs wane as pain lanced through his calves.

He snorted, “And I was going to tell Helbram to take it easy…”

When he reached August, he was relieved to find that the man was still alive. Even if he was a Second Level Journeyman, it took a potent mix of luck and tenacity to survive the beating that he’d been through. The Awoken’s eyes fluttered, betraying the glint of silver that lay beneath his eyelids.

Leaf reached down and shook the man, and while his grip was not as tight as Helbam’s was, he squeezed August’s shoulder with enough strength that he saw the man flinch from the pressure.

“Oi oi,” Leaf said, “we can’t be having you losing your senses before the fight’s even done.”

August did not respond.

Leaf sighed and took off his cloak, bundling it into a makeshift pillow before gently lifting August’s head and slipping it under, making sure the man’s neck was secured before getting up and returning to his companions.

Elly was back up, the silver glow in her eyes now absent and her irises returned to their usual golden hue. The rest of her condition, however, was less than ideal.

“You look like someone beat you to the third hell and back,” he said in a dry tone, a slight curve to his lips to express his relief.

Elly returned the smile, “And you the fourth,” she swayed as a soft gust of wind passed through them, wincing as she turned to look back at the continued melee between the Father and Marcus.

The battle’s intensity had only increased, with Marcus now wielding the Sword in both hands and the Father’s other hand now also coated in stone. The Sword’s Chosen showed no signs of struggling, however, and continued to deflect the Father’s attacks with little effort, and Leaf could now see the many small cuts that spread across the Troll’s body, each brought about by a small flick of the Sword as Marcus’s blade danced.

Elly clenched her jaw, “Why the display? It could finish this at any time.”

“A display,” Helbram said, “While a singular blow to end it all will showcase the Sword’s power, a continued melee, a ‘desperate’ defense on Marcus’s part will endear him, and the Sword, further to the people.”

“But they all knew of the Sword already,” Jahora said.

Helbram took off his helmet, “It is one thing to hold belief in something, it is another to witness it in practice. The more that they see that the Sword is protecting them, the more their minds are open to its influence.”

He motioned to the soldiers who were now all on their knees, eyes full of silver light.

Leaf frowned, “What can we even do against that?” He motioned to all them, lingering on Helbram especially as the man looked at him with an unreadable expression, “Even if we were at full strength there is no way to fight against that kind of power.”

“I know,” Helbram handed his helmet to Jahora. The Mage took it, confusion clear in her eyes, “Tell me, do you all trust me?”

They all shared a confused glance between each other before nodding.

Helbram smiled, “Good, because I am about to do something foolish.”

Marcus could feel the Aether racing through him. It was cold, banishing the heat and pain of his previous excursions as if they had never affected him at all. Rather, it was like he had laid upon a surface of steel, the slight chill of the metal seeping into every part of his body. It made him feel light, as if he could dance through the air itself with ease. All he would have to do is jump, try it out for himself.

But fate had other plans in store for him.

His feet remained planted on the ground, utterly still as his body moved, the feeling so distant he wondered if it was even him that was moving or not. The Sword in his hands danced along with his movements, moving him through techniques that his newfound awareness told him were from ages past.

Abilities from the Sword’s previous owners, flowing through his mind and body.

The Father swept his stone encased fist upwards and he caught it with the flat of his blade before flicking it to the side. As the Troll was knocked off balance Marcus’s hands snapped back, swinging the Sword towards his exposed side. The blade itself did not reach its target, but Aether surged from the Sword as it arced, extending its reach as the energy condensed into an ethereal blade bit into the Troll’s side, cleaving through his makeshift armor and slicing through flesh. The wound did not appear to affect the Father, and he followed up his deflected strike with his other fist, this one made entirely of stone. Marcus shifted his feet to widerstand and shifted the Sword to a neutral guard. As he did, the blade of Aether that just from the Sword retracted back into the weapon, expelling from the flat of its blade and now taking the form of a shield of silver light. The fist struck the shield, and the Sword’s Chosen could feel a light shock tremble through him, though his paled in comparison to the explosion of force that scattered the dust and corpses that surrounded them.

The shield scattered into tendrils of silver light, wrapping around the Father’s fist and pulling it to the side as Marcus twisted his guard, once again allowing him to land a strike against the Troll’s torso the tendrils condensed back into an extended blade. Blood spurt from the Father’s chest, but he gave no indication of feeling it, and continued his assault. Their exchanges continued in this fashion, with Marcus remaining unscathed while more and more wounds appeared on the Father’s body. Gray skin was colored crimson, wooden armor reduced to splinters, yet still the Father would attack, his rage unabated. The speed of the attacks only grew quicker, but it made little difference in the face of Marcus’s new abilities, and the pattern of their exchanges never changed.

Marcus was aware of his power enough to know that he could have felled the Troll in one blow, but his body never made for that movement, that attack. Instead, it continued on with the current pattern, slicing away as he was carried by the overwhelming power that surged throughout his body. The power to cut down such a powerful foe, one that had defeated The Hawk of Dunwich, she herself empowered by the same blade in his hands.

He was stronger, he could be stronger.

A smile tugged at his lips, growing until he could feel the grin on his face, fueled by a euphoria like nothing else he had experienced in his life.

This was it, this was true power.

The Sword flashed in his hands, cleaving through the makeshift stone appendage of the Father, shifting soon after to catch the opposite fist with its ethereal shield.

What could hope to stand against him now?

He stepped to the side as the shield turned back into tendrils, pulling the Father towards him. The tendrils condensed back into the blade and he let the Sword dance, cleaving through the Troll’s arm at multiple spots until it hung at the Father’s side. Marcus took in a long breath, somehow drowning out the heaving of the beast in front of him. Blood and sweat poured across his opponent’s skin, and though he could still see the rage on the Father’s face, the Troll could only tremble as it tried to continue the fight.

It was pathetic.

He raised the Sword, its Aether condensing back into that longer blade. He would cleave the beast in two, and that would be the end.

His arm froze as he started to hear a steady thump, its rhythm similar to that of a slow clap. It came from behind the Father, its source soon revealing itself as Helbram emerged. Even with a pronounced limp, the warrior still managed to exude an air of control about him. Gone was the man’s helmet, and through his sweat matted brown hair dull blue eyes looked upon Marcus with a calmness that gave him pause. He appeared to be unaware that one of his arms hung loosely at his side, only shaking as his other hand drummed against a dented breastplate.

“Very impressive,” Helbram said, walking past the Father and stepping in front of Marcus, “It is not often that one sees such displays of absolute power.”

“Power that would have been yours, had you just reached out,” the words parted from Marcus’s lips, but they weren’t his.

Helbram nodded, “That is true, but you understand that I could not just accept a deal from boasting alone. I needed proof,” He motioned to the Father with his good arm, “which you have so dutifully provided.”

“Had I not shown you proof before? Revealed the strength that lie within you?” As he spoke, Marcus could feel his body become more distant. These were not his words, these were the Sword’s.

“That you did, but I am afraid that my travels have made me wary of such displays,” Helbram explained, “You have seen my memories, would you not think this understandable, given all that you have borne witness to?”

Marcus - the Sword - looked at the warrior but said nothing.

“But I must admit I am truly a changed man after see not one, but two displays of your power this night,” Helbram said, “Even in the unwieldy hands of Marjorie were you capable of combating two such powerful foes as the Trolls, and in the hands of Marcus you have displayed an even more overwhelming power.”

The man grinned, “And thus I believe you are worthy enough to be wielded by me.”

The Sword laughed, the metallic ring behind his voice growing more intense, “I am worthy enough?” he raised the tip of his blade towards Helbram’s neck, “You are more arrogant than I thought.” there was a steady growl to the Sword’s voice, and Marcus could feel his body shake.

Helbram raised his arm, “I am merely an overly cautious sort. Though you have knowledge enough of your strength there was little that I could see while you were within the Tree. Powerless though I am, it would be quite foolhardy of me to accept a bargain of anything willing to grant me power.”

The Sword pressed the blade further, drawing blood from Helbram’s neck. The man’s expression did not change.

“Cautious indeed, but to a fault,” The Sword said, “I have already chosen.”

“So I can see,” Helbram said, “But tell me, do you truly believe him to be the best choice?”

From the depths of his mind, Marcus could only look at Helbram with shock.

“He is inexperienced, to put it lightly,” Helbram said, “Were you not channeling your power through him constantly I suspect that he’d be taken easily by a simple bandit on the side of the road. Your power is immense, that is for certain, but I imagine that you wish to grow to greater heights. Could you do so while constantly worrying if your chosen could be slain by some common cutthroat?”

A pang rang through Marcus, one of panic, of anger at the words he was hearing.

“I would simply not expose him to danger,” the Sword said, “I would train him before we depart.”

“I have borne witness to his skill, his talent for learning,” Helbram said in a blunt tone, “Years would be wasted on that endeavor.”

Why was he saying these things? How could he say these things?”

“You have waited countless years,” he continued, “are you not due a boon for all of your patience?” Helbram placed a hand on his chest, “You will have to wait no longer with me. You know this to be true.”

Rage continued to boil within Marcus. The Sword was his.

“Perhaps you are right,” the Sword said, “but you have closed your heart to me most. Your power is great, but what of your drive, your ambition?”

Helbram said nothing, and instead wrapped his hand around the blade at his neck.

Marcus went white, the image of Helbram disappearing and instead replaced by the one of a dead Troll.

The one that had fallen by his hands.

Sadness washed over him, a hollowness in his chest that gave way to a hot, burning desire that seared his very core.

I must be stronger.

The voice that spoke was Helbram, the tremble that carried it betraying a level of frustration, of anger that he had not seen the man display before. Before Marcus could question it, his vision went white again.

When it returned, he saw a large mass of graves, the dirt that covered them still fresh, the area for them partitioned off from the mine that was just a stone's throw away. Many stood in front of these graves, their sobs ringing through him. “He” had fought with these men, they had died driven by a purpose “he” chose to give them because “he” could not handle the danger on his own. “His” hands trembled as the cries of the families around him continued, and “he” had no one to blame but himself.

I must be stronger.

Cries turned to cheers as the scene shifted again. Helbram stood at the center of an arena, the people in the stands deafening his racing heartbeat as he tightened the grip on his sword. His opponents emerged from the opposite end of the ring, alight with Ether that he did not possess. Still, he would face them. He had come this far, and he had the belief of-

A flare shot through the sky, its white glare the signal of his surrender. Helbram’s head whipped to the side, towards a man that could no longer look him in the eye.

I must be stronger.

He was in a bed, the spot next to him cold as his hands reached for a warmth that he’d felt just the last night. His head was heavy, but he pushed himself up, looking around their quarters, only to find that all of her things were gone, vanished as if they had never been there in the first place. A piece of paper sat on his desk, the words “I’m sorry” scrawled upon it.

He knew where she’d gone. They’d discussed it so many times while they were together, the dreams that they shared ringing with the sounds of her laughter. Laughter that started to ring hollow, as he could never reach such dreams to begin with.

I must be stronger.

He was in a cave, his companion in his arms as the spear protruded from his chest. The man was an Awoken, but his wounds were not healing as poison seeped through him. The cries of his companions screeched across the cavern walls, pleading for help, pleading for someone to save them.

He watched the man in his arms go still as he hid in the shadows, the cries of his companions falling silent.

I must be stronger.

More images flashed by. Images of defeat, of despair, of utter helplessness. Each ringing with the same thought by the end.

I must be stronger.

A simple impulse, one that Marcus could feel had its origins in calmer times, ones filled with the ideals of childlike wonder and ambition. One that grew darker with each passing year, each failure that pressed upon him, all because he was not strong enough, all because he chose to walk the path of those far more powerful than he was.

The images stopped, settling on one of a wooden room, of a man laying down in a bed. Black coursed through the man’s veins, and his face was twisted in a continuous pain that burned through him. Helbram held the man’s hand, ignoring the pain as the man crushed his with every flare of pain. Pain that the man… his father felt all because of this single impulse that he could not let go of.

I must be stronger.

The images left Marcus, and he soon found himself staring once again at Helbram. His face had not changed since grasping the blade, eyes steadfast as he met The Sword eye to eye, staring through him with such focus that Marcus felt the gaze reach him even in the distant part of his mind.

Marcus felt his grip loosen, and he could only watch as Helbram took the Sword.

Author's Note: Here we are, after all that we are reaching the climax of the story. It took a bit trying to think of how I was gonna showcase some of Helbram's past without being over indulgent of it, and I think I hit a good balance of giving reasons as to why he is the way he is currently while giving some passing glances at what has happened in his past. I was going to include a flash to the Proving Rock here, but I felt like Helbram as a character would be more likely to find that last scene with his father much more important, which is why I wanted to end it on that. I may explore some of the glimpses I've shown here in the future, but current plans for future arcs won't be touching them for quite a bit since I want the focus to be on Helbram as he is now, not who he was in the past. That will come eventually, just not now. Let me know how I did!

Most importantly, have yourselves a wonderful day! :)


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